Monday, January 31, 2011

Why You May Still Want an MBA

OK, this is not the post I was writing.  But I saw this posted on HN, so I replied.  And then I thought that it would be worth reposting here.  With some quick modifications.  The Economist has posted an article as to why it's worth less and less for someone to get an MBA.

I once spoke with the MBA program manager (or something, I can't remember what, he wasn't the dean for sure) at my university.  He summarized that an MBA is a professional degree, not an academic degree.  As such, the value from an MBA depends on who your classmates are, not what your profs/textbooks say.  He said that it's often the prof actually learning from the students.  They can discuss case studies and business issues in class, and each student can add something special to the discussion.  "Well, we experienced this exact thing back in our 2004 expansion push, and these were the issues that we encountered and how we dealt with them."  "That's funny, we experienced something similar in 2005, but it was in Japan, and dang, we had a totally different set of experiences; this is what we had to do, but we failed at this and that in the attempt.  These were our results from the whole thing."

Joe Schmoe with no real experience can try to mumble something that he learned back during his Marketing 303 class, but nobody will care.  If the university is worth anything, Joe Schmoe would not be accepted into the school in the first place.

So the guy emphasized to me that the real value from an MBA is not the fancy 3 letters, nor the fancy job prospects, though those were all nice bonuses.  He emphasized that the real value was the professional network that would be accumulated (the better the school, the better the network as a general rule), and correspondingly, the wealth of information and future opportunities that could be gathered from that professional network.

That exactly matches part of what I found valuable about my undergraduate degree.  I met some lifelong friends, some with whom I am continuing to do work even to this day.  Other friends, I don't work with them, but I enjoy staying in touch with them and seeing their trajectories in life.  We share stories, experiences, insights, and advice with each other.  I trust and value these people.  They number in the single digits.  They're my people.  And if I were to get an MBA, this would be the primary purpose why: to instantly gain an upper-echelon professional network and get to know them closely for a year or 2, maybe even work together with them on projects.  Maybe even make 1 or 2 more lifelong friends.  In all the networking and schmooze-fests I've attended, I've never managed to meet even 1 person who ended up being part of my long-term inner circle over the years.

I do stay in contact with many contacts from those networking events on a professional basis, some even on a friendly basis, but never found any who passed the test of time to become part of my group, the people with whom I'd be willing to go to hell and back on a project.  Contacts like that are invaluable to me, and I'd say $100,000 in tuition and books, plus living costs would absolutely be worth it.  Of course, it would have to be a school where I would be able to find high-quality classmates.  The big question is the cash flow analysis for timing, if I do end up pursuing it.  As a caveat, we're obviously talking about business projects here, not hackathons to create a new web application.  Techies rarely go to MBA school for the sake of becoming a better techie.  If you want to find good techies, you don't find them at MBA school, you find them at techie communities; even easier if you are one yourself.

On the flip side, many people will get MBAs for many different goals.  You need to do your analysis carefully to see if your goals will be met.  For example, I knew a director of marketing from when I worked in telco.  He had an MBA from Phoenix University online.  His class included a hotel clerk, if you want to get a reference of their class quality.  But he wasn't expecting anything big out of it.  He came from an engineering background and had gradually transitioned into sales and marketing.  But he found as he moved up the chain in sales and marketing, he lacked some of the fundamental aspects of business that many of his peers seemed to possess.  Simple things, like even vocabulary: what the heck is channel management and how do you know how your channels are performing? What's managerial accounting and how's it different from regular accounting?  So he enrolled into Phoenix just so that he could talk shop properly with his peers.  He's a lifer at that telco, a rising star, so getting an MBA from Harvard wouldn't help him achieve his goals any better than Phoenix would.  His goals were just to keep growing inside the company, not seek a high-profile exec position somewhere else; Phoenix provided him the tools he needed to do exactly what he wanted.

In the end, it depends on what you're looking for.  If all you're looking for is money and a promotion, maybe an MBA wouldn't be for you if trends continue.  Or maybe it will, who can see the future?  But for certain other types of people, it most definitely still will provide a net positive impact.


  1. Excellent post. My personal opinion is that the MBA is useful for two things only. If you're looking for a fancy schmancy job in the upper echelons of a corporation and want the connections, then by all means, go for the MBA. However, you should strive to obtain it from a top-tier school. If you're looking to get that promotion from within your corporation, then by all means get a MBA. However, you are free to obtain it from any school you choose and it doesn't have to be a top-tier school. Heck, you can even do it online.

    On the other hand, if you're looking to go into public service or you're looking to get promoted from within a non-profit organization or a government institution, then by all means, go for a MPA. But the MPA doesn't have to be from a top-tier school.

  2. By the way, how does the CMA compare with the MBA? I am curious.

  3. MPAs are so very underrated and relatively unknown, but quite interesting. I am curious as to how MPA graduates feel getting an MPA has contributed to their life and career.

    CMA = Certified Management Accountant. It's simply a recognized professional certification for accountants who work inside corporations and make sure that money is received and spent efficiently. That's the easiest way I can describe it. They don't do public practice, work on audits, or the like. That's what a CA (Chartered Accountant) would do. Canada also has the CGA (Certified General Accountant), who also tends to work inside companies or have an independent practice, but they can't do some of the things a CA does (eg. audit companies).

    I may be fuzzy on some of the details. You should ask a real accountant to be sure. ;)

  4. Yeah, it's kind of unfortunate. I only came to know of it through a colleague of mine in Regina who is the deputy library director at the Regina Public Library. She has a MHRM from the University of Regina and the library director has a MBA via Royal Roads University in Victoria (Yes, he was one of those people who did an online MBA). I asked her if the second master's has helped her at all with her current position and she said it was very useful because it helped her to deal with things such as management and personnel issues. She has about 14 heads who report directly to her. Basically, if one wants to move into senior-level management in a public or academic library, it is best to get a MPA because you're not exactly dealing with a corporation, but with a public institution. This is also applicable at other public institutions as well. I haven't talked to any actual MPAs and wish I could. I am curious as well. But since she is speaking from the perspective of somebody who is in my field, it might be worth pursuing if I get myself into the door of a public or academic library...Yet, it's hard even to get one's foot in the door, especially in this economy. =)!

    I think the following site might be a good start...

    I see now. It sounds a lot like what controllers do and it does sound somewhat appealing. I'll probably do that and ask an accountant like you suggested. Thanks, Bobby. =)!