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Why you probably don't need an MBA (economist.com)
228 points by reqres on Mar 2, 2016 | hide | past | favorite | 123 comments

A few years ago, I dropped out of a decent but not top level MBA program after a quarter.

Putting together my own + my classmates + my college friends at top 5 programs, my takeaway is that the 3 main reasons to enroll in one are (1) to switch industries (or roles within an industry), (2) to take time off without leaving a hole in your resume (matters a lot in nontechnical fields), and (3) gain a particular network that you lack (ex: Wharton for finance, Stanford for SV, etc.). These reasons may sound trivial but for the right kind of person, the program can be a decent~good trade for their time and money opportunity cost.

The "move up the corporate chain" thing used to be more true (ex: you need to have a MBA to move up past a certain rung in the org chart) but is increasingly less so today. These days, if you're good, you're good. A noteworthy might be the "in-between" phase after the 2 year consulting or finance analyst program, but a large fraction of this cohort fits into (1) above.

The "learning" is nonzero but seems underwhelming and not anywhere near worth the funds you need to put up. Frankly if you know what you want to be doing in the future, imo you'll learn more by actually spending those 2 years actually working and doing those things (which was my main reason for dropping out). It may make more sense if you're a pretty bright person who doesn't really know what you want to do in the future but you do know that it isn't what you're doing now (ex: my journalist friends who saw the industry as a dead end).

edit: Also it's unwise to bucket all programs as "MBAs" since each one can be surprisingly different in what they offer in terms of concrete benefits.

edit2: For young professionals without a strong signaling institution thus far in their academic and professional careers, an MBA may be one of the more feasible options to get a mulligan in this regard. Say what you will about paying up for a signal, but it can pay off depending on the role and industry you're going for.

Your three reasons are spot on and match my experience. A friend of mine (in finance) did the opportunity cost calculations and figured it would cost $500k to go to a top-tier program (between tuition, room, board, supplies, missed salary, etc.). My main reason to go get a MBA would be to grow my network, but there are cheaper, faster, and more effective ways to accomplish that.

Plus the average age of MBA grads seems to be getting lower. (True?) At this point, I'm 30, two levels above where my company brings on MBAs, and have MBA direct reports. So leaving to get a MBA seems like a step back.

While it's great to do an opportunity cost, it'll also be good to evaluate the earning potential as well to be fair.

You brought up a great point about the average age. If you're entering a school where the average age is low, I would say that it's not as useful unless you know that your classmates are young high-fliers who actually have solid experience.

True, though it's harder to calculate. The average salary for a Stanford MBA is $142,834. Believe that's less than what my friend was making at the time. So, using averages, it's a net loss.

Of course, that's silly. There's still a MBA premium. Even if you assume $50k, you're talking 12 years to break even. That's simple math: you could take into account the time value of money or the fact that salary increases also impact future salary increases.

We're still talking at least a decade, we're assuming the premium is real, and we're assuming that if you're at the far end of the curve (high earners, successful entrepreneurs, etc.), you're not going to be successful anyway.

My friend's point was compounded by this fact: he could spend $500k more effectively elsewhere.

$500k is a pretty hand waved calculation.

It seems like he did the math (annual salary pre-tax * years in school + tuition + living expenses) and arrived at $500k.

That ignores the fact that you have living expenses whether you do the MBA or not. It ignores the fact that that the difference to your net worth between making $150k a year in pre-tax salary and $0 a year in salary is not $150k. You have to incorporate taxes.

> $500k is a pretty hand waved calculation.

Maybe, but there are lots of ways to calculate opportunity costs.

The OP said his friend was making more than $150k/yr. So if he estimated his potential net worth in thirty years staying course versus his estimated net worth in thirty years with an MBA, then discounted it to present value, a difference of $500k is somewhat reasonable.

There are plenty of other, equally valid ways for a person to calculate opportunity costs. It depends on what that person values. For example, lost wages that would have paid for vacations would not necessarily show up in a comparison of net worth, but it is certainly an opportunity cost for some people. Or having to put off starting a family, or many other milestones in a person's life.

This was a couple years ago, so I don't remember the methodology, and think it was a back-of-the-envelope type of math. (Yes of course there are ways to solve "hard problems". This isn't a quantitative proof: this is an anecdote.)

At the base, it was something like:

- I make $150k a year and I will not make that for 2 years, so $300k.

- I will make $15k as a MBA intern, so $275k.

- I will have to pay $185k in school related costs[1], so $460k.

I think there was a little more to it (e.g., PV/FV), but that's the basics. You're correct in noting that #3 has cost of living incorporated into it and you'd have to pay that anyway, though there's a difference between the cost of living at Stanford, e.g., and cheaper markets.

Yes, you could go build a rigorous financial model. That is left as an exercise for the reader.

[1] http://fortune.com/2012/12/07/stanford-mba-price-tag-hits-18...

It doesn't look like the opportunity cost was necessarily based on pre-tax salary (although it may have been). The current pre-tax salary of ~$150k (?) was compared to the average Stanford MBA pre-tax salary of $142k, which is a fair comparison.

>True, though it's harder to calculate.

Any half-decent MBA program will have coursework on how to evaluate problems that seem "hard to calculate".

Nobody needs an MBA, or a CompSci degree, or any Univesity degree for that matter. But that's not to say that there aren't many skills that the programs will teach you. Is it stuff you can learn on your own? Sure, just like anything else. But there's no replacement for class-time and actual discussion and interaction.

I've spent quite a few years on these boards; there seems to be many people who mock MBAs, but conversely I'd say the financial (and sales and marketing) literacy is no better here than average, even though this place is chock-full of entrepreneurs.

If your friend was looking to raise money and went for a Stanford MBA, his chances of getting funding are pretty significant according to this chart: https://lh5.googleusercontent.com/aNjbh5KE0PvNCiLyA2g5T9NT5y...

But agreed, the high premium is a pretty big burden if you don't succeed. Potentially crippling your future.

Let's boil opportunity cost down to two things: 2 years of your time and ~$100k of out-of-pocket costs you wouldn't pay otherwise (e.g., tuition).

While a Stanford MBA might help you get funding, investing $100k + 2 years in your business and networking might get you just as far.

Just a thought...

I think that the calculation is a bit shortsighted, one thing you may consider is long term salary growth TRAJECTORY, i.e. in a corporate setting while the first couple of years after a top tier MBA you may not be making considerably more, you are on a certain career track that means 5, 10, 15 years out you are more likely to have a c-level, division level type job earning an order of magnitude more money...

Assuming you need a MBA to be on that higher career track, assuming you wouldn't make an order of magnitude more money anyway, assuming you wouldn't cap out at $200k or something, etc. etc.

You're not wrong, but if you're the kind of person who's going to be a CEO, a MBA credential might not move the needle that much. (I know lots of CEOs without advanced degrees.)

The All-in cost is why it's not cost effective if you're not using it for an enormous step-up in responsibility or change in field.

For someone looking to marginally improve their standing, it doesn't help. A 30 year old director who wants to be in the same company isn't improved. Or should go to an exec program on the company dollar.

But there is no better way to get into strategy consulting or investment banking if you're not there already. And if you have a soft undergrad that isn't taken seriously, the right top 6-8 MBA will.

To your point - there are many cheaper, faster and more effective ways to accomplish most of the goals if you're already successful. (Except for learning Accounting - it's impossible to learn unless a school is forcing you and giving you exams. It's just too boring otherwise.)

> My main reason to go get a MBA would be to grow my network, but there are cheaper, faster, and more effective ways to accomplish that.

What ways are you referring to?

Host a really nice dinner party every week. Start with a group of legit people you know. Do it at your home if it is big enough, or at a nice restaurant. Pay for the whole thing. Ask each guest that the only thing they need to do to pay you back is to introduce one new person to a future dinner party. If you've done your job right, they'd be overjoyed to refer someone (free dinner + awesome people = huge win)

Let's say you have 6 people at the dinner party. $60 per head = $360 per night, which is $37,440 over the course of two years, at which point you've made 520 really great connections.


There you go!

At your level, it sounds like you're past getting an MBA. You may find value in an Executive MBA, which are usually done part time and have an average age of ~40, later, but it would depend on a lot of factors.

Maybe if you decide not to do an MBA because of a thorough cost-benefit analysis, you should get the MBA anyway.

It's more difficult than you might expect to change industries after an MBA. Your internships and employers will still look for relevant experience. The best method would be to use the MBA to join a large consulting firm. You'll still need to network internally and beg to be staffed on projects outside your historical specialty.

Definitely. Banks want former bankers. Consultant firms want former consultants. If you don't already have one of those backgrounds you're going to struggle in the job search. Have a back-up plan if you can't actually end up switching careers--make sure the $$$ adds up: You're blowing 2 years of opportunity cost and going into 6 digit debt for 10 years. Do the math and make it make sense.

Also, regarding networking: 50-70% of your class-mates will not be career switchers: They'll already have banking or consulting backgrounds, already speak the language and know each other's firms. Make friends with them or you're not going to reap the much-touted "networking" benefits of MBA school.

I went to a top-10 school, but happened to graduate the year Lehman and Bear imploded, and ended up right back in engineering. So, for me it ended up not being worth it financially--but for folks who graduated a few years before me it was totally worth it. Do the math and make sure you can deal with that risk.

Consultant firms don't want former consultants, they want people with experience in what they consult on, preferably at the kind of companies they consult at.

My wife (working for the government, currently doing an MBA and looking for a career switch) has received offers from two consultant firms that are currently hired by her at the government. They both love ex-government workers, because it increases their expertise on how the government works, and it grows their network at the government.

And therefore you won't get out of your industry. Whatever you're doing now, you join a consultancy and do the same thing. You do get paid more, which is nice.

Agreed that it's difficult. I think it's fair to say though that (1) it does increase one's chances of pulling it off and (2) it provides some lower risk ways of nudging your way towards relevance with coterm internships and (3) provides a path to a soft landing and saving face if things don't turn out exactly as planned. (3) is pretty appealing to the kind of individuals who consider these programs in the first place.

edit: Worth mentioning is that the career offices of these programs definitely overstate the effectiveness of the "come to our program and get your dream job" aspect. In that sense it's similar to the misleading rhetoric of Law Schools.

"(2) to take time off without leaving a hole in your resume (matters a lot in nontechnical fields)"

Can anyone elaborate on how this is more important in nontechnical than technical fields? I've always thought this was a red flag no matter what your field may be, unless you have a good story to tell about why you took the break.

Just as an example, if an HR person took 2 years off, they probably spent 2 years NOT doing HR stuff.

So the argument is that people with technical jobs are likely to do technical stuff outside of work? Or at minimum, have the capacity to do so?

I'm skeptical that many recruiters and interviewers will buy into this. Even if you can show that you were contributing to open source projects or tinkering in your garage, there are still a lot of work skills that may have atrophied, like teamwork, writing & documentation, leadership, etc.

Or that technical hirers are less likely to put the same weight on the gap, since there is no training or credentials or best practices to keep up with? Accountants need to know changing laws, other professions require periodic training, etc. IT seems to be more of, "can you and will you do it?"

"The "learning" is nonzero but seems underwhelming and not anywhere near worth the funds you need to put up. Frankly if you know what you want to be doing in the future, imo you'll learn more by actually spending those 2 years actually working and doing those things (which was my main reason for dropping out)."

I agree with most of your points, but in this case I think you should consider how your personal circumstances influence your opinion. You spent one quarter in an MBA program. That's neither enough time, nor enough depth, from which to draw categorical conclusions about the quality of all MBA classes. More likely than not, you encountered some intro/core classes. Maybe an elective or two? But really, you were just scratching the surface.

I'm not going to sit here with a straight face and claim that the MBA core curriculum offers the average intellectual depth and rigor of a graduate program in any of the hard sciences. Clearly it doesn't. But I do think there's depth to be found in an MBA program, provided you seek it out.

That's kind of the issue with MBA programs, too: they are catch-all programs designed to service any number of diverse career outcomes. You can enter an MBA program seeking to become an investment banker, load up on the necessary courses called for by the field, and graduate having received a wildly different education than a classmate who went in to become a CPG brand marketer. Or a classmate who went in to run a web publishing business. Or a classmate who went in to take the reins of a Coca Cola bottling plant. Or a classmate who went in to learn the business side of industrial design. Or a classmate who went in as part of a JD/MBA program and wanted depth in IP case law. Etc.

It's sort of like college that way. You get out of it what you put into it. MBA programs are notorious for graduating a number of people who took the path of least resistance: a bare-bones survey of a variety of topics, just enough to check the boxes for graduation. Nevertheless, you can wring plenty of depth and intellectual interest from the various subjects an MBA program has to offer. You just have to have the will to challenge yourself -- and for various reasons (many of them economically rational!), a lot of students choose not to.

MBA here, you probably don't need an MBA.

I went for it mostly to switch industries and geographies, as well as for the "learning" part, which I just find fun.

It worked really well for me, but I had clear expected outcomes. The marginal value of an MBA degree is diminishing as the knowledge is easily available anywhere, but there are a few things which still count:

- Network: unlike an usual MSc or PhD, an MBA class has 100's of people, and you spend a lot of time with them, building a very solid network

- Switching functions or industry: it gives you a very good starting point. If you're an engineer, it will be hard to switch straight into marketing, PM, finance, etc. Doing an MBA, plus a summer internship in your target function will make a huge difference.

- Switching geographies: the job marketplace for new MBA grads is global (visa issues in some countries aside), and salaries are usually similar globally, so it's a nice opportunity to chose where you to live moving forward

- You're being sponsored: just do it, seriously, don't even think about it

On the learning side, even if you can find all the stuff online, it makes a huge difference to discuss implications face to face with some brilliant professors. Here's the top stuff I learned:

* How to constantly assess your own decision biases and compensate for it

* Lot's of game theory and strategy applied to real world

* Negotiations

* You're not gonna beat the market, so don't even bother

* How power is created and traded inside organizations

Any book or article recommendations on the subject of how power is created and traded in organizations? I'm fascinated by the subject but don't know the first thing about it. (Like many engineers.)

Start with Sun Tzu. :)

Some people have an aptitude for diplomacy and it comes naturally. Others don't. Some are completely turned off by the entire concept that quality work can't stand on its own. Intuiting and playing the power dynamics in an organization is a critical skill for managers especially (and in particular if they want to set their teams up for success). You can read all the theory and case studies you want but if it doesn't come naturally and/or you don't have opportunities to practice, it's going to be tough to make inroads. You can almost imagine it like the current US presidential nomination process. All the candidates are shit, on both sides, but astute folks know it only matters a little bit because there are plenty of smart people behind the scenes who actually pull the strings and make the important decisions. Those are the career diplomats, who are supported by specialist analysts, who are in turn receiving data and insights from technical staff.

One of the easiest ways to "improve" in this area is to start by trying to figure out what the corporate BD strategy is (as well as the entire industry sector), then try to learn what individuals' agendas are, and finally connect the dots and figure out what critical role you or your team can play in the context of the bigger pictures. That's business. Business is not the same as making things. Business is the practice of instilling confidence and trust in other people, ultimately convincing them to give you money for something they find valuable.

well said! I consider that I fit into "Some are completely turned off by the entire concept that quality work can't stand on its own" group and want to move to "Intuiting and playing the power dynamics in an organization is a critical skill for managers especially.." group. Sun Tzu it is :)

Our society has a difficult time talking about power. You're better able to get actionable advice from experienced people in an intimate setting, like a classroom, than you will be able to from books. Which is why an MBA may work better in this regard.

A good way to learn is to pay close attention to the way managers talk about it. Movies like Office Space and The Office cut close at the truth, but don't quite get you there. They're dramatizations, moving at the speed of narrative, whereas real situations move at the speed of conversation.

One of the key things to remember is that qualifications have very, very little to do with it. The main thing they're looking for is for other people to like you. "Like you" is manager-speak for the sort of respect that will get them to take you seriously as a manager. If you ask them to do something, will they do it? Even if it has nothing to do with their job duties? That's a quality of a good manager.

Second, they need to need your services and they need to get it at the right price. They once tapped me to hire a junior engineer under me. I could not find anyone willing to work for the prices they wanted to pay, so I couldn't move up. Eventually they decided to switch technology stacks rather than acquire human capital.

During these talks, it was all I could do to keep up with the hidden meanings behind the things they were saying. In fact, now that I'm thinking about it with the benefit of hindsight, there are aspects of that experience that clearly show why there's so much coded language around this process and how I screwed things up by not understanding the language and expectations beforehand. I regret nothing, as I've got way better options than middle management at a non-technical firm.

"it was all I could do to keep up with the hidden meanings behind the things they were saying."

I wonder if that is only a personal conclusion (about the very existence of the mentioned manager's secret social play to not be confirmed by other of your fellow managers), if that is something real but limited to the circle of the company you were employed (so the manager's secret play being nothing but a part of company's culture), or if that is something (almost) universal that is worth writing more about. It would be extremely useful to get more bits if it's the later.

"limited to the circle of the company you were employed (so the manager's secret play being nothing but a part of company's culture), or if that is something (almost) universal that is worth writing more about"

Having worked in multiple companies across multiple industries from multiple countries, and in multiple countries, I'd say it's more of the country/company/industry than an universal culture.

Management culture changes A LOT between industries, countries and companies. The way results are reported in a Mexican company is extremely different from an American company, just like human interactions are very different. In Mexican companies management is far more indirect, but hierarchical, than in American companies. Communication is also far more indirect, there's a very strong "saving face component".

The more a career is related to human interactions, the more it changes depending on the culture of the country, industry and company. Finance tends to be much more uniform across borders and companies than sales, for example.

Tech companies and careers enjoy something almost unique: there's more uniformity across industries and countries than almost any other industry/career. It might be because it is a recent development that spread quickly with its own culture, unlike management, which grew organically and slowly in most countries.

Well, think about power. What distinguishes power? One distinguishing factor is that lots of people want it, very few people can actually have it. The people that have it have to protect it, otherwise it will be taken from them. Power in a marketplace, power in a workplace. You have to protect what you have.

That's the primary reason behind coded language. You can't just come out and say what you want, because otherwise people will have all kinds of opinions about it. When you have power, what you do with that power is something everybody else is going to be concerned with.

It was a tricky class, a lot of it wasn't about explicit rules or frameworks, but reading chapters of biographies and other books, and identifying the sources of power and how they were used.

We didn't have a specific book, and it was a very unique class, my favorite after competitive strategy (essentially applied game theory).

Some of the readings were on Robert Moses, LB Johnson, the movie 12 Angry Men (Henry Fonda version), etc.

Essentially you can take any good biography of a powerful person and try to proactively identify the sources of power they had, how they harnessed and yielded it, and what impact it had.

It requires some suspension of disbelief, since power is usually seen as negative, so you need to be a bit cynical while doing it (just don't be cynical in real life, nobody likes an asshole).

You can do the same in you job (that was actually the final paper): who holds power (and which type of power) over you? Why? Where do they source their power from? Skill? Reputation? Formal authority?

What power do you have? Over whom? Why? Where do you get it from?

This was one of those classes where it would be hard to replicate the same learning by yourself. The other one was negotiations.

"The Power Broker" biography of Robert Moses is a truly exceptional look at the intersection of interpersonal and organizational power.

I've started on it but have yet to finish it. Excellent, but very dense and cerebral.

I'll have to try another go at it.

That was the one we read.

"The Power Broker" is very good, but I've only ever gotten about 200 pages into it. I'll have to try again.

You didn't happen to read Caro's work on LBJ, did you? It's surprising your class would use his work twice, but the guy is pretty fascinated with the sorts of powerful people that this topic of study would focus on as case studies.

Yep, that was the one as well. But LBJ and Moses were just 3 classes out of ~14, so no overexposure to Caro.

On LBJ the focus was "The Path to Power", and how he created the network of power (especially his early years) that eventually supported him.

It's one of those topics that fascinated me as well although I didn't take a specific class on it.

It's really interesting to learn that power sometimes doesn't fully come from the top and that even lower level employees can wield significant power.

The textbook we used for my organizational power class was Machiavelli's "The Prince" (yes, I'm being serious). Just replace any instances of murder/beheading with firing and it's a good parallel to the corporate world.

"The Prince" is essentially ground zero for political science. A must read.

Modern Organizational theory (coalitions, bounded rationality, etc):


"Pitch Anything" by Oren Klaff.

The article is a little bit misleading. It sounds like they went to a very 3rd tier program. I've interviewed plenty of people from these types of programs. Many of them list MBA on their LinkedIn tagline, which inadvertently highlights "University of Phoenix" or some other online program on the bottom. For most of these people, the MBA is worthless.

Net - I think MBAs from non-top schools are worthless for most of the reasons the author suggested.

But... There is value in specific fields for top degrees. More than half the people from top 6-8 programs who want to get into banking or elite consulting programs can get there. If you really want to work for Bain/BCG/McK and you recruit on campus from a top program, you have an ~50% shot depending on the market. If you don't have that top MBA, it's much lower. (Less than 2%?) Similar with front office jobs in investment banking.

What about technology, which is what most people here care about? I see a disproportionate amount of non-engineering CEOs with Computer Science undergrads followed by MBAs from a small subset of schools. (Harvard and Stanford followed by a big drop, then Kellogg, Penn, Chicago Booth and Cal in the next tier - perhaps I'm missing one or two) The #s are very disproportionate to what these schools produce.

Is it causation or correlation? Much harder to say. These are hyper-talented people. They have technical skills too. I suspect they get some benefit from the sorting mechanism in place, the network, and the confidence that they built. Good CS programs are much more academically rigorous than most MBA programs, so I don't think it's genius granted from the mountaintop.

I've strongly advised people to avoid programs outside the top 20 for economic reasons. If someone else is paying for it, and you're interested in learning about business for it's own sake, sure. But the maximum NPVs accumulate only to the grads from the top few schools. In this sense, MBAs are much more similar to law degrees than technical degrees.

i think this info graphic from the FT illustrates your point pretty concisely...https://ig.ft.com/sites/mba-to-ceo/

Yes. For once the infographic wins. :-) And it would be useful to point out how tiny a % of the workforce these schools produce.

So you're saying that in the US someone with an MBA from a school located in a country other than the US/UK (where most "top schools" are) would get no benefit from it, regardless of how prestigious said school is?

Much of the value of the MBA is the network. I would even go as far as to say most of the value of the MBA is the network.

If the network from your MBA program abroad isn't that strong in the industry that you work in or in your geography, you'll get minimal value out of it. If the network from your MBA program is not in senior (or more senior positions than you are), you'll get minimal value. This is why there is a pareto distribution between the top programs and the other tiers of programs.

There are plenty of foreign MBA programs that have robust networks in the US. Take a look at the Global MBA list. http://rankings.ft.com/exportranking/global-mba-ranking-2015...

Within the top 15 globally: Insead (worldwide), Iese (Spain), Ceibs (China), HKUST (China), HEC (France).

Although not in the top 15, IIT has a robust network in the tech industry.

IIM as well has a robust network.

My overall impression is you get much more benefit from people you know from the experience rather than random strangers who you might call out of the blue. (On-line programs struggle with this a lot)

I also wouldn't short-sell the opportunity to do a career reset. If you have a CS degree and want to go into Finance or Marketing in a tech company, the MBA can give you that reset. (Or banking or consulting)

It's not quite that black and white. But here's what I will say:

1) A self funded MBA from a 3rd tier school is rarely a positive NPV transaction, especially when you view the opportunity cost. (A lot of hours that could be spent doing something else productive)

2) There is an enormous gap between the outcomes of top schools and everyone else.

3) There are very good schools outside the US and UK (Insead in France and Singapore, Rotterdam in the NL) but in general the further you go from the US, the less value from the MBA.

Am I saying that nobody ever should attend a foreign school? Absolutely not. But similar to law school, most MBA programs are very overvalued and overpriced.

> 1) A self funded MBA from a 3rd tier school is rarely a positive NPV transaction, especially when you view the opportunity cost.

The only reason I'm even considering it is because I may have the opportunity of doing it using a scholarship so thanks for your answer.

It's still an opportunity class. Do your best to get as good a program as you can, and learn the things that are best learned in school. (Nobody will ever learn Accounting on their own, so it's best to learn in school. You may be able to pick up Marketing Strategy and Advanced stats outside of school if you're so inclined)

Best of luck with whatever path you choose. Once you decide, go "All in" with it!

Your comments have been very helpful. Thanks!

MBA here as well. If you're thinking of an MBA, think really hard about why and if it's necessary to achieve your goals.

For me, I knew what I wanted to get out of it so it turned out well. Knowledge about business is everywhere and you're far better off trying to start a business if you actually want to learn about business.

What I got out of it was:

- Networks: Great friends from many different industries and skill sets

- Communication: Being tech and introverted, I learned how to communicate my ideas better. I've come to since realize that while your ideas might be the best, if you can't communicate it well, it's not going to be adopted. Also, different people require different communication styles.

- Self-awareness and emotional intelligence thinking: Lots of group work - teammates might be shitty and don't do anything. Figured out how to identify who's going to do work and who's not and how we're still going to deliver despite being handicapped.

- Strategy, frameworks, theories: Just helps with the thinking process. Helps me understand what executives are thinking about.

- Confidence: Wasn't born with a lot with confidence but going through presentations day in and day out helped me develop that.

I was able to switch from startups to large companies in different industries to get a greater understanding of the differences between the two. From this experience, it's no wonder why startups that try to sell to big companies usually have a tougher time than trying to sell to smaller companies (depending on industry of course).

Do you have any experience with anything similar to Toastmasters? If so, do you think that Toastmasters is a good first step when considering the potential of an MBA? It seems to line up with several of the benefits you mention.


I do have experience with Toastmasters and it's a great step for sure. I would definitely recommend it as a more affordable alternative.

We had a class which was essentially toastmasters, so yeah, it really helps with the communication part.

While I agree that this premise may be true for many, it really depends on the individual. Also a distance MBA is not worth it, almost never. It looks like the author went into a poor program, ill prepared and had to drop out. Generally a top MBA will put you on a quick rising career path. Whether you are happy in that path, well.. That's another matter. MBA doesn't guarantee you will rise in that path either. You may, if you are good. The degree just gives you a shot at it. A poor article by usual economist standards.

Yeah, pretty sure the whole thing looks different if you get your MBA at HBS, INSEAD, IMD, LBS etc. (you don't have to fund 100% out of pocket, it actually is for the elite, depending on your career goals you probably want to meet those people, and while it wont make you genius, you probably get some valuable experiences)

The article should probably be renamed "Why enrolling for an MBA to please my parents was not a good idea".

MBAs make sense in some cases. It's a good way to change career path. Bankers and consultants use it as a break after two or three hellish years as a junior. Knowing all these middle managers in other industries is actually very useful, to keep an eye on what is going on or sell them stuff, and providing opportunities for future career changes. For others it is a way to "upgrade" a modest academic education.

But enrolling in one of these things without having any clue of what to expect from it or just because of peer pressure is a waste of time and money. But the fault lies with the applicant.

I will generalize his argument, since it's not really about MBA's:

"If you make major life decisions against your clear preference in a vague effort to please your parents, you will probably regret it."

I think that you should add: "Listen to your parents when you have to make minor life decisions".

Way too many people either try too hard to please their parents, or ignore their advice entirely. With time, you learn to not swing too much either way.

I'd quote an interesting point of view on MBA from Joi Ito's TED talk.

Before the Internet, if you remember, when we tried to create services, what you would do is you'd create the hardware layer and the network layer and the software and it would cost millions of dollars to do anything that was substantial. So when it costs millions of dollars to do something substantial, what you would do is you'd get an MBA who would write a plan and get the money from V.C.s or big companies, and then you'd hire the designers and the engineers, and they'd build the thing. This is the Before Internet, B.I., innovation model.


EMBA here. Learned nothing I didn't already knew when enrolling, except for strengthening my opinion on ignoring certificates while hiring. In the end I wasted a lot of time and money to prove that I am able to waste a lot of time and money.

I did it while working full time, so I probably wouldn't do it again. For my profession as an executive it would've been more valuable to get a Bachelor of Laws instead.

> For my profession as an executive it would've been more valuable to get a Bachelor of Laws instead.

How would knowledge of law, as opposed to having all-rounded knowledge of business administration and a network of people with similar backgrounds, help as an executive?

The people I've known who were successful who had MBAs seemed to use it as a way of signalling that they were serious about doing the whole "management" thing - which in a large organisations tends to mean that you stop doing whatever it is the the organisation actually does and focus on "management" stuff.

NB Note that I am most definitely not criticizing the need for high level managers - someone does have to do it, just that I personally have no interested in doing it as I'm too interested in actually doing stuff rather than managing other people doing stuff.

Edit: For the MBA track in a large organisation you probably are aiming at being at least the manager of the manager of the manager of the people who actually do stuff... ;-)

Most of this is operations-oriented and wide open to attack from automation. MBA won't give you the creative solution orientation you need for strategy and in some ways you'd be better equipped for this with a training in the arts. (Can't remember if it was joel, yegge, or 37s that said that the ability to write is an excellent indicator of a hire but definitely true.)

I feel obligated to note that the stuff good managers do is frequently as important as the stuff good makers do in well-managed organizations. You are not better or worse, just different from each other, providing different value to the company.

Lots of MBAs take that route out of consulting because they hate consulting but don't know what to do next. The internships & connections they make during the program help them decide, and frequently these decisions are to jump into a completely different industry. I consider it an expensive, but helpful, way for overachievers to figure out what they want to do with their life, and signal to future employers that they're serious about it.

This is roughly the way I feel about it, too.

I think when I was younger, I was more naïve. MBAs were for useless management drones, and you can easily get promoted to a management role without one.

Having gone through college, joined the industry, and then had friends who went on to business school, I'm seeing the MBA clan as more of an entirely different social strata. It's mostly signaling, but you move directly into higher-powered "important" roles that aren't really promotions over individual contributor work, but almost an entirely different industry.

I agree. I have a fresh MBA friend started working for a big tech company 2 years back where he is regularly in communication with VPs, SVPs and Presidents. On the other hand with 10 years exp in tech, I only communicates with project managers or their managers at best in similarly sized company.

I love this

" You cannot impress Asian parents. Unhappiness is their default. And honestly, I believe they enjoy it."

The whole writeup suggested the writer had an enormous chip on his shoulder for some reason; turns out you had to read to the end to find out what it was. Honestly, it sounds more like he didn't get into a top MBA program, and is paying the price. MBA programs are like law schools; the cost-benefit hinges enormously on how well the program is regarded.

I think a lot of people are realizing that you don't need to get dozens of thousands of dollars in debt to get a quality education. Dedication counts. Sometimes you just need to know the right people or get your foot in the door as a lower level employee who can learn it in the real world.

I know a surprisingly high amount of people who hold less than a 4 year bachelor's in Comp Sci or related who now hold significant positions in major companies.

As opinion pieces go, I expect a lot better writing and research from someone employed by the Economist, even if they are an intern.

This article could easily have been titled "Not all MBAs are created equal" and needed no further explanation.

"Business schools constantly boast about the network students can tap into. Don’t be fooled. Do you need to pay thousands to meet middle managers from industries that you have no interest in?"

I don't know about UK MBAs, but a cursory glance at the employment reports of any US MBA school will provide the names of companies that come on campus to recruit candidates. This is the first thing any prospective MBA student should be looking at when they're creating their shortlist of schools.

If you are looking to get into consulting, those schools should have McKinsey, Deloitte, Accenture and the like on there. If you're interested in technology, Amazon, Google, Facebook etc. should be coming on campus. For finance, Goldman, JP Morgan, etc. An so on and so forth.

If those names, or other high-profile names aren't on the list, you may not get your money's worth. An MBA has never been about the quality of the education you get, but rather about name recognition and how much pull the school has with recruiters. This is common knowledge for anybody doing even an hour's research into whether an MBA is right for them.

That's the biggest flaw of this write-up. The writer appears to have done little to no research on his program before enrolling, and considers his support officer saying "you should have had all the money sorted" to be some sort of cold-world realization, which is absurdly irresponsible when you consider how much an MBA costs.

I don't like using the word "entitled" to describe people, but I have to wonder about the conclusions he reaches about his teammates who didn't speak English well. They ended up in management consultancies, while he, the heroic working man struggling to teach them English, is interning at the Economist, a position that usually goes to undergraduates. Perhaps he should stop to consider that maybe they got their jobs because they attempted to network more, or simply showed up to their interviews without a chip on their shoulder as this writer seems to have.

This advice should be given to everyone considering a MBA. I think the actual biggest flaw from this write-up is that it was written by a dropout (the caption on his picture states that he is a "former student" and not "graduate"). How can you evaluate the worth of an MBA without even completing it? If he had finished his MBA and then saw all the positions he interviewed for being given to graduates from the top schools then he might have realized a different lesson.

My favorite description of an MBA is "summer camp for adults".

Yeah you're not going to suddenly come out of an MBA as a master of the universe, but you're going to learn some cool topics, immerse yourself in your choice of extra-curriculars, meet some amazing people, and have a surprisingly enjoyable experience.

Well, there’s no reason to do an MBA if you are interested in learning the content. This is quite true, especially as people who write about business tend to be quite good at reaching people. I did a good part of an MBA as part of my engineering degree at a world class university in Britain.

I can honestly say, engineering is much more taxing on the brain than business. It’s hard to even call it learning, when what you’re doing is just reading through some cleaned up summaries of what various businesses did. Mostly it seemed like storytime, with companies instead of fairies. You better watch out, or you’ll get leapfrogged! As if people in the old businesses hadn’t considered that. In general there was a lot of dressing things up as complicated when really the truth was probably that the firms did what they could with the information they had. Mintzberg probably sticks out as the best guy to describe how decisions are really made.

Looking back, there was also a real lack of practical business skills being taught. The main thing I would teach is some form of agile management. Or any kind of practical how-to-organize a group to do something. Without a guide on the nitty gritty, you end up having a strange birds-eye view of the business, with no idea how to get towards your goal. In my career working practices have made the biggest difference to what strategies could be followed.

I have an MBA from a mid-tier school. Top 50 but not top 12. I don't really have any regrets other than I initially started at a third-rate school and decided to transfer after two semesters. The differences between the materials were negligible. The differences between professors was noticeable but not alarming. The differences between classmates was the part that was alarming. From talking with MBAs from top programs, I know their material wasn't substantially different either. So the value isn't entirely the material. It's functionally working with and learning from other smart and driven people. Class discussions are better, class projects are better, and you learn a lot watching others do the same work as you in different ways.

My post-MBA job probably could have been gotten without an MBA. There could have been other things I did over those three years of evening classes to improve specific skills. However, having the MBA on my resume expands the types of companies that would hire me for senior management positions. A lot of job postings in my area are still MBA-preferred. It may not be like that in younger companies or higher-growth cities, so I understand why this type of content ends on on HN frequently.

I used to work in health care and an MBA is a requirement for anything above the lowest rung of management.

Shout out to The Personal MBA.


Can second that. Easy to read and covers the core topics, lives up to the expectation and the promises.

If you get admitted to HBS & Stanford GSB, go there. Wharton: 50/50, many Wharton MBA grads call it a MBAFactory these days.

Other schools: they have morning MBA, evening MBA, weekend MBA, Dubai MBA, San Francisco MBA, International MBA, Exec MBA, etc. These schools are just minting like thousands of MBAs every year. Next time, expect your scrum master to be an MBA.

I have seen LinkedIn profiles for "[Name], MBA, PMP, CSM"

Distance learning, self-funded, non-selective MBA dropout is basically the worst possible case.

Pretty much the same as for-profit schools getting non-useful degrees (I might be ok with someone getting a medical tech degree or something like that, even at the cost of loans, from a non-selective for-profit school). Same as bottom-tier law schools for employability.

People may not want to accept this fact, because of there are examples of outliers that come to mind easily, but what school you attended can drastically change the job opportunities available to you. For example, in the engineering field, you can attend the University of Florida for electrical engineering and get a job at Google, but it will require you to be an outlier in regards to the amount of effort you put in to get that job because Florida is not known for its engineering dominance. On the other hand, someone who attends the University of Waterloo or Stanford from year one is getting badgered by Google, Apple, Microsoft recruiters, etc... for internships because those schools have outstanding reputations as engineering schools. On graduation, someone from Stanford has far less of a uphill battle to find a position they want, and there connections open up even more opportunities.

This is even more true for MBAs. Had the author gone to Harvard or Stanford, the opportunity that MBA would have afforded him would have easily justified the 2 years it took to get it. There is more to this than just the value in money. For example, most people would rather work on cutting edge technology at a major corporation that pays less than some small engineering firm that says works on infrastructure projects. The major corporation will be looking for that top 20 MBA, and you will never have that opportunity (unless again you are an outlier) without that universities reputation to back you.

And for those who say this may be discriminatory, just remember that it is very difficult to judge people in the late 20's or even early 30s on just pure experience and accomplishment because you are still very young career wise to have built up any notable portfolio of experience. That is why your educations is so critical.

Additionally, most MBAs I've researched a while back seem to be geared towards the ultra extroverted crowd. Harvard is the prototypical example.

At the end of the day my cynical side says they are reasonably expensive (if you're at a good one and the people you meet are interesting) and overly long networking events.

I guess they are geared towards people who want to work in corporations after all (and are usually sponsored by a company) but I can't help but think that taking the money and spending the time ramen-noodling some idea will teach you more valuable lessons. For the networking you could also wander around SV kungfu master style and talk to random people in coffee shops for a couple of units of time.

It's basically all about the certification (more or less) which is what I'd say is a fundamental issue about education in general. You can self-learn a lot of things but not self-certify.

MBAs are going the way of the law degree.

Unless you are from a top 15 college, it's not worth it.

Not remotely true, though any ridiculously broad statement like probably won't be true.

When you break it down, it might not be true for some cases. But for the average guy with a 3.4 GPA considering going to law or b-school to get a better job - the vast majority of applicants - it's probably not a good decision

Really I think the title should be: "If you can't get in to a prestigious business school you're probably better off saving your money"

The quality of MBA programs vary drastically. An MBA from Phoenix (an online university) costs quite a lot and you will not be recruited into high paying positions. An MBA from MIT's Sloan School of Management also costs quite a lot, but you will be heavily recruited by big companies and offered nice salaries. The difference starts in the quality of their admissions. Phoenix University lets in anyone who can pay. MIT only lets in the top folks (who can also pay or can figure out a way for someone else to pay for them). Because MIT starts out with higher quality people they run a more rigorous program and the top businesses recognize that MIT graduates are worth more than graduates from diploma mills. There are other great business schools other than MIT, I'm just using them as an example. This phenomenon is also seen in the financial world, a finance degree from an Ivy league school is literally worth tens of thousands of dollars more than a public university because that is all the big financial firms want to hire.

This might be confusing to people in the software world where you rise based on merit, but in the business world a degree is not just a piece of paper but a pedigree; and your pedigree matters a lot.

A Masters is not really needed unless you need it for your specific career, but in most cases a Bachlelor's gets you a starting career. In this economy and way of living, careers are getting hard to find and degrees give you an advantage over most. That isn't to say that you're guaranteed a career. Some don't need a degree because their communication skills get them through most of the process. Somewhere in between, however, they would have to get the knowledge somehow.

I'm in the middle of the application process for an MBA, and have thought about this before (cost and time investment).

An MBA is not a magical piece of paper that will guarantee success. However, it will definitely give you the resources and the network to change your trajectory. You still have to work really hard at it.

At any of the top schools, there's more competition among the students for recruiting (for many coveted industries: e.g. IB, PE, Consulting, Tech etc) because that's where everyone wants to go.

If you're pursuing something non-traditional then you might want to rethink the need to go to one of the top schools

You're not guaranteed a position just by going to the school and there is definitely a bias towards a lot of bigger companies recruiting at only the Top 10-15 schools unless you can really network your way to the top.

The MBA is just another data point people use to qualify your candidacy. It's all about risk management and just like there is a bias towards a Harvard/Stanford/MIT grad or Google/FB engineers (this is what a lot of startups list on their site) the MBA is an indicator.

Outside of the brand, I still do think you learn a lot in the class setting (working with diverse teams who come from different backgrounds and the ability to work on projects and consult in industries you've never worked in is a great learning experience)

I should tell my wife who's currently working on an MBA.

But the experience from this article sounds very different from what my wife is going through. You can't do her MBA while working at a bar; you need to have a job at a significant company where you have access to financial data and other stuff. She does the assignments on her own, because she's got to do it in her spare time between job and family. I suppose her course is explicitly not aimed at regular just-after-highschool students, but at working professionals who need some extra theoretical foundation.

Whether any specific class has new information for her varies wildly. The challenge seems to be more in the right way to write a research paper than in the actual subject matter, though translating financial and bookkeeping between English (from the books) and Dutch (everywhere else) can also be a challengen.

they are the entry to the old boys network. i've got an uncle who had one of these. he really is not that smart but he's been to Nyenrode. so he just gets jobs from old pals, fails at them. repeat ad infinitum. still brings in a lot of cash. if i had decent netwroking skills i'd apply there too.

Having gone the corporation route there are jobs that I don't go for because I don't have the desired degrees and without the degrees the job req. ask for twice as much experience without it.

I've held off and have done well for it, often the job I wanted wasn't what it looked like and better opportunities came along with networking and aiming at the jobs I knew were great fits.

Those I've spoken to have described Wash U in St Louis as mainly international students and a big group of bitter Boeing employees who don't get 100% of it paid for anymore like previous employees did. My company offers less than the cost of a single class for the entire year since there was no correlation with loyalty.

I'm still torn though, always feels like the grass is greener on the other side.

upvoted because I loved the honesty! I am 30 something and these are the exact sort of reasons which are holding me back from pursuing MBA. I have met people who have NOT done MBA (or any formal management education FTM) and are running successful businesses or are in management positions in good corporations. And I have met MBAs who are doing the job I would not consider if I have an MBA. I guess the point is to do it for right reasons. Like when you want to switch career to a new field and MBA can be your gateway. Having an MBA does not guarantee a high salary or that coveted management position IMHO.

I'd say, if your company offers (a track) to an MBA, take it. It's free, often partly in company time (get paid to study, partially), puts you on the fast-track to succession with HRM, sends a signal to any future employers that your previous employer marked you as a high-potential, worthy of investing in.

I also recommend doing a Master's in a business field if you're 22 or so in a country where it makes sense. e.g. in continental europe it's pretty common to do a 3y bachelor from 18 to 21, and a 1y master's. The 1y master is a relatively small investment, and e.g. in the Netherlands where most unis are ranked top 100 worldwide, the cost of a 1y master's is about $2k. In 19/20 cases (making up a number), the added value of the learning/status/grit of this 1 year experience outweights the $2k+Opportunity-cost of spending this 1 year instead of working, it's an easy decision.

For anyone else? e.g. self-funding a $100k program, spending 1-3 years and having to forgo work (without company support) when you're in your 30s, probably not a great idea, on average. At that point the value is mostly learning, at a huge cost. And in my experience, self-study vs college-study in the field of business is terrific. The resources for self-study are gigantic, lots of great books, youtube videos per topic and entire courses from Harvard or MIT are online, including online testing environments where you can do exams, and lots of cases that you can buy and work through, all at a 1% cost of an expensive MBA. It's not exactly the same, particularly for a few business schools which are actually great and add value, but it's pretty damn close in most cases.

Couldn't agree more on this "The resources for self-study are gigantic, lots of great books, youtube videos per topic and entire courses from Harvard ..."

And a lots of what is taught in these MBAs (or all these Agile, Scrum & co for that matter) are essentially substitutes for common sense.

Problem: In e.g. Germany you need these papers to get access to some jobs, without you won't get them or nearly only 1% will have chance to get it.

There's no job guarantee with it, but still...

Are you talking about MBAs or M.A./M.Sc. degrees in related fields? Personally, I do not even consider MBAs to be much of "a thing" in Germany. Yes, there are some prestigious universities offering them (St. Gallen comes to mind) but many people still have not moved on to the Bologna System from the good old "Diplombetriebswirt" in their hearts, let alone MBAs.

Especially Bachelor.

In my company we see Bachelors on the same level as people with just a "Ausbildung" in computer science. I also don't have a MBA or Bachelors and still got some job offers. It's just what you do. Actually in germany you can get a job really fast if you are into Scala / Java. Actually it won't make you rich, but it's good work and in Berlin there are a lot of companies searching for Scala Developers.

Just a remark: St. Gallen is in Switzerland, not in Germany

You don't. At least not by every job. It's more like 99% could get a job without a MBA. If everybody will be a master, everybody will also want to get a higher grade in his job, which couldn't work, so you need normal developers as well.

The only thing you will get a lot less than a MBA. When you would get the job of a MBA you will mostly get the same money he will get even when you have 5 years of experience.

Great article :) The same points could probably be made about a CompSci degree, or indeed any professional degree. I knew a lot of peers who graduated despite not really understanding programming (and getting others to do their assignments). And once out in the workforce, I've worked with developers with BA degrees who were more valuable than some of those with Masters

In my opinion is true that, for just be entrepreneur you do not need MBA level. Yes, of course in any high level of Corp or big well organised company it is helpful (especially when company hires 1k peoples). But when you started as little start-up, with few friends for it is needless.

Doubtful. Top programs are worth it. Sheryl Sandberg got an MBA, worked for the the US Treasury then went straight to VP at Google and then to COO of Facebook. Contrast this with starting your own company... The content of MBAs may be the same but the context appears to matter.

The MBA seems very much geared towards creating the middle management layers that bloat many organizations. A class of people too low down to really influence change but too high up to actually do anything. Many companies are slashing such positions and that's only a good thing in my opinion.

Be really go at "doing" stuff (as in owning and delivering output) and then as one advances they become able to inspire others to do stuff too and inflict positive change in a company. That's what makes a good manager, not an MBA.

Also in my observation the people going for MBAs largely wanted to tick the "advanced degree" box but weren't in a position to get an advanced degree in a 'real' subject. That's what led to the mass proliferation of programs that has really significantly devalued the MBA overall.

I would have agreed 100% before switching industries myself and seeing how helpful & productive ex-consultant MBAs can be in getting things done. It totally depends on the corporate culture and the roles these people are put in.

Thinking about an MBA? - check out this guy instead https://www.harrisonmetal.com/

Full disclosure - my company worked on his site.

> Don’t be fooled. Do you need to pay thousands to meet middle managers from industries that you have no interest in?

This line gave me a pretty good chuckle.

The comments to this are surprisingly risk averse given the audience of people interested in technology & start-up culture.

Depends if your gaming the immigration system having a masters helps

Are you talking about specific countries? I know that it's only for STEM specializations (in countries like US), which doesn't cover an MBA.

Any masters gives you an edge when applying for the H-1B visa:

>An advanced degree exemption is available for the first 20,000 petitions filed for a beneficiary who has obtained a U.S. master’s degree or higher. [0]

[0] https://www.uscis.gov/working-united-states/temporary-worker...

Many countries award a lot more immigration "points" to a masters than say a bachelors (regardless of field). So in general if you're planning to move you need an M

Seems like an awful return. Surely there are faster, easier, cheaper Masters degrees if you just want to enter a country?

Maybe not an MBA per se, but some business training is useful. I keep on seeing the simplest mistakes in startups, especially around invoicing (which is most visible to me in terms of business stuff). Invoices that don't have the name of the company or the product on them. Invoices that are dynamically generated when you view past history (= very susceptible to bugs). Invoices you can't really print a hardcopy of. Invoices without tax components. Invoices with totals in weird positions; without dates; without payment guides; with dates, but without invoice numbers.

When it comes to business, invoices are one of the easiest things to get right, and yet so many fail. Makes you wonder about their business nous on other topics.

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