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Business school will cost you five years. Can you afford to wait? (42floors.com)
43 points by jaf12duke on Apr 3, 2012 | hide | past | favorite | 42 comments

(At risk of hijacking this thread) I'm a first-year physics grad student (so ~5 years to go, for a PhD), and I'm pretty sure what I want to do is software engineering, SV-type stuff, and I've been seriously considering quitting the physics thing for most of the past year.

Compared to business school in the post:

* I've got about 5 more years of school,

* school isn't costing me anything (I get a ~$20k/yr stipend; no tuition),

* I'm not enjoying myself at all (lots of hard core classes, required to pass preliminary tests in a limited number of sittings, boring city, boring people, boring school, no friends),

* the payoff is slim-to-none. I can't find evidence that a physics PhD is worth much in, say, software engineering. An MIT PhD student just told me he's heard ~$120k typical-ish starting salary in software engineering with a physics PhD (and he was trying to talk me into staying). That doesn't sound worth it at all! "Starting" salary!--if you don't count the 5-7 years of school (basically work).

I could go on, but I'm interested if anyone's got an opinion or some advice. It's a bit similar to the MBA decision.

I'm a practicing physicist, so I'll give a bit of advice. The only reason to go into physics is because you love doing it--but--you have to go into with your eyes open. The job market is extremely competitive these days for faculty and national lab positions. Depending on your subfield, there may or may not be industry jobs. If you're not having fun and you finish, then what are your options:

1) Medical Physics 2) Wall Street (though I hear that it's getting harder to go directly from physics phD to wall street and more people are getting a masters in financial engineering first) 3) Software 4) Management Consulting 5) Science Policy 6) Etc.

While the salary for all of these can be good, you have to look at the opportunity cost--you're looking at ~6 years for grad. school. Someone else might be able to tell you if it's worth sticking around to pick up either your masters in physics (or to take some graduate courses in CS)--but if you don't love it, my advice is to get out and do something that you're passionate about--What do you mean by SV type stuff?

Now, with all that having been said--one thing you might want to consider is that the first year of a typical physics grad. student is fairly hard with coursework and such and you might want to try to pass quals. and try research for a year before making your final decision--are you interested in theory or experiment? Did you do research in undergrad.? Life in a lab can be rather different from coursework--also, even course work tends to be more interested in advanced courses such as GR, Quantum Field Theory, etc. than in the typical Jackson courses....

Good luck!

> SV type stuff?

I was being purposefully vague--I just meant the Silicon Valley scene. I have a college friend who just got a cool job there, and some family friends, too. It sounds like a fun place from the culture side, but also from the technology side--specifically, I'm amazed by what a small team can do in a 48-hour hackathon with today's technology. The one that comes to mind is that "Infinite Scrabble MMO" from about 18 months ago. 150 man-hours can produce that? Wow.

I did research in undergrad (mostly over the summers, but a bit during the year). I had a lot of fun, and it was motivating work. But it was programming work! I wrote a bunch of data analysis code and did a little bit of GEANT simulation stuff, and it all felt more like programming than physics. And the "physics research" (experimentalists) that I have seen looks more like engineering (designing/building some apparatus, then fixing all of the problems...).

It just seems so slow-moving compared to the software industry. There's a lot less room for individualism, and it feels like you've got a lot of really smart people doing a lot of menial, commodity tasks (I'm thinking of every PhD candidate and postdoc I've ever known).

I'll have to give theory a closer look. It's hard to see myself in it any time soon, because there's more material I'd need to learn first.

(I think I'm rambling to myself now.) All this, I think, is to say that I'm pretty sure the physics charm has worn off. Unless there's something really exciting around the corner, I think I'm over it.

I seem to have written this comment as if there's some point I'm trying to prove. Habit. Sorry about that! Thanks for the advice and encouragement, and I'll keep my eyes open!

Hi Joe,

In general, there's a certain amount of tedium in any endeavor. During my PhD, I did some work on synthesis--it was fun to try to figure out how to realize some properties in a new material--to try to figure out synthesis challenges--the actual sitting down and grinding with a mortar and pestle was meditative, but tedious. The same thing happens with coding--there are parts that are exciting, but there's (at least to me) a certain tedium that comes with testing, engineering, etc (if I want to write code that other people use, instead of one-off pieces for my own use). Even on the analysis side, there are exciting bits where I try to see if I understand why a material has a given set of properties, but there's a certain tedium in writing portions of the analysis code--the question is whether or not the exciting bits outweigh the tedious ones...One of my students (undergrad) was a double major between physics and computer engineering and has decided that he wants to go on to do robotics in grad. school--physics wasn't fun for him--another one went on to grad. school in physics--you just have to see what you have fun with--not just with classes, but in the actual doing. If you decide to stick it out and pass prelims/first year courses and get your masters and are still not happy, then definitely get out--opportunity costs will outweigh your sunk costs ;> At your university, do the theorists give trial projects? In terms of just variety and fun, have you looked at any of Nigel Goldenfeld's work? http://guava.physics.uiuc.edu/

If you do decide to leave (and it seems like that's the direction you're going), then I suggest that you get an offer somewhere, spend some time working on your own project, or taking some CS courses before leaving...

Good luck!

> there's a certain amount of tedium in any endeavor.

Yes, I'm cherry picking a bit here :)

I think I was a bit too hard on physics in my previous comment. I've definitely loved it before, and I still do occasionally. I think the frustration I feel is partly due to school's tendency to suck the fun out of any subject (computers, too--I never really liked any of the programming/algorithms classes I took, but I enjoy learning a new language or algorithm on my own time). And once I'm done with my problem sets and things, I can't think of my physics books as being "leisure" reading (like I do with programming books). It would be just my luck, if I switch careers, to fall out of love with computers and end up courting Jackson on the sly!

I think I'm most dissatisfied, right now, with the school/city/people. There's nothing interesting within a 6 hour drive, and I haven't made any friends--I've met a lot of people, so it's not for a huge lack of trying, but I don't really like any of them as much as I liked my friends in undergrad. I've thought about switching schools, but with all the hassle of re-applying and somehow explaining "I don't like anything about this place--would you write me a letter of recommendation?" coupled with my other reservations, I feel more inclined toward a career switch.

It sounds like we have, at least, narrowed it down to a decision of personal preference. Which puts a lot of pressure on me! But still, progress.

Thanks again!

You should do what you love and thereby love what you do. If you don't, take a step back as you may need to recalibrate a bit (or a lot). It's a healthy and productive exercise, if only to reaffirm your current direction.

EDIT: I don't mean to get all meta, but it's not about the ideal of others but rather what makes you happy as an individual. Anyway, that's the way I rationalize it all.

Yep, it was something of a revelation to me this week, that "hang on, I could actually quit if I wanted to!" feeling.

Powerful, but I'm afraid it's dangerous.

I only did a master's degree, but the consensus among grad student friends is that graduate degrees are not worth it for money (maybe it's different if you go somewhere like MIT or Stanford -- I am talking about second tier schools). Grad school can make sense if you want to do research or some specific kinds of technical work (e.g. physics simulation for movies). It also makes sense if you enjoy it. I had a great time socially in grad school and loved working as a TA.

When you consider the "cost" of your Ph.D., you should consider the opportunity cost of the salary you could be earning, which could easily add up to hundreds of thousands of dollars over a six year period. It's also wrong to compare a starting salary with Ph.D. to a starting salary with undergrad because by the time you get your Ph.D. and work the undergrad will have 5-7 years of experience and, on average, a higher salary.

Agreed. I guess I'm just trying to weigh the "worth" of the degree (not just money) against the "cost" of it (not just money). Lots of intangibles in the equation.

It sounds like the consensus is not "Absolutely do X, or you'll regret it later," but "(Either one will be fine;) do what you love." So it's comforting that I probably can't screw this up too badly with either choice, but I'm going to have to do some introspection.

Year 1 is supposedly pretty different from subsequent years - you should at least stick it out until you fall in with some research group or other and see how you like it. As a bonus, you can get your Master's!

It's mostly the course work and preliminary tests (studying for them) that I'm not liking and dreading, which are supposed to take another ~2 years. At that point, the sunk cost fallacy would probably keep me in for the whole thing.

Imagine that you're not part of a company or a PhD program, and you're choosing between spending 5 years to get a Physics PhD and go into software, or going into software directly. Which sounds more appealing to you?

That's pretty much the decision I had to make a year ago, and I ended up in the PhD program.

But if I knew then what I know now (that I'd not be having a good time), I'd be leaning closer to the software job.

The remaining unknown (to me) is what the degree is worth, in the end.

Really, I suppose, I'm just not looking forward to telling everyone (friends and family) that I'm quitting. It's admitting a defeat/failure/mistake, and that's hard, so I'm trying to find a good reason to stay.

Nah, you're not defeated. Just the opposite. You're empowering yourself by taking command of your life decisions. We all make mistakes along the way, but learning from those mistakes and course correcting are the biggest wins we can ask for. You should be proud and wear your decision like a badge of honor.

As the Aussies say, good on ya!

If you're talking about worth in terms of cash, I would run don't walk away from the PhD.

If you're talking about worth in terms of cherished personal values, I would try to figure out if I want to be a scientist or an engineer. If it is a vocation.

Through my master's program, this was on my mind while doing my thesis. I ended up deciding against choosing a narrow specialty and becoming a miner, so I headed to industry to become a maker.

Neither choice is the less noble.

> worth in terms of cherished personal values

Yeah, that's probably part of it. I guess The Internet can't help me with that one.

> I ended up deciding against choosing a narrow specialty and becoming a miner, so I headed to industry to become a maker.

I like this. Sums it all up quite nicely. Thanks!

I am the guy profiled in that article. I spent 5 years in "business school" before doing my startup. (1 year prep, 2 years of b-school and 2 years at McKinsey)

I have to say, though, that the overall experience is being very useful to me and my startup. I believe this is in big part because Kormox is an enterprise-software startup (pg says they are all about sales, and I kind of agree) - I've learned how to navigate corporate bureaucracies, I've built a huge network in corporate america.

I believe I can execute on this contrarian play - (all the cool hackers are doing consumer-oriented startups nowadays), with an experience/background that is helpful.

So while I believe that if you have a rush for an opportunity you should go for it no matter what, any experience is very helpful to build up unique paths for executing on plays that make the most sense for you.

How applicable has your experience @ McKinsey been in the startup space versus your experience in business school? Also, which program did you attend (if you don't mind sharing)?

FYI, there is a typo ("trully") on this page of your site: http://www.kormox.com/Home/OurTechnology

The experience in McKinsey I think has been particularly helpful - but again, because I am doing an enterprise-software startup - which requires to work closely with corporate-customers.

Thanks for highlighting the typo

Techies love to downplay the value of an MBA because they are insecure. Just because Jobs, Zuckerberg, Gates, Ellison, Page/Brin, etc. created world-class companies they think MBAs are worthless.

MBAs are indeed worthless if you're Jobs, Zuckerberg, Gates, etc.


There are thousands of world-class companies (Fortune 1000, small businesses, start-ups, etc.) that were founded/run by MBAs. the VCs, Investors, etc. who funded your worthless start-ups have MBAs.

Every Arrogant techie should remember this: For every successful start-up, there are 1000's other start-ups that failed because the techie founders did not have the business knowledge or experience to execute, manage and lead their companies.

> There are thousands of world-class companies (Fortune 1000, small businesses, start-ups, etc.) that were founded/run by MBAs.

There are hundreds of thousands graduating with MBAs each and every year. You are not going to be the guy running a world class company any more than you are going to be Bill Gates or Steve Jobs.

I don't think an MBA is worthless, but it seems a little foolish to think that it is going to change your life. There is no such thing as a magical formula you can follow to success. While an MBA might lead you to that million dollar job, taking time to do an MBA can just as easily take you away from a million dollar job.

All you can really do is focus on what you think is right. If that's an MBA, do it. If not, don't.

There is a difference between a small business, and a start-up. MBA's are suited for the small business, and suited very well for it. Techies are suited for start-ups.

The post is spot on but it skips a few considerations which must be highlighted. Specially if you are already in an MBA, like I was.

- I just was not sure what I wanted to do in life when I signed up for the MBA. The time away from active professional life at business school allowed me to figure out what really matters to me. Yes, I did get time outside of classes, recruitment, and parties for this self discovery. The exposure to some great entrepreneurs who came to speak at campus definitely helped.

- Once I had figured I wanted to be an entrepreneur, business school was actually not a bad place to get started. Stressing on the assumption that I was motivated enough to be focused - the support system for starting up does exist, and it’s not bad. My school had a program modeled after the YC program. I was still clueless so I helped a friend who was in the program: he is running his startup full time now, and is profitable too.

- Now on not losing the last 2 years part. My MBA was sponsored by my consulting employers but I broke the contract. I knew I won't be able to find any time to work on my startup while doing consulting. But this also meant I suddenly had a loan of the entire school fees. I cut down on my lifestyle, and I'm well on track to completely pay off the loan within 1 year (8 months since school, and I’m 70% done). And yes, my corporate job allowed me time to find an idea and actively work on it: I code with my partners; talk to customers; develop content; and we successfully tested out the demo experiment (and now dreaming of getting into YC).

So all in all, MBA can be helpful or can be made irrelevant. You don’t always have to wait.

Congrats on being almost done with the student loan payments! Was the debt in the six figure range? Curious if you have any strategies to share. My fiance has a boatload of student debt that keeps me awake at night :(

Hey thanks! Yes close to that. I threw in my entire joining & relocation bonus. Had also worked part time in the last semester, that went in too. And now, I have cut down all expenses apart from rent and food (I cook a lot, don't go out drinking).

Is it even worth getting an MBA now if you're a developer in silicon valley. I'm talking in terms of putting so much money out there for MBA and then is there a big difference in salary afterwards?

> is there a big difference in salary afterwards?

Yes, if you're good and that's what you want to do. I know someone who knows someone who went to UC Irvine (not one of the top 10) and got a $40,000 signing bonus, which on average wipes out a UC Irvine MBA's outstanding debt.

Don't forget about opportunity cost. Even at minimum wage, you would have made $80,000 by working a full time job instead of going to school, assuming a four year program.

If his tuition costs were an additional $40,000, you would need a $120,000 (plus any gains that could be accumulated from that $120K) bonus to recoup the expenses. Not to mention that if you really are good, you probably would have made far more than minimum wage during those four years, so we could probably assume, even conservatively, $150-$200,000 for the real cost of the education.

Can a graduate expect to earn $200K more in the all important early stage of the career† over someone who is equally skilled and connected without a degree?

† Early stage being the most important time to collect due to the rules of compounding interest. An extra $200K made in the last year of your career is far less valuable.

|assuming a four year program.

Virtually all full-time MBA programs are two-year programs.

Here's an example of the math a prospective MBA student might consider:

Current cash comp (incl. bonuses) = ~$120k/year

Length of program = 2 years


Total expected comp lost for next two years = ~$240k (figure $160k after taxes)

Tuition = ~$60k/year

Living expenses = ~20k/year


Total two-year costs = $160k

Internship earnings est = $20k


Total two-year net impact = ~$380k ($300k after taxes)

(Note that this doesn't factor in things like student loan interest)

Aren't some people doing this as evening courses--given the state of the economy? If so, the opportunity cost is wiped out--it's more a question of the debt amount, relative to the salary increase....

It is still lost opportunity. If you have the drive and desire to work hard in the evenings, you could just as easily pick up another job instead of going to school, bringing us back to square one.

Some things are more important than money. I enjoy learning new things as much as the next guy, so I often value education above income. However, I am not sure it is a wise choice if money is your only motivator.

An MBA won't help you develop software better so I'm not sure how you could increase your salary that way unless you want to work on the business side of a big company.

I would doubt highly that there are organizations interested in paying any more for a software developer for an MBA.

In general, it is important to ask yourself what you want to do 50 hours a week and do that rather than to look at starting salaries for post MBAs.

There shouldn't be any organization interested in paying any more for a software developer for an MBA to write software.

But a manager that understands how long it takes to write software is worth more than a biz-undergrad+MBA manager in a software company.

He didn't ask what undergrad degree to get.

To the down voter... My point is important.

There are different paths to take, and my experience with people getting MBAs is that they fit in to 1 of 3 groups:

1) Business person who wants to continue being a business person. (by far, they get the biggest value in salary bump on average) Their skill set before the MBA fits perfectly with their improved skills and degrees. They are highly sought after by employers and the MBA program is designed to help them get jobs.

2) Technical person (including all types of engineers, many non-programmers) that are in a technical field because they saw a good $50k-$70k entry salary out of undergrad and wanted a safe job. They saw the higher avg salary post MBA, did some quick math and determined making $120k-$160k post graduation and taking a 2 year vacation would be cool (they saw their business friends do no work in undergrad compared to them.)

3) A strange, hyper-motivated group that comes from all types of backgrounds. They want to start a company and it is in their blood. They can't shake it, they read hacker news, they study hard, they participate in class, case competitions, networking events etc.

They are the exception, but they will found something. It may not be the next google or even a tech startup at all, but it will be something.

Group 1) Gets the 2nd best offers from big and small companies, they get to do cool jobs for the most part.

Group 2) Depends somewhat on the person, but they are at a disadvantage and they thought they were smarter than the business people, but the business people know business and typically best the technical people in interviews. They do fine if they leave their comfort zone, but if they don't they are screwed.

Group 3) gets the best offers, best connections and enjoys it the most. If you believe you are in group 1 or 3, your return on an MBA is amazing. If you are in group 2, it is questionable. But, if you only did the tech job for the money, an MBA probably won't solve your problems, nor will any other degree.

--I see constant posts about MBAs, and how bad they are for people. They are bad for the wrong people, they are amazing for the right people.

Not sure, but to play devil's advocate, most people here have put far more than 5 years into technical talent. The problem is that the real world runs on connections, not capability. I don't think it's unreasonable to dedicate 5 years to networking and become more "well-rounded". The open question is whether those connections are going to be worth anything in a decade, or whether it will be better to be "connected" to some other set of people. Completely unpredictable.

I don't think you learn how to run startups in an MBA program, but top MBAs are the only way to get into top VC firms under 30, and that will help you a lot in the fundraising process. People are less likely to throw multiple liquidation preferences at people they personally know and consider "one of us".

What I will say is that it's probably not worth into pursue an MBA at a non-top school. You know law school's "top 14"? For MBA programs, there are 3 or 4. If their graduates aren't getting into top venture capital firms, don't apply.

Can an environment based on connections and not capabilities be sustainable. May be. It's possible. But you have to be careful that another environment (which is start-ups) sucks some of your market share and many of the competent people out there (going as founders or co-founders). At some point, you'll finally collapse and over paying those "well-rounded" people no longer pay-off if they don't have an equivalent experience.

So you need:

1- Good Skills for the business; at any time.

2- Good Connections for the business; this business and this time.

You are good to go. If you can't make 1+2 happen, then definitively pick up 1. It's the safest bet in the long run and you can get back (and stronger) to 2 at any time. I dropped 1 at one company and focused on building my technical skills. I have never regretted it, I'm actually doing it again.

I found the opposite to be true. I went to a top tier school but 99% of my connections to the VC world did not come through my MBA network. They came from building good products, YC, and blogging--in that order.

Incubators like YC are far better at connecting first-time entrepreneurs to top angels and VCs. And investors are far less likely to be abusive with an entrepreneur that is backed by a good incubator because it would affect future deal flow.

How does ambition fall into the connections and capability mix?

You use ambition to build connections and capability.

Not to detract from your central point, but someone is a native or fluent English speaker and can't get >700 on the GMAT with a week (or less) of review, that person is probably not going to be a very successful startup founder, either.

Even 2 year opportunity cost makes an MBA a bad idea for a startup founder in a normal market, although doing one in a time like 2001-2003 or 2008-2010 seems like it would be defensible.

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