At my niece’s college graduation last week, one of her friends asked me whether I thought getting an MBA was worth it.
I have no problem articulating my opinions when I’m writing or speaking to the many. But when an individual asks for my thoughts, I’m reluctant to provide a definitive answer. Because results, as they say, do vary.
I don’t want to bump into the same person in 10 years and discover that I ruined his life by giving him bad advice.
My answer, therefore, was a moderated version of what I’ve been saying for many years: You definitely do not need an MBA to succeed in business. You may need an MBA to be accepted for certain jobs – to work for a large bank, accounting firm, business consulting firm, and so on. But for the most part, those are safe jobs for ambitious plodders. Not the kind of jobs I’d normally encourage anyone to pursue.
Many would not agree with me. I know parents that have encouraged if not begged their kids to get MBAs. And many of them, millennials, listened. MBA programs are proliferating, and the number of MBA graduates in the US has doubled to almost 200,000 in just a few years.
If you want to be a doctor and save lives, I find that admirable. If you want to be a lawyer and fight injustice, I admire that too. Anyone that dares to be a teacher deserves not just admiration but awe.
But I have a feeling that most people who pursue an MBA do it because they see it as a safe and predictable way to make a good income. That’s not a wise way to move into a career.
Let’s face it, most of the fun and the profit in a career comes from getting involved with an up-and-coming business and then rising to the top as it grows. To do that, you don’t need an MBA. In fact, as I have argued many times, you would probably be much better off with a much less expensive liberal arts degree.
Here’s how I explained it in an article titled “The Case for a Liberal Arts Education”:
A liberal arts education teaches you three skills: to think well, to write well, and to speak well. And in the corporate world – and in the entrepreneurial world as well – wealth is created by analyzing problems, figuring out solutions, and selling those solutions. In other words, a liberal arts education is tailor-made to give you the skills you need to succeed in business. And not just to do well. I’m talking about going all the way to the top.
Businesses have one fundamental problem that presents itself endlessly in different disguises: how to sell products/services profitably. There are many, many solutions to this problem. Even in a specific situation on a specific day, there is always more than one. And the person who can regularly come up with solutions – and convince others that his solutions should be implemented – is the person who is going to get the rewards. The money. The power. The prestige.
Yes, you can improve your thinking, writing, and speaking skills while enrolled in [an MBA program]. But it will happen indirectly and additionally. It won’t be what you are mainly concerned with. With a liberal arts education, you ensure that you will spend most of your time learning and practicing the very skills you will use later to get your ideas and solutions sold.
Of my three sons, only the third one got an MBA. He told me that it was valuable at the beginning of his career. (He became a copywriter for an investment publishing business.) But now, after less than five years, he uses very little of what he learned about business in his master’s program at the University of Denver.
Think of it this way: What skills and knowledge are you likely to acquire by spending two or three years on an MBA?
You will spend a fair amount of that time studying business management. But IMHO, business management cannot be taught. It can only be learned by experience.
You will also almost certainly take a few classes in business ethics. These are popular to the point of being requisites in many MBA programs today. But business ethics is a vacuous idea. There is only ethics. And that is something your parents either taught you or they didn’t. You can’t learn it in school.
What about accounting? The only accounting you need in business (if you are not an actual accountant – a dreadful occupation) you can learn on your own. Ditto how to read a P&L and a balance sheet. And basic statistics (which has helped me avoid all sorts of mistakes).
The bottom line: If you are mildly ambitious, moderately intelligent, and risk averse… by all means, get an MBA.
But if you want to work for a growing business, doing interesting projects, taking on exciting challenges, and eventually conquering some portion of the business world, skip the MBA path and devote those years to learning on the job.