Career skills

Is an MBA worth it? Here’s how to make the decision.

Is an MBA worth it? It depends, but I regret getting my Harvard MBA. 

As an entrepreneur interested in tech startups, I’d be better off having spent those two years working for someone in a Series B company who is excellent at what I enjoy — product, business development, or growth — instead of going to Harvard. If I’d done this, I would have gotten: 

  • More money.
  • More credibility. 
  • More skills. 
  • A more relevant network. 

When I was applying to schools, everyone encouraged me to go. While an MBA can make sense, I think it’s vastly overrated. So I want to give you the advice I wish I had in 2010 when I was applying. 
My biggest mistake was: I tried to decide “if an MBA is worth it” without comparing it to the most viable alternative, so when I had an acceptance from Harvard, it boiled down to choosing between a good option and… nothing. So obviously I picked the MBA. 

Here’s what I wished I knew: 

But, first, a little about me — so you know can calibrate how relevant my advice is for you. 

A little about me

When asking if an MBA is worth it, start with who you are and what you want out of it.

My perspective will be most helpful for people similar to me: interested in entrepreneurship and working in technology, and people motivated by learning and impact more than money and status (though, obviously, money and status are great too… just not the primary goal).

  • Education. I went to Dartmouth, so had a “brand-name” education and access to a strong network.
  • Personality. I’m very independent and entrepreneurial — I spent one year away from Dartmouth doing research in East Africa (funded by grants) and three more to start a company in India. 
  • Motivation. I’m very motivated by learning new things, social impact, and competition. Not so much by money. 
  • Career. I had started a venture-backed mobile health company and done a lot of work with for-profit social enterprises. 
  • Social class. Though my parents went to college (and my dad to Seminary), my family grew up without much money or connections to people who had high-paying jobs (besides people we knew who were doctors and lawyers)
  • Identity. I’m a white guy. 

The case for an MBA

Reasons to do an MBA

An MBA clearly makes sense in a few situations, particularly if: 

  • Someone else is paying. If your employer or a scholarship pays for you to go, why not? an MBA certainly 
  • Your career requires it. i.e. you’re working in a field where it’s nearly obligatory, like becoming a McKinsey partner or a Fortune 500 executive
  • You come in wanting to make a discontinuous career change. Let’s say you’ve been a public school math teacher and (somehow) you’re absolutely positive you want to become a hedge fund manager; an MBA lets you reinvent yourself much faster and can bridge the gap to roles that’d otherwise be inaccessible 
  • You need to combat bias. I’ve heard from women and people of color that it can be helpful to be taken more seriously, or to make it easier to return to the workforce after taking time off to have kids 

Reasons to consider an MBA

In my opinion, an MBA also might make more sense (though still isn’t necessarily worthwhile) if: 

  • You’re working in a field where a broad network matters. Because schools deliberately select for diverse industry and professional interests. 
  • You’re an extrovert. Because, if not, you won’t make as many connections or take advantage of the endless social opportunities. 
  • You’re very focused on a specific role afterwards. Because you can focus your networking, classes, internship and extracurriculars on building experience, knowledge and a network to get that specific job. 
  • You want to work in particular sectors with very dense MBA rates. For example, if you want to be a VC investor, a Harvard or Stanford MBA is completely work it
  • You have more of a traditional MBA background. Because you’ll tend to have more in common with other ex-consultants and bankers, so networking will be more like what you’re used to.
  • You like working at big companies. Larger, more established companies tend to value credentials more and take fewer hiring risks so an MBA will be more helpful here.

Bad reasons to do an MBA

Really horrible (though lamentably common) reasons to get an MBA: 

  • You want to explore career options. Once you start the MBA, the time is ticking to take advantage, so do your exploration when you’re not on the clock. 
  • It’s a good career move in general. Again, it’s best to be deliberate — you’re better off waiting until you have a particular vision in mind and a game plan to take advantage of the MBA. 
  • It’s a socially acceptable vacation. Just take a vacation. 

One thing I’m not sure how to think about is what I actually learned: the discipline of going through 500 cases, where you’re forced to take define a problem, articulate potential solutions, assimilate evidence, argue for a choice and explain how you’d implement it was really fun and very useful — I definitely find myself using the framework of “what would I do if this were an HBS case?” when making decisions. More below on how to get this benefit without doing a formal MBA.

The MBA alternative — work for 2 years, optimized for learning

Instead of doing an MBA, consider working for 2 years, optimized for learning — make all of your professional decisions based on how you can learn and prepare for your path to your dream job. 
To optimize for learning, you’ll need to plan out seven factors: 

  • Company. I’d look for a series B company whose business you believe in. This means that the company has already mitigated a lot of risk and has raised significant resources to scale as quickly as possible. Also, (1) they’re likely to become a brand name which will help later in your career, (2) they will have resources to hire a manager with proven experience scaling at an analogous company (exactly whom you want to learn from), and (3) they’re growing fast so their will be lots of room for you to prove yourself and advance your career. Also, by picking a company with a proven and fast-growing product, you’ll be likely to produce impressive results — effectively drafting your career off of the momentum the company has already built. 
  • Manager. You want to work for someone who is excellent at the skills you want to develop. Make sure that you’ll have the opportunity to have regular one-on-ones with them. It’s a plus if this person has worked at a previously high-growth company (think Facebook, Uber, Slack, or other companies during a period they’ve grown 10X) — because they will have connections with other people hired to run departments at many other companies, and can make introductions for you. 
  • Role. Find a role that is responsible for solving problems you find interesting and ideally that is somewhat generalist — this could including functions like Biz Ops and Growth. Broader exposure will be better for learning than extreme specialization. 
  • Projects and activities. Look for opportunities to take on a range of projects, so you can get experience doing different things — and ensure to deliver impressive quantitative results, to build your credibility for future roles.  
  • Extracurricular learning. Develop a reading course and — if possible — a reading group with other friends or peers to expose you to business ideas and practice strategy and decision-making. 
  • Networking. Continue a practice of conducting informational interviews to learn about your sector and the functions you’re most interested in. Identify interesting people in your company, and organize lunch or coffee dates to get to know them. Join or start a group for young professionals, and develop resources to help them develop their careers, so you’ll be able to build relationships with insiders and many different companies. Combine this with a platform-building project where you can interview people and share their knowledge and stories. 
  • Platform building. As you narrow in on the kinds of activities and projects you most enjoy, create a project to build your brand as an expert in that area. A simple way to do this is to create a blog (or social media profile) where you interview and share case studies of people who have done interesting and successful work in that area. Another is to build and manage a career and learning-oriented professional organization for your peers — both give you a platform to reach and influence others, and are a great way of building your network by doing something useful for others. 

Is an MBA worth it? Use this framework to decide

When thinking about whether to do an MBA, first you need to come up with the best alternative to pursue your career goal.
Ask yourself: 

  • What’s your dream job? (Use this framework to find out.)
  • What job(s) would you like after the MBA? 
  • Could you get that post-MBA job now? If so, definitely skip the MBA. 
  • Could you get another job as an MBA substitute? This means, you do another job for two years, and this would let you get your post-MBA job. If so, it’s worth considering creating an MBA Alternative out of it.
  • Does an MBA provide a significant advantage over your MBA-alternative for your dream job? 

With both your dream job and post-MBA jobs in mind, you should evaluate an MBA along four dimensions: finance, skills, credibility, and network. 

For me – someone interested in entrepreneurship and tech startups – I don’t think an MBA made sense.

Is an MBA worth it? Here’s the analysis I wish I’d done:

CharacteristicWhy an MBA fails (in startups and tech)
FinanceA top MBA costs around $300K ($200K + $100K what you could save by working). Just save that, and you’ve got a solid retirement — around $4.5 million after 40 years at 7% annual growth. 
SkillsThe MBA Alternative will let you learn a lot more that’s relevant in startups and technology and supplement this with broader business skills. You get to practice while being coached and mentored by a master, instead of classroom exercises. You’ll sacrifice some breadth of knowledge — but in areas that likely won’t matter to your career. 
CredibilityTry a thought experiment: You’re applying for your post-MBA job, and there are two finalists — you with an MBA and you with 2 years of experience and accomplishments doing this or a closely related job. As someone making these decisions, I’d hire the more experienced you every time. (And if someone would rather hire the MBA, you don’t want to work for them anyway — they’re an idiot.) 
NetworkAn MBA does a great job of building a wide network. But if you want to start a company or work in tech, network breadth doesn’t matter. There’s little benefit in knowing bankers, consultants or brand managers at CPG companies. What matters is knowing people in your industry and functions adjacent to yours — and you can build deeper connections there over 2 years of working and networking. 

If you’re interested in another sector, or want to verify this, I’d encourage you to do two things: 

  1. Search LinkedIn for people in your dream job and hiring for your dream job. Do they have an MBA? 
  2. Conduct informational interviews with a few of them, and give them the thought experiment of whom they’d rather hire — you with a Harvard MBA, or you with 2 years of relevant experience and accomplishments?

If you do an MBA, here’s how to make it worthwhile

If you’re planning on doing an MBA, here’s how to get the most out of it: 

  • Go into it, knowing where you want to land. Don’t treat the MBA as a time to explore and learn what you want to do after. MBAs are extremely expensive, and every day you’re exploring is a day you’re not optimizing for your career. You’re better off delaying your MBA by a year to study up on different jobs, conduct informational interviews, try a platform building project to get a better sense of what you want to do. 
  • Apply to MBA and jobs at the same time. If you’re set on applying, apply to MBA-alternative jobs at the same time. That way, you’ll have to make a choice between two good options when you get your acceptance — and even if you do pick the $300K price tag, you’ll be motivated to make sure you get the most out of it, because you’ll really feel the true (financial and career) cost. 
  • Say no. Don’t say yes to everything: focus on projects and activities that will build your knowledge, network and credibility for the job you want to get. And spend your social time doing things — with people — you enjoy. 
  • Conduct informational interviews. Give yourself a quota of alumni outreach and informational interviews every week — at least two. 
  • Pick classes carefully. A third of my classes were phenomenal, a third were decent, and a third were a waste of time. Put in time beforehand reading reviews and talking to people who’ve had professors before — in general, trust what you hear no matter how interesting a class sounds. The professor makes the class, nothing else. 
  • Meet your professors. They’re all smart and interesting. Ask what they’re researching and writing about. Ask why they picked those topics. It’s interesting — and, as you select courses aligned with your career, they can introduce you to alums. 
  • Do your homework. Most people don’t take the schoolwork super seriously, so if you’re good at academics it’s not that hard to do quite well — if you could have gotten academic recognition with just a little more work, you’ll regret it (because people do remember). Also, doing the work will make professors like you and open up introductions and recommendations. 
  • Host dinners. In larger groups, socializing was governed by the lowest common denominator — to me, they generally felt like a frat party. But my interactions with people were really different in smaller groups. Find people with similar interests and background, and invite them to dinners — it’s a great way to get to know people, that I didn’t do nearly enough (or even discover till the end of my MBA). 

By Taylor Thompson

Taylor is a co-founder at Purpose Built Ventures, where he helps launch mission-driven companies. Before Purpose Built, Taylor led growth at Almanac, strategy for Curious Learning, and product at PharmaSecure. His work helps 100,000s of people collaborate at work, 4 million children learn to read, and protects billions of medicines from counterfeiting. He has hired dozens of people, helped raise more than $50 million, and contributed to as a researcher with Clay Christensen. Taylor is an Echoing Green Fellow, and he has degrees from Dartmouth College and Harvard Business School.

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