No, An MBA Will Not Help You

The other day I went to the AT&T Wireless store by my office to purchase some iPhones; and ordeal that took over 2 hours! Luckily for AT&T, the salespeople were good conversationalists and tried to make my wait as pleasant as they possibly could. The district manager was on site and remarked that he was taking night classes to earn his MBA, and that he was almost finished. I congratulated him and responded that I also have an MBA…and I was thrilled to be finished. He responded, “Oh yeah? And did your MBA do anything for you?” I paused. I wanted to reflexively respond “No.” But I bit my tongue. Instead I formulated a more helpful and friendly response. I told him matter-of-factly that I have the same job that I had before I earned my MBA. And it is not a job that requires you to have an MBA (not by a long shot). But trying to end things on a good note I said, “…but who knows what the future will bring.”

I do not pretend to have the ability to read people’s minds, but I feel that the response that I gave was not exactly what he was looking for. A much better MBA graduate story would say that, “…after earning my MBA degree, I got a great job offer, doubled my salary, and I’m on the fast track to corporate super-stardom now.” But that is really a pipe dream. It is times like these that I mildly envy M.D. and J.D. graduates; because rarely do they endure the question, “Well did your degree help you?”. Their degrees are a pre-requisite for entering the medical and legal fields. Even so, there are doctors and lawyers who have bowed out of following the standard professional path that was laid out for them. In fact, some reports say that only 56% of law school graduates go straight into full-time positions that require bar admittance. And yet the general public opinion seems to put more faith in the J.D. degree than the M.B.A. degree.

Just because the professional path of MBAs is not mapped out for them does not mean the degree is useless. But if you earn one, and then sit back and wait for career magic to happen, then you are in for a rude awakening. Unfortunately, I don’t think that the aforementioned approach is all that unusual, and perhaps this is why MBAs have such a bad reputation in the professional world. People assume we are spoiled, entitled and hard to manage/lead. It is rare that MBAs are just simply seen as people who are competent in the academic study of business on the graduate level… those who earn M.S. degrees in therapy are seen as professionals competent in that field. But notice that my descriptions are a little bit different from each other. While the MBA is an academic pursuit, actual success in business comes from practice and actually doing. So in these other fields, you do need the degree in order to practice….and hopefully find success. Business does not work this way.

Plenty of people will quickly say that pursuing an MBA degree is just not worth it. I disagree with those types of dismissive attitudes, but I would strongly encourage reading Jason Freedman’s post about how an MBA teaches you how to suck at running a startup. In one post he shows you exactly why you need to throw your entitled MBA notions right out the window. Jason’s success doesn’t come from the fact that he has an MBA. It comes from his ability to recognize opportunities and make the right choices to capitalize on them. If he went out there and just regurgitated what he learned in b-school, he would have failed. Instead he quickly recognized that his own business situation differed from what he studied formally. And while he does not come out and say this, I believe that his MBA studies have helped him to better read the business climate in general and has helped him prepare for growth and for dealing with companies that are different than his own.

My advice to anyone is that you must help yourself and be your own advocate. Don’t lean on a degree or a job or even your peers to promote you and your abilities. Don’t kid yourself and think that there are any easy, well laid out paths for the vast majority of MBA graduates out there. Be prepared to work hard for you MBA degree…and to work even harder on adding additional skill sets and forever learning to keep yourself current and competitive. Good luck (to us all)!