Advice for a young man going to business school

April 17, 2014

I recently answered a post on Quora. Someone was interested in attending business school. The user asked “Are the content and concepts learned at a top MBA school valuable in the real world or is the degree essentially a great networking tool for future job placement?

This post is meant to share some perspectives that would be useful to consider for this young prson conidering a MBA. (God, I hate to say it, but I am guessing this is a young man, rather than a young woman asking this question.)

Looking back, it occurs to me that the best prospective students would NOT have asked this user's question. I had it; I was not the best.

What people want

Let's deconstruct this question. The writer wants to know what the ROI on MBA education is going to be with respect to jobs. What the user really wants is a job. Can it get me the job?.

The user is aware of some baseline values - there is value to the network, and there is value to the ‘insider’ business information one can gain from studies.

What people think is the truth

One of the Quora responses to the question included “At the best schools, an MBA = pre-qualification for the best jobs. Everything else is just icing on the cake.”

Until recently, I thought the same thing. Since I started hustling on the uber-competitive tech scene in SF, I learned that the truth turns out the qualification for the best jobs are being good at the job. What is the best indication that you are good at the job? It turns out, the answer is have you done that work successfully before?

When stated that way, it seems obvious. Yet, millions take a look to business school, then start spending money and time and energy on things like GMAT, which has no correlation to job skills. Why is that?

What you learn

Before going to Darden Business School, I read a book by the author Broughton, called Ahead of the Curve: Two Years at Harvard Business School.

Ahead of the Curve

Being a non-business background professional, Broughton valued understanding how businesses worked and gaining confidence. That said, he was already an expert at writing, an author, so this added to his expertise. This is a good book to read, and certainly highlights how one grows and learns about business in B-school. Still, I felt it misses the comparison to the alternative. Can you learn about business by starting a business? Can you learn about a certain professional role by hustling to get that job in the first place?

Advice for prospective students

Funny thing about learning. You can't learn how to fly a helicopter Matrix style - “Tank, I need a pilot program … zoooop! I can fly!”

I took classes across various disciplines: finance, operations, decision analysis, marketing, communications, leadership. You dabble in one subject, and then move onto the next. You are training to be a multi-tasker, a master of none. And it is institutionalized and set into the very fabric of the MBA curriculum. First year requirements are, well, required.

Thought experiment

As an applicant, pull yourself out of GMAT scores and application interviews and graduation salary stats. Instead, imagine yourself currently at your dream B-school.

What if you could focus on one businss subject and forget the rest?

I wish I had done that. After all, when you join a company, you really just need to be good at one or two things. The rest, you learn along the way. I think most know this intuitively, and yet do not act accordingly.

Thought experiment: What would you do with your time during FY in a two-year program, if your plan was to get all you can get out of FY, and drop out SY?

What if you sat in one class all day instead of switching between four or five, and really juicing it? Talk to all of the professors on the subject matter, question everyon and everything. Form an informal club with others interested in the same thing as you are. Or, start a business while in business school. Would it be ironic to do that?

Mostly, we don't learn by osmosis. We learn something by actively using our brain through deliberate training. We read words, we articulate what we read with others, creating new neural connections. We also learn using our mirror neurons. When someone else speaks or talks, we learn.

Funny thing about learning. You can't learn how to fly a helicopter Matrix style - "Tank, I need a pilot program ... zoooop! I can fly!"

If you go to B-school with base knowledge in topic, say human capital growth, then you have an opportunity to use your time and the intellectual resources on campus (professors, colleagues, university research labs) to come out world class on that topic. In which case you are writing your own ticket. Take the long-term view to crafting something great for yourself and the world.

Alternatively, you can come out of B-school having simply attended classes and lectures with passing interest, dabbling in this and that, to which you really only devote a portion of your quarter or semester. Then, you’ll be mediocre and networking or otherwise, it won't help much with your job placement. (Check out a related post about competence and mastery.)


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David at Crater Lake National Park

A former cube dweller, writing about web products, entrepreneurship, and growth.

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