To business school or not to business school

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One of the more popular pages on this site are my ramblings about business school. How I got in, what it meant to me, and why I'm glad its over. So at times I get emails asking me whether it was worth it. Would I provide career advice?

This is a tough thing to ask, and in fact, I can't know whether b-school is right for someone without knowing much more about that person. I do, however, have an opinion about when it makes sense to go to business school. This opinion is based on typical career paths I have seen.

First though, let's have a rough run-down of the value a b-school like Stanford provides:

  • Academic learning. You do learn a lot, and most of it is useful, some of it even right away.
  • Top-notch network. You get the chance to develop a top-notch network for a faster career track.
  • Implicit validation. You get a rubber stamp on your forehead spelling out you are a chosen one.
  • Best weather in town. And you get to have some fun and in the case of Stanford get to enjoy great weather.

Now, what career paths does this match well? I think this best helps the technical person who is trying to become a manager or an entrepreneur. Before business school, I was a successful but somewhat random software researcher and developer. I lived in Boston, but being taken serious by the movers and shakers of Information Technology was difficult.

Today, I have a much better understanding of how the IT business works; I talk the talk. (And by now have walked the walk, even though I fell on my nose when first trying.) I also have a network to draw on that helped me with my first startup. The label Stanford MBA opened additional doors in places where I didn't know anyone yet. So for the engineer-turned-entrepreneur, an MBA is a fine thing.

What about all the management consultants and investment bankers that have long been the staple of admissions? I have to say I'm just not sure. Their academic return is much lower than mine. They do get to extend their network, of course, and the additional validation certainly helps. I guess for them an MBA is just an additional thing to check off. That's why so many are found more on the golf course than in the classroom. And for admissions, the career path of these applicants simply suggests a stable future cashflow to the school.

So, the typical management consultant has already demonstrated a desire for succeeding commercially, the engineer still has to prove it. Which is why the admission's engineering bin is smaller than the consultants or I-bankers bin. Which is only rational.

Would I have tried to get an MBA if I hadn't been an engineer? I guess so, the value even without much classroom learning is still quite high. The money spent early in your career will bring substantial returns over the rest of it, if what you are doing in your career actually benefits from the I listed above. But I'm not sure I would have understood that before school.

These are not new insights. In fact, admissions typically knows these career paths (and probably then some) and they assess your fit by it. But as the saying goes, "fit in, stand out" or so. Being compatible is not a problematic thing, but being like everyone else is.

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