Everyone goes through a bit of an identity crisis in their twenties. In college, we all enjoyed the luxury of ignorance and optimism. The contestants on The Apprentice
seem to be making it big, so why can't we? Unfortunately, once we finally make it into the real-life workforce, those dreams are quickly dashed by the corporate machine. As anyone at the bottom of the corporate ladder can tell you, the first few years of a business career will most likely resemble the movies "Office Space" or "Harold and Kumar Go To White Castle". Career promotion and salary increases often occurs at a snail's pace, and the level of intellectual stimulation is far lower than experienced in school.
After a few years of such ennui, when our defenses are down because of drinking and depression, many young professionals fall victim to the siren's song of an MBA-- and such a temptation is understandable. The graduate business programs of Harvard, Wharton, and Stanford reported in their 2003 career placement statistics that the starting median compensations were $106,000, $115,000, $120,000 respectively. In addition, they offer the opportunity to join a fraternity of future business leaders, to learn the skills necessary to succeed, to earn a valuable resume pedigree, to enter into an elite recruiting pool, and to take a two-year break from the rat race. They prop up examples like Donald Trump and George W Bush as examples of how an MBA program is the first step in becoming a master of the universe. What mortal can resist such a temptation?
I know this because I was in the same boat five years ago. Needless to say, I took the plunge and enrolled in Wharton's MBA program, class of 2002. Based on my experiences, I would like to take the chance in this article to provide an insiders perspective on the common misconceptions of the big name MBA experience. I feel the responsiblity to share this knowledge with you because I feel that biz-school marketing materials make a lot of claims: some of them are true, and some of them are, shall we say, half-truths.
First, let's start with the true statements.True Statement #1: The People
One benefit of attending a top MBA program is that you will meet many brilliant, interesting, fantastic people just like you. You will quickly make friends, and you will discover many people of unfamiliar cliques, castes or countries whom you normally would never speak to but actually turn out to be fascinating individuals. As a graduate myself, I can tell you that I met several of my dearest friends at Wharton. I can also assure you that I'm not the only one who feels this way. Every top-MBA program grad I ever speak with will invariably wax poetic about the wonderful people they met in their business school years.True Statement #2: Two More Years Of College
Who wouldn't want another two years of college now that you know how to appreciate it? This point should be obvious, so I won't delve into details. Instead, here's a list of some collegiate perks that most people would love to revisit: Fridays off, high concentration of single men/women, parties, time to pursue hobbies, a chance to pursue an activity you never did in college (journalism, theater, singing, etc), elective courses, spring break... and the list goes on.****
Now let's move on to the half-truthsHalf Truth #1: Money
The myth of the six-figure-plus salary for an MBA graduate seems to be emblazoned into the collective unconscious. Every MBA website mentions it, the Business Week and US News and World Report articles report on it, and every watercooler kibbitzing session on the topic of the MBA invariably broaches it. This six-figure salary is often much higher than that of your typical MBA applicant. The Graduate Management Admissions Council estimates that an MBA degree provides an increase of 35% in salary pre and post MBA.
These rumors, conjectures, and statistics provide a quite alluring draw, so let's explore them a bit. In all fairness, there are many individuals who receive high salaries upon graduation. My colleagues who have pursued the finance and consulting paths have amassed quite a respectable quantity of what the Notorious BIG refers to as "paper". One of my friends working in finance even managed to pull down a $500,000 bonus in 2003. Enough said.
Unfortunately, however, there is a flip side. Median compensation numbers are inflated a bit since the schools only release statistics on self-reported
information, and not all graduates reply to the survey. For example, the $115,000 median income from the most recent Wharton career report is the average of the 600 respondents, not of the 778 graduates. This disconnect introduces what statisticians refer to as a "non-response bias", meaning that when it comes to reporting something as ego-sensitive as compensation, people receiving low salaries are unlikely to respond. Such a bias implies that the true
average compensation is probably somewhat lower. To give a real world example, I personally chose not to reveal my salary information to the Career Management office because I felt slightly emasculated in admitting to my relatively meager remuneration.
Secondly, one must beware of what I refer to as the "Keanu Reeves Factor" (in homage to his riveting performance in A Devil's Advocate
). The Keanu Reeves factor dictates that in order to earn these six-figure salaries, one typically needs to land a job in investment banking or management consulting where one must sell one's soul to the devil. This underworld reference is not intended to refer to the "insert-your-favorite-corporate-crook-here" MBA graduates of yesteryear, but rather to the infernal quality of life that entry level consulants and investment bankers lead. The hours are really, really, long and you completely surrender control over your life. A good friend of mine at a major investment bank said it best in a recent informal interview, "It sucks even worse than people say it sucks."
Thirdly (if that's actually a word), the return on investment might not be as high as you might think. If you will excuse the irony of using a concept learned in business school to refute the value of business school, please consider the following example:
Assume that the Graduate Management Admissions council is correct and that an MBA engenders a 35% salary increase. Also assume that the $115K salary is correct. If one were to take into account the changes in marginal tax rates, the years of lost income, et cetera, the change in Net Present Value for your ten years after business school would be -$53,000. This figure is primarily driven by the fact that the student loan repayments for such a hefty sum would have to be a staggering, non-tax deductible $1,500/ month (assuming a 10 year repayment period). Put into more simplistic terms, if one were to leave an $85K/year job today for the hope of getting a $115K/year job two years from now, your net yearly take-home pay (after loan repayments) will be actually be lower
than if you simply stay put for the first several years. You won't even break even until about twelve years from now.
Please refer to my link
for further explanation.
In summary, the possiblity of a significant salary increase do exist for MBA graduates, however that gamble comes with a hefty price. Could that money perhaps be spent better somewhere else? How about saving or investing the money? Or perhaps even investing it in a business of your own?Half Truth #2: A Chance To Re-Invent Oneself
Perhaps with a teenager's ignorance, you began on a path that has led you to a less-than-ideal career. Maybe a major in sociology seemed like a good idea at the time, but now you've awaken to discover that your job as a social worker just isn't as rewarding as you thought it may be. Well, it just so happens that business schools love to woo people like you. They will herald you in the literature as coming from a "non-traditional background". I'm sure if you log onto any MBA website there will be a testimonial from the proverbial Cinderella who was radically transformed from an art curator into an investment banking tycoon.
Such an opportunity does exist, however there is a flip side-- namely that, as Napoleon Dynamite might say, "Sweet companies only want guys with skills", meaning that an employer will typically only hire the candidate with the most complete portfolio of job-related experience available. As a result, non-traditional candidates often lose out on a finance position (for example) to those with more finance or industry-specific related accomplishments on their resume.
MBA programs do offer the opportunity to gain some of these skills through internships, classes, clubs, etc, however let the buyer beware that if you are looking to re-invent yourself, you may be in for an uphill climb.Half Truth #3: Pedigree
I won't lie, having the words Wharton MBA graduate on my resume looks nice. I have played the card sucessfully in promotion discussions, to the tune of "I have a Wharton MBA so surely I'm qualified to take on more strategic responsibility", and my company has enjoyed playing the same card in client discussions, singing paeans like "we're putting a Wharton MBA on your account so you needn't worry".
The only caveat here is that the pedigree is often not enough. Any corporate decision related to hiring, promotion, compensation et cetera will usually be based on either merit, personal charm, politics, physical appearance, and nepotism first. Pedigree comes second. It break a tie, but that's about it. In order to make it in the business world you have to know the right people, walk the walk, talk the talk, and fight like hell. These rules don't change with a fancy degree. Trust me.****
In conclusion, my been-there-done-that experience has taught me that a top MBA program provide some benefits, but at a steep price. If you are currently considering attending a full-time program, please stop to ask yourself whether or not you are willing to take the risk. Business school is a big risk. Should you choose to enroll, the only certainty is that you will
shell out about $125,000. Such a figure correllates to a $1,500/month non-deductible loan repayment and a ten-year period of time in which you will not be able to save a red cent. If you think that this payment is worth it to earn the pedigree, the fraternity, the two years off, and a shot at the big bucks, then the MBA is right for you.
If not, please do something else.