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MBA: pros and cons

November 17, 2013

in life, MBA

It’s been three months already and I think I’m ready to summarize my first thoughts and impressions about MBA. It will be interesting too see how different they are going to be down the road. People usually say that both stress and excitement are high in the beginning, as on one hand you don’t know what to focus on, but on the other hand everything is new and seems interesting.

So, the table below is the summary of my reflections. Almost all bullet-points have a flip-side, keep it in mind. For example, tough selection process results in great classmates that you want to be around. So, the table is divided into two parts.

2013 08 21 09.58.34 MBA: pros and cons

1. Things you might like about MBA

  • New life. Broadly speaking, it’s a new life as you will likely change everything from country to your social circle .
  • Opportunities. Chance to change geography, job function and industry. This is probably the most important one.
  • Self-development. Chance to try different new things and discover what you should be doing.
  • Career. Although you’re taking a break from your work, you are not going to Thailand for a year or study philosophy in some random university. MBA actually increases your value as a professional. 
  • People. You will probably meet more young, smart and energetic people than ever in your life. And these are the people you will spend time, exchange ideas, learn from and work with. 
  • Learning. Knowledge that has intrinsic value by itself.
  • Practicality and applicability. Although there will be a lot of numbers and formulas that you’ll need to digest, everything is presented in a practical, not theoretical frame.  
  • Language practice. Obviously, you will get a lot of practice if you go abroad.
  • Serendipity, unpredictable coincidences. All those connections, projects and conversations that would not have happened otherwise if you had stayed at your job and in your familiar circle. I think this is one of the most important things as well. I’d like to believe that the real value is hidden and you will only be able to connect the dots later on.
2. Things you might not like about MBA

  • Immense time investment. You will have to spend a lot time even to get a small chance to get admitted in a top school:
    • In my Berkeley-Haas, for example, class is smaller than usual that further increases competition. In total there are about 4500+ applications competing for only 240 spots.
    • In reality, you also compete with people from your country of origin. And if you know that on average there are only one or two people who get admitted from it, you might realize that actually you need to somehow be better than all the other people applying from same location. 
    • Also, as it is often easier for people from top consulting or banks to get in. So, as me, you are coming from different background, it might be even more challenging. For example, out of five people from Russia admitted to Berkeley-Haas in 2013, three were ex-Mckinsey employees…
    • Here are some interesting stats from our admissions team. 80% with GMAT score of 750 or higher got rejected. If you don’t know anything about GMAT, 750 is 98th percentile.  In other words, only 2% of people get score that is that high. Probably, it is even less common among internationals as GMAT not only requires great quant skills, but also excellent verbal skills that are, of course, tested in English.
    • Pure chance. Psychologically it might be the worst thing that nothing is guaranteed and even after spending all the time, most of the applicants still got rejected.
    • The timeline is very long. You should apply with full package of all the necessary documents, essays, recommendation letters and test results about one year before actual studying begins. And you would typically start preparation many months earlier.
  • Immense financial cost. It just costs a lot. So, unless you are already a millionaire (are you really sure you need this degree?), you will need to save money, apply to whole range of scholarships and fellowships, talk to FinAid and get into debt to be repaid during next 25 years by borrowing money form a bank.
  • Immense opportunity cost. If you really think of it there is an unlimited number of ways you can spend two years if you assume that you are ready to spend the same money and leave your job. This is especially true nowadays, as the world is so dynamic and two years is a relatively long time. You might try launching your own business with this resource, for example. Or you can sail the oceans for two years… Or if you stayed at your job, you might get promoted. You would also be getting paid the whole time. Also, despite all the practicality and all the project work during MBA, learning is still a more passive process than actually doing something, trying to launch your own business, for example.
  • High risk. MBA might be very uncomfortable for risk-averse people who don’t really like to jump off the cliff and without fully understanding how parachute actually works.
  • Limited flexibility. When you learn by yourself, using books or Internet, you can do it on your own schedule, you can skip irrelevant lectures, re-watch you did not understand and take only those tests that you think are worth taking. When you are enrolled in university on the other hand, many things are predetermined for you, from schedule to various requirements, such as being physically present in class, for example. Some flexibility and opportunities for customization are provided via elective courses that you chose yourself, but there are certain limitations as well.
  • Lack of time. I often have triple overlaps in my calendar.  And I only add pre-selected, relevant to my specific goals event to my calendar… Here is another example. When I started drafting this post it started with “it’s been a week”, than it changed “it’s been three weeks” and now “it’s been three months”… Blog is certainly not the first priority.
  • Student role you’re unaccustomed to. It might be uncomfortable to be a student again, especially after years of working as a manager. Of course, the attitude towards graduate students are different than towards undergrads as the average age is 27 years. But you are still a student and there are certain expectations and requirements you’ll need to comply with. For example, required attendance and strict policies around homework assignments.
  • Learning familiar things. 
    • “Soft” courses, such as leadership, are often based on popular psychology books by such writers as Malcolm Gladwell, Daniel Pink, Daniel Kahneman and others. So, you’ll spend a lot of time discussing cognitive biases and similar things. And you might get somewhat bored if you followed these topics yourself before. However, facilitated practice of certain things with other students can be really worthwhile.
    • Some people, for example the ones with strong financial background might find “hard” courses, such as finance less useful. But in this case, you might waive a course and take an elective instead.
    • In overall, if you studied economics as an undergrad and/or worked as a manager or analyst in corporate environment, you will find many things familiar. It’s not like learning neuroscience or urban planning that you have no knowledge about. This is a part of a separate discussion though.
  • Being offline.  Use of electronics is usually restricted during classes to maximize engagement and participation. So, you spend a significant portion of your day offline. It might a drawback if, for example, you’re managing your business remotely and want to be able to react quickly to various issues.
  • Getting disconnected from your previous field. As you’re immersing yourself in wider range of topics, you are getting at least partially disconnected from your narrow field. It can be a disadvantage if you are planning to get back to the same industry/function after graduation and your field is very dynamic and requires one to stay on top of all the innovations. But it’s very person/situation specific, of course.
  • Visas. It’s the US-specific and only relevant for international students who married. You’re going to get F1 student visa and you wife is going to get F2 dependent visa. It means that she will not be able to work.
  • Worthless courses. No matter how good the school you get into and how accomplished the professors are, some classes will turn out to be a waste of time. And money. A lot of time and money. But if it is a core course, you will still need to attend it.

3. Things you might like or dislike about MBA depending on your perspective

  • Share of international students. In most schools share of international students is only about 1/3. I personally would prefer a higher percentage as it would create more diversity and probably add more insights and different perspectives to in-class discussions. On the other hand, I heard that one of the drawbacks of having a lot of international students in such schools as LBS and INSEAD is the fact that you will be most listening to and learning less-than-perfect English.
  • Competition.
    • As a consequence of previous point, you need to be ready to compete with people who spend their whole life in a given country, speak perfect English and know all the nuances of educational system and hiring processes.
    • Even if people always told you that your English is perfect, be ready to sound much less convincing and engaging than natives. You can easily hear the difference in in-class comments made by internationals and natives
    • In overall, high level of students. You thought you are comfortable using technology? Think again. You thought you work quickly with Excel? Think again. You get the point.
  • Country and particular location within country. This is a very important factor that are somewhat underplayed I think. After all, you will spend at least a year or two living in this location. And maybe you will stay. It affects a lot of things. For example, whether companies of your interest are nearby. Or whether you actually enjoy living there in terms of culture and place. Some people prefer quiet small places, some people only want to live in Manhattan.

Hope, it gave you some insights and provided additional food for thought. And don’t just count the number of bullet points, obviously the weights are very different.

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  • Svyatoslav Kovtunenko

    The amount of minuses exceeds the amount of plusses :) But I know how you feel – this year I entered the university after more than 5 years of working. It is tough, but I think it worth it!

    • http://zze.st Maxim

      Yeah, don’t judge by the number. Most of the “cons” are minor and most of “pros” are major. That’s what I meant by “weights”. :)

  • Filip

    Hi Max, good blog, thanks for the insights. I have two questions for you: 1) Are there any engineers/technical people in class without a financial/management background? How did they get admitted 2) What are ex-McK employees doing in an MBA programme? I’d think that it’s redundant for them or at least that an MBA is not essential for their background and references.

    • http://zze.st Maxim

      HI Filip,

      1. Yes, there are. Electrical engineers, software engineers, etc. However, majority has at least some background in business/mgt/finance/economics.
      Criteria for admissions is the same for everyone. GMAT scores, cultural fit to school, career success and extracurricular activities. For school-specific criteria, research schools’ websites.
      Technical people would probably need to explain better why they are interested in switching and what is their specific plan, but aside from that it’s all the same.
      2. Most of them need an MBA to be promoted to an Associate role. Also, McK usually pays for tuition.

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