So… I decided not to attend business school this fall. At various times during the application process, it seemed more likely than not that I would enroll. However, in recent weeks, I came to the conclusion that the better choice for me was to not go. As I move forward with the next step of my career, the only thing that is certain is that I won’t be doing so with the benefit of an MBA. Still, I’m not emerging from this process totally empty-handed.
It would have been nice to have known what I know now, before applying, but the important thing is that I reached what feels like the right decision for me, before committing two years of my life and assuming six figures of debt. Only time can tell whether I made the right decision, but all I can do is make the best decision I can, given my current circumstances and available information, and then hope and plan for the best.
To assist my decision-making process, I turned to a number of resources, including current and prospective MBA students, MBA graduates, people who never attended business school, books, magazines, blogs, online forums, YouTube and sometimes staring at the ceiling. Writing this blog and going through the business school application process itself also helped to clarify my thoughts. After a while, meaningful themes and patterns emerged, and I felt that I had enough information to frame my decision and make an informed choice.
Framing my decision
Ultimately, my decision hinged on my priorities and what my ideal life and career would look like. Without going into too much detail, I concluded that I would be most fulfilled by joining or starting a small company. So, my decision to go to school or not became: Is going to business school the best thing that I can do right now to move me closer to my goals?
Making a decision
In some ways, the answer is yes. But, in other ways, business school represents a potential limitation on my capacity to create the sort of life and career that I envision for myself, and would require real sacrifices and foregone opportunities. As I evaluated different criteria, discussed below, it became clearer to me that many of business schools’ top selling points didn’t match my own priorities.
One of the biggest reasons people go to business school is for career advancement, including a potentially bigger paycheck. More money doesn’t matter as much to me though, because I don’t actually need that much money on a day-to-day basis. Sure, the flexibility that six or more figures of income provides is nice, but I can get by on much less. If money was my goal, I would just stay in my current industry, without going back to school and incurring the opportunity cost of not working.
But, I am changing careers, because the more important thing to me is what I’m doing and why I’m doing it. If I am doing something that challenges and fulfills me, that I am engaged in and that allows me to lead a balanced life, any income beyond what I need to satisfy my basic needs doesn’t matter to me as much. So, the question is, whether going to business school will lead to the sort of opportunities that fit that criteria.
*People and Access*
Another big reason that people go to business school is for access: Access to recruiters, job and internship opportunities, alumni networks, other business leaders, and, of course, smart and accomplished classmates and professors, who will constitute a significant part of an MBA graduate’s lifelong professional and social network. For me, business school would also represent a clearer path for changing careers.
But, I don’t think that it justifies the required time, energy and money commitment for me. If I can find the kind of opportunities I’m looking for through my current network (which remains to be seen), then that offsets one of the most relevant aspects of business school for me. Also, since I’m looking for what is considered a non-traditional opportunity, I will have to do a lot of legwork myself anyway, whether or not I go to school.
The prestige and social proof of an MBA itself opens doors, but that’s another area that I can compensate for, having already received a comparable graduate degree (e.g., another masters or a J.D., M.D. or Ph.D.). If I can get my foot into the door through my current situation, then pedigree (hopefully) matters less than ability, experience and demonstrated achievement, which I might not get in school anyway. Also, one of the biggest determining factors for a post-MBA job is one’s pre-MBA job, so I might be able to leverage my existing experience to create my own opportunities.
Moreover, well over half of the reported employment placements at top schools involve a position in financial services or consulting, or at a large Fortune 500 company, which is not where I want to focus my search for opportunities. So, while business school does open doors, I don’t want to walk through many of those doors. I want to climb off the corporate ladder, not get back on it.
What I am looking for is to get a lot of hands-on learning experience, the kind that I would only get by working with others in solving real problems and creating something of value. While I certainly could use a comprehensive, structured business education on topics such as marketing, operations, finance and strategy, there are other, less-expensive means to get that education – perhaps at a local community college, through an online resource or by reading books like The Personal MBA.
Still, I learn best by doing. If I went to school though, the entire academic experience would not be focused on getting me those hands-on learning experiences. There would be some opportunities for doing that, through experiential learning classes, clubs and internships inside and outside of school, but I would also have to spend time and energy on things that are less relevant to what I want to do.
Instead, assuming I had a good team and digital business idea, I would rather participate in a startup incubator program like Y-Combinator or TechStars. Participants in those programs receive a small seed investment in their very early-stage companies, but more importantly, they receive constant mentorship and guidance, and also make very relevant connections with peers and potential investors, partners and customers.
As one interesting example, albeit not necessarily a representative one, two of the co-founders of Bump (a popular iPhone app where you exchange contacts with someone by “bumping” your phones) dropped out of Chicago Booth after their first year to build their company and enroll in Y-Combinator’s program. However, they did so only after co-winning Booth’s New Venture Challenge business plan competition in 2009.
So, business school can and does provide great value for entrepreneurs and small business owners; it’s just not the only game – or necessarily even the best game – in town.
Going to a two-year, full-time MBA program means committing to about 21 months of school – meeting people, attending classes, doing homework and group projects, searching for jobs, travelling, and trying to take advantage of all the different social and professional opportunities available. For some, it also represents a two-year vacation from working.
Since I’m ready to begin the next stage of my career now, I’d rather not have to wait two years to do so. Similar to what I said above, I also don’t want to spend too much time and energy on things that are less relevant to me, particularly since I would be in my early-30s by the time I graduate. Instead, whatever I do next, I want to hit the ground running.
Going to school would also mean that I have to uproot my life and move across the country. When I applied, I thought that I would prefer to go to school away from home, because if I’m committing this much time and energy to something, it is only worthwhile if it is special and unique. But, as much as I love New York City, I’ve lived there already, and my family, friends and existing network are mostly here.
Still, even if I had applied to and gotten into schools around here, I would have made the same decision, because the fundamental opportunities are very similar among the top schools. Making it easier to get one kind of job here versus elsewhere doesn’t really matter if I don’t ultimately want the kinds of jobs that business schools are best at providing access to.
*Taking on risk*
One of the most persuasive arguments for forgoing business school now is that I can always re-apply later, but these next few years are a unique time in my life – without a family to support, a mortgage to pay or other significant responsibilities – when I can take a risk in joining or starting a not-yet-established company and be okay if it fails. But, that flexibility only works one way.
If I went to school, my immediate career choice might be constrained by the necessity of paying off my monthly loan payments. Assuming I’d graduate with $150,000 in debt (Stern’s 2011-12 student budget times two, less ~$20K for summer and in-school earnings), payable over 10 years with an annual interest rate of 6.8%, my monthly loan payments would be over $1,700/month, which equates to ~$20,000/year. It’d be tough to support myself on a startup salary with those payments, let alone with other obligations.
Plenty of people start companies before, during or immediately after school, but I think it’d be easier to do so without enormous debt. Perhaps my next opportunity will be an unpaid internship or to start a company that isn’t profitable in its first year or so – but, even if these are the best fit for me, I might not be able to do it if I had debt to pay off.
*Leaving the deferred life plan*
With that in mind, I can easily see why I might convince myself to take a higher-paying job immediately after business school, with the plan to change jobs after I gain more experience and am more settled financially. But, I’m not getting any younger, and sooner than later, I hope to find or create work where I’m not looking at “exit options” even before starting. Why wait?
I believe I can contribute to an organization now, either by using my existing experience or by learning quickly, without needing to go to more school or first taking on a job that I don’t ultimately want. So, instead of thinking “as soon as I do X or as soon as Y happens, I will do Z,” I intend to pursue my ideal life and career now.
After spending a significant amount of my academic and professional career on jumping through hoops, doing things to “check a box” or for the sake of improving my resume, I want to do something for the sake of itself – to learn, to create something meaningful, to add something to the world.
Even if I fail, I will be able to move on, knowing that I at least tried. But, as Conan O’Brien emphasized in his recent commencement speech, “though you should not fear failure, you should do your very best to avoid it.” Agreed.
A note (among many) of caution
I want to emphasize that what is right for me might not be right for others. As you can tell from the above, my decision is specific to my particular circumstances, so I am not advocating for others to make a similar or different decision. I will say that it’s important to make a fully-informed, self-aware decision. As they say on Friday Night Lights: “clear eyes, full hearts – can’t lose!”
So where do I go from here? It seems like I’m in the same position I was about a year ago. But, there is one big difference: I now have a much better sense of what my path forward is. The road ahead will likely be winding, full of detours and dead-ends, but the hope is that, by keeping my goals as a compass, I will move increasingly closer to what I’m seeking.
Making things happen will require a lot of self-initiated effort, but I know that and am ready for it. My guiding question now is similar to how I framed my decision to go to business school. As for this blog, I’m not sure how often I will update it, but I intend to keep it as a repository for my thoughts as I take the next step in my career.
Until next time
When I created the blog, I must have known, or at least considered the possibility, that I would not be attending business school, because I deliberately avoided making the blog’s name MBA-specific. Instead, I chose a title that is rooted in the business world, particularly among startups: “just ship” means you can only plan and tinker with your product internally so much, until you reach a sufficient point where the best next step is to put it in the marketplace and improve it based on real world feedback.
As I move beyond business school, I think the blog’s title, more than ever, appropriately embodies the kind of spirit that has guided me. I also strongly believe that you have to define what “success” means to you and then pursue it as best you can, on your own terms.
As always, thanks for reading, and I wish you the very best of luck on your own journey, wherever it may lead.
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P.S. Feel free to leave a comment if you think I left something out. Maybe I forgot to mention something important, or it’s entirely possible that I didn’t consider a certain angle. Also, feel free to leave any other thoughts, questions, other feedback or any interesting job or internship opportunities – particularly on the West Coast – below. Thanks!