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Each month when I make a payment on the student loan I took out to get an M.B.A. degree, I wonder if going to graduate business school was the right decision. My wife and I are struggling to raise two small children, and I think about what we could do with the money if we weren't making the loan payment. I think, too, about all the money I could have earned if I had attended school part time instead of full time. Perhaps the way I attended was wrong, too.
I feel certain that I blew it when I read the advice of personal-finance columnists. They nearly always say to not give up your job or income entirely. After reading their suggestions, I tell myself I should have kept working and forgone the degree. But I resent these experts, because they also say that having children isn't a wise financial strategy. Clearly, we have different values.
At any rate, here's my full accounting of why I went to b-school, why I attended full time, what I expected from the degree, what I got, and how this decision has affected my life.
Why I Went
When I decided I wanted to get an M.B.A., I simply was ready for a change -- a big one. My career had consisted of a series of mildly related jobs and then self-employment. When I sought work, most employers couldn't figure out what I was qualified to do, and I wasn't interested in the jobs that seemed most obvious for me. I wanted a break from working for myself.
Attending graduate school had been a goal of mine, but I didn't know what to study. I wanted to show I was smarter than my mediocre undergraduate grade-point-average would indicate. My grades had suffered due to my overinvolvement in extracurricular activities (only some of which involved alcohol -- really!). I wanted to prove I could shine academically. One day, it struck me. I loved business. I would go to business school. Funny thing, my future earnings potential wasn't a factor in my decision.
Full Time vs. Part Time
My biggest concern about attending graduate business school was a seeming lack of aptitude for numbers. Would I be able to handle quantitative work? Since my goals were to learn as much as I could and to be successful academically, I thought attending full time would be best. My wife and I were ready for the adventure, so, with her blessing, full time it was.
A few months into school, I was glad I made this choice. I could see that the part-timers weren't getting as much out of the program as we full-timers. We took the same classes, but they were less present. They were often tired and unfocused. On teams, they were less valuable than the full-timers, regardless of their age or experience. They were busy trying to survive going to school while holding down a job, not maximize their learning.
I was less prescient on the financial side. While I had qualified for an academic scholarship, that didn't mean I had brains enough to recognize that living and opportunity costs would be such big drains. (Actually, I probably ignored these issues so the decision would be easier. From a purely financial standpoint, it might not have been justifiable.) So, by graduation, I was $55,000 in debt, and we had little savings. Debt, like body weight, is best managed preventatively; it's easier to never put it on than it is to take it off. We didn't sacrifice much while I was in school. Perhaps we should have.
I expect to be paying off this debt until 2011. Still, bottom line, I'm glad I went full time. Although I hate making those loan payments, it was probably a wise financial decision. I earned twice as much in my first job after business school as I'd earned in my most recent salaried position before b-school. Unless I decide to give up business and make pottery, getting the degree should continue to make sense financially.
What I Expected
I expected the M.B.A. to compensate for gaps in my experience and allow me to compete for senior-management opportunities. I also thought my opinions would be more respected and have more clout and that I'd grow a lot. I'd learn new things, integrate them with what I already knew and confirm many business assumptions. This would give me new confidence. When competing for jobs or business, I wouldn't have to fear competitors who'd worked for big companies.
I thought an M.B.A. would make me more marketable because potential employers would see a link between my skills, abilities and potential. Finally, as a result of these gains, I expected to have more earning power.
All these expectations were realized. I would not have been considered for my first two post-M.B.A. jobs without the degree. Many equally gifted yet less educated people are stuck in lesser jobs because they're not perceived as executive material, while I've landed two executive jobs without having executive experience. There's no doubt that I'm more marketable and can generate a higher salary now. (One caveat: Personal traits like charm and experience figure heavily in post-M.B.A. success. If you're a troll before you get an M.B.A., you won't be Jack Welch after graduation -- you'll be a troll with an M.B.A.)
Where my degree has paid off most is in problem solving and critical thinking. My analytical and problem-solving abilities are so improved that my pre-M.B.A. approach seems laughable by comparison. I had been a voracious reader of business books prior to b-school, but reading clearly isn't a substitute for classroom interaction, for me, at least.
In fact, I'm shocked by how few businesspeople know how to think critically. Those with sound, well-structured analytic ability often don't know or can't apply specific business tools or methods to the situation. It's one thing to read about a technique and another thing to be able to apply it.
What I Didn't Expect
Since I always thought of myself as a Renaissance man, I'm startled when people believe I'm capable of performing in some select, specific capacities simply because I have an M.B.A. I suppose career evolution requires some specialization, but being pigeonholed in this way makes me uncomfortable. It once amused me to learn that some academics delete their Ph.D.s from their resumes so employers will hire them. Now I understand. Specialization is empowering only to the extent that it doesn't trap you. I'm thankful that business skills are transferable. What if I had an medical degree and wanted to switch fields? Some doctors I know feel totally stuck and believe they will never do anything but practice medicine.
I didn't expect that business executives' luster would fade as the country learned about corporate scandals, executive greed and excesses, and gross mismanagement. To make matters worse, recent research suggests that the best leaders aren't flashy, theatrical charismatics, such as Jack Welch or Lee Iacocca, whom I aspire to emulate, but rather the boring, methodical bean counters whom I don't admire (I can't even name one because they're so anonymous). I joined the M.B.A. ranks, in no small part, for the limelight.
I also didn't think the market for M.B.A.s would cool. I got my degree when the demand curve was peaking; my value has fallen with that curve. I wonder what the next hot degree will be.
Finally, I didn't expect to feel animosity from others or to feel embarrassed personally for being more educated, or to be perceived as arrogant because I have an advanced degree and am confident about my thinking and reasoning.
So Was It Worth It?
One reason I wrote this column is because so many people believe that going to b-school for an M.B.A. is primarily an economic decision. I don't agree. I think you should get an M.B.A. because you want to.
I also have not seen many articles about how M.B.A.s feel about their degrees 10 or 20 years later. I'm glad to say that most days, I think it was a good decision for me. I really enjoyed b-school, and I graduated with high honors. I realized all my expectations. In the big picture, the things I didn't expect are less important.
And, most importantly, I discovered I can assimilate new information quickly, even when it's coming from a fire hose, and that I can compete quantitatively with most people. This gives me a deep and secure confidence in my ability to tackle any business problem, and that's priceless.
-- Jack Thomas is the pen name of a 40-something C-level executive.
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