Why do an MBA?

An MBA is often a reasonable way for scientists to enter a business role. Through focused financial, leadership, and management training, people with technical backgrounds gain the skills and network necessary for this career transition.

An MBA is unique in that it isn't required for any position. Unlike an MD, PhD, JD, etc, where employers have strict requirements for degrees and certifications, an MBA isn't a must-have in many cases. For example, you would never see a surgeon without an MD and would rarely see a principle investigator without a doctorate. However, you've probably seen many CEOs without an MBA. Especially for biotechs - many of these companies have founders or leaders with technical doctorates and no MBA.

So why do people need an MBA? Considering an MBA, with living expenses included, costs about $150,000. Add in 2 years of missed wages and that bumps the cost up to at least $250,000. If you're a scientist, chances are good that your company (or more often, an academic institution) wouldn't pay for your MBA. Wouldn't it be a good idea to figure out why you need something before dropping a quarter of a million dollars on it?

Schools care too. Because admission to top programs are quite competitive, they need to make sure people they give offers to are committed to a career transition and would most likely utilize their resources. Furthermore, they want graduates who can find jobs after 2 years so they can keep their stats looking good. A strong reason for why you need an MBA gives schools reasonable confidence that you will find a job after graduating.

As you can imagine, scientists, being non-traditional applicants, will need to be extra clear on why they need an MBA to make the career switch. It's tricky because scientists know what it takes to get into a good MD or PhD program but probably not an MBA program. Compared to someone who graduated in economics and worked at a management consulting firm for 3 years, the burden of proof lies upon us to prove we absolutely need the MBA.

For those interested in applying to MBA programs, most schools ask the question, "why MBA?" in their application essays. It's important to keep in mind that the answer to this question is unique to everyone and especially unique for scientists. 

What inspired you to commit to business rather than continue in science? What past experiences have you had that makes you confident in this decision? There are no cookie-cutter answers. However, here are some generic reasons a scientist needs the MBA, just to get the thinking process started:

1. You want to re-brand yourself with the school and degree. Say you're a first time entrepreneur and need funding to finance your new company.. It's going to be hard convincing investors to give you money if all you have is a science background. An MBA from a leading business school will make investors treat you seriously or at least get you in the door. Companies also frequently hire MBAs. Seeing the degree, they can be confident that you've gotten the skills to succeed in a business role.

2. You need the training for your next position. MBA programs teach leadership, management, and offer tons of experential learning opportunities through internships. Furthermore, many leading firms have feeder programs for MBA graduates, such as rotational training programs that require applicants to be recent MBA graduates. Many internships offered by companies also require people to be enrolled in MBA programs.

Here are two ways to show you definitely don't need the training. On one extreme, you've founded a company, raised $10 million and sold the company. Schools will scratch their heads wondering why you need an MBA. On the opposite extreme, you've been in the lab for 10 years. You work alone and have never managed anyone. Schools will also question whether you're sure you need the MBA.

3. You need the network to succeed. Going back to the entrepreneur example in #1.. you need money but don't know any investors. After graduating from an MBA program, you open your phone's contact book and call your classmate who now works at a VC firm. Or you email an alum, who is heading a corporate venture fund, for a meeting. Networking-going to parties, meet-the-firm nights and other events-is a huge component of an MBA program. If talking and sharing energizes you, and you're always looking for meetups or conferences to meet new people, then that's a sign that an MBA program would be a good choice.

To sum it up in an easy way, think back to basic chemistry. What role do you want 5 years from now? 10 years from now? If you were the substrate and an MBA was an enzyme, would it catalyze that reaction?