Should you get an MBA or an industry position?

Please note: this post was written back in 2013 when I just started my MBA. I'll update this again later as now have more insights to share as an MBA student. In addition, the original target audience for this post are scientists, although general principles will apply to all backgrounds.

With the scarcity in academic job openings, many, if not most, life sciences professionals are considering industry positions. This was definitely the prevailing sentiment at the 2013 NIH career symposium. A commonly asked question at these events is, "should I pursue an MBA to enhance my resume, or should I just try to find a job at a company?"

This is obviously a hard question to answer - without knowing the individual background and career goals of the person. Even so, individual circumstances differ, and there is no one-size-fits-all answer. Therefore, I've offered a few things to consider for people when exploring this topic:

1. Are you sure about your decision?

An MBA is expensive and it will be 2 years of your life. Applying to an MBA program requires at least some certainty with what you want to do in your career. While many people change their career goals during an MBA program, a business-related role is somewhat set as the final result. So if you aren't 100% sure that this is the path you want to take, then it may make more sense to work in an industry setting to see what specific role in a company you want to fulfill.

2. Value of MBA is life-long

Most people view an MBA as a stepping stone to a next job. While top MBA programs do serve as feeders to companies and boast high placement percentages for graduates, the value of the degree extends beyond the first job. The robust alumni networks of top schools are a life-long resource. Many of the leadership and management training build intangible decision making and analytical skills that may show their full value later in one's career. It pays to think ahead when choosing an MBA program and incorporating the degree in one's career path. 

3. Work experience vs more education

One benefit of an MBA program is the summer internship after the first year. It allows for on-the-job training and often turns into a full-time position after graduation. This solves one of the frustrations of grad students and post-docs - the steep experience requirements of many non-bench industry positions that are hard to get without already being in the position (the chicken-egg problem).

However, most of the MBA is still in the classroom. Many life sciences professionals already have master's and doctorate degrees and the thought of another 3-letter suffix after their names may not be very appealing. Furthermore, many of the skills that are taught in an MBA program may be learned to an extent in the workplace. Taking an accounting course at the local university and joining a leadership committee at work may be sufficient to move into a business-related role in a few years. There are plenty examples of company leadership who have technical backgrounds without MBAs.

Previous professional experience still dictates the type of work MBA graduates get hired into. As such, MBA students with science backgrounds still need to work extra hard to obtain management experience at a company during the 2 years of the program. Therefore, an MBA degree isn't an automatic entry ticket into a manager position.

4. Application process

The application process of an MBA program mirrors that of a job application. For example, MBA applicants need to prove their determination for the career switch with past management and leadership experience. Resumes, personal statements, letters of reference need to be prepared and the entire process may take up to a year if you include informational interviews, MBA fairs, school visits, etc. This is very similar to what a job applicant would do, such as attending conferences, networking at social events, and so on. The GMAT, while very similar to the GRE, may still require at least 1-2 months of dedicated studying after work and on weekends.

There seems to be still a mentality that the MBA is another tick off the list when applying for a business position. This really isn't true - as there is abundant evidence that most positions are obtained through networking. Similarly, success in applying to an MBA program also requires heavy networking. So when you think of it, applying to an MBA program is very much like applying for a job. Why not do both and consider the options?

5. MBA vs personal R&D

I can't remember where I heard of the term, "personal R&D," but it stuck with me. It means to dedicate personal time to professional development. Activities would include auditing classes part-time, volunteering for local business conferences, conducting informational interviews, and attending or even hosting events for local organizations. All of these things can help you get into a business position with a life sciences background. Doctorate degrees holders who have such drive and multi-disciplinary skills are especially coveted by firms. My suggestion would be to carefully plan out one year's worth of personal R&D activities and see where it takes you.


  1. I'm currently a post doc looking for an industry position or consulting roles.. what do you suggest to make the transition?

    1. 1. Start following the business side of the industry. There are many resources on this blog that can help you get started.

      2. If you want to get into consulting, start doing casing and seek leadership roles in your current position. Join the consulting club at your university, and attend networking events. Some consulting firms hire PhDs directly for their analytical skills and domain expertise.

      3. Concurrently, you can start applying for industry positions, although it will most likely be scientific roles. This is okay, as you can gain a lot of leadership development in these roles and make a transition down the road.

      4. You may want to consider an MBA as they serve as pipelines for commercial and consulting roles. It's a faster transition, but you'd have to consider your career goals first.

    2. Thanks for your reply

  2. Hi, Steven, It is very helpful to read your blog and learn from you. I am currently a bioengineering Ph.D students approaching graduation. I have done some projects for some orthopedic companies in my PhD study and have been interested in the medical device industry. I am looking for jobs now. As I am a Chinese and I believe the medical device industry in China is an appealing place where I want to working on for my future career (probably after 5-10 years). My current goal is to learn and gain some experience in US first and find a management related job in the China when there is good chance in the future. I want to make a transition from the engineering world to business world in the future although I know my first job probably may still be related to engineering part based on my previous experience. Do you have some suggestions? Thank you.

    1. Hey! Thanks for your comment. Because you are finishing your PhD, your first job will most likely be in engineering as you said. Bioengineering should give you quite a few options - I'd definitely look in biopharma and mid to large medical device firms. However, if you're looking to gain business exposure, the smaller the firm the better. This way it's likely you can gain some functional business expertise in a relatively sort period of time. On the flip side, you'll have a much larger network if you work for a larger firm and more experience working on a variety of products and working in a matrixed environment. You can also try startups, although you may run into issues with visa sponsorship. If you want general management experience, I'd avoid consulting and VC firms. Ultimately, it depends on what you want to do long term.

      Good luck with the recruiting. Right now, I'd focus on networking as much as you can while wrapping up your PhD and doing some volunteering on the side if you have the time. This will help out during interviews and will allow you to showcase your leadership skills. Getting a position after school is mostly about networking. You can leverage the network of the PIs in your department and previous graduates, as well as the alumni base in your school. Be active in setting up informational interviews. This all takes a lot of time, so it's good that you're starting early. The fact that you've done some work with companies during your PhD is great and would be a great place to start.

      In addition, I'd take some time each day to read about the industry. This will help you not only during networking/interviews but also help you determine what companies and industries are doing well. Since you're long term goals are in devices in China, doing the research now will help you plan for the transition later. There have been a lot of M&A activity going on in devices in China and it is an exciting time.

      Hope this helps, and let me know if you have further questions.

  3. Hi, Steven. Thank you for your reply and helpful suggestions. It is so exciting and encouraging to know people like you who is enthusiastic about the same industry as me and can generously offer your precious advises.

    While I am looking for jobs these days, I have a feeling that if I could start earlier planning for my career, I would have a clear career path now. Hope it is not too late to start now. I also feel it's an exciting thing to plan for my future and I think it is because of the unknown possibilities of the future. This is also a good opportunity for me to know myself better and to explore and activate my potential.

    Meanwhile, I do have some questions need your opinion:
    1.What do you think a healthcare consulting job in a firm? what is its future path? Does it need a lot of finance knowledge?
    2. Have you followed the innovation and research center established by US companies in China. In my research area (orthopedic implants), only medtronic and j&j have such research centers in China. What do you think the future trend? will there be more? I am following this because I think it might be a good point for me if i return to China in the future.

    Thank you again for your help. Hope everything good with your study and work.

    1. Hey again, thanks for the comment.

      1. Health care consulting is something that can lead to a lot of options. You are exposed to a variety of different stake holders in the industry and gain good breadth. Many folks stay consultants, start their own firms, or move into a big company. It does not require a lot of finance knowledge, you need to know the fundamentals of business, such as accounting, financial reporting, economics, strategy, marketing etc. You don't need to be an expert, but you need to have a sense of how businesses are run (they will be your clients, ultimately). It requires you to be good at Excel, Powerpoint, and some basic modeling. Since you are a bioengineer, consulting companies will hire you for your analytical skills and domain expertise. You just need to demonstrate your thinking and communication through case interviews and show you have leadership potential. You can learn more about specific firms and roles through networking. Some scientists are able to land consulting roles right out of the PhD or after a post doc.

      2. I'm not as familiar with devices in China as I am drugs. China is a unique market with a complex IP and reimbursement situation - I'd recommend reading anything you can find that is written in English, but also speak to people in China who are in the industry. White papers from the leading consulting firms are a good start, but because things are changing so fast you definitely want to talk to people who are currently leaders in companies as well.

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