Is Getting An MBA Worth It?

Yes, that age-old question: is the $120,000 MBA worth it? Successful business people have both advocated and renounced the degree for reasons you've probably already read or heard about. Now that I'm almost done with my MBA, I figured it would be a good time to start thinking about this question. After all, any investor would want to know what return their getting on their investments. Education should be no different.

The MBA Means A Million Different Things

I'll skip the basic stuff, such as how the MBA is unique since it's a professional degree that isn't really required for any position, and that the full-time MBA lasts two years, typically with an internship sandwhiched in between.

One of my observations so far is that the MBA is actually something completely different for everyone. It's basically like an amusement park. It's filled with fun things to do, but there's no requirement that you do everything or do anything in a predetermined regimen. Therefore, the MBA means a million different things to a million different people. Think of it less as a degree, but more like an experience.

People also enter the degree at different stages in their careers. In my Duke Fuqua MBA class, we have folks ranging from those in their early twenties to those in their late thirties. Some people enter with only 2-3 years of work experience, and some have over 10 years (although the average is about 5 years). In addition, MBA students pursue careers in a variety of industries and functions, no longer just focused on banking & consulting.

Diversity is really what you feel you're surrounded by when you're in one of these MBA programs. Contrast that to a degree such as an MD or a JD, which have relatively focused career paths and students at similar stages of their careers. Kudos to the administrative leadership and faculty of MBA programs for being able to manage this diversity.

How You Measure Worth is Important

Everyone measures worth differently - combined with the aforementioned inherent diversity in MBA programs, and you can see why a debate exists on the value of the MBA. If you want to be a doctor and practice in the United States, by law you need an MD degree, along with other requirements. However, if you wanted to run or launch a business, you do not need the MBA degree, or any degree for that matter.

The MBA will certainly help, though. And how much you're willing to pay for that help determines whether the MBA is worth it. That's really what you need to answer to see if you should do the MBA.

The MBA Offers the Following:

1) Help you build leadership skills in a structured way.

"Structured" is the key word here. There are lots of different ways to build leadership skills, and many would argue that doing that on the job is a really good way, and I'd agree. However, the leadership learning is particularly powerful in the MBA and can be a big booster. The disciplined cycle of repeated lecturing, practicing, reflecting, and discussing of leadership is incredibly effective. On the job, leadership training is heavily focused on practicing, and if time permits, reflecting. There's been good empirical work on leadership in recent years, and the more academic classroom lectures and discussions are surprisingly valuable. The MBA also offers a much heavier dose of reflection, which I'd argue is a key step in leadership development.

Companies hire MBAs for their leadership potential. There's no better way to signal you care about your leadership development than to do an MBA.

2) The MBA helps you build professional connections.

Most would agree that getting things done is easier when you know people. However, folks in their twenties or early thirties are still growing their professional networks, and if you're like me, your network has been limited to the industry or function that you were in. The MBA changes this. By going through an MBA program, you gain access to a very diverse alumni base that spans pretty much every industry and function. This is valuable if you want to change industries and also if you're interested in starting a company in the future. Students quickly find that alumni are very involved, from recruiting to offering career advice.

Another benefit that is less heard of is that if you're an MBA, you'll also gain credibility from students at other peer schools. During the internship and various other MBA-specific events, you'll likely meet lots of students from other schools. There is definitely a sense of comradery among students from different schools as we all have to go through the same challenges during the MBA.

3) The MBA can get you into a typical post-MBA position.

Such as banking, consulting, and corporate roles that include marketing, finance, operations, and strategy. Leading MBA programs all have established recruiting relationships with the big firms and programs are set up so that they are aligned with the recruiting schedules of companies. Many of the MBA positions that recent grads enter into are leadership training programs, which are great opportunities to learn and grow.

The recruiting process for MBAs is well defined and efficient. If you're from a non-business background like I was and want to transition into a business leadership role, then there's no quicker way than to go through an MBA program.

4) The MBA will teach you how to make business decisions.

Yes, it's 2015. Coursera makes learning incredibly quick and accessible, while Amazon has made buying used books dirt cheap. Almost all publications have moved online and there is essentially no difference in access to information between an MBA student an a non-MBA self-learner.

However, the goal of the MBA classroom is not to learn things. Instead, the goal of the MBA classroom is to learn how to make business decisions. To make these decisions, one needs an understanding of accounting, finance, and so on, but they are means to an end. That's why the classroom experience in MBA programs involve case discussions, simulations, team assignments, and guest speakers, and so on.

The MBA coursework does skew heavily toward situations that bigger companies face. I would say the MBA coursework would be overkill for a company that just started yesterday, but would be useful for when it comes time to scale.

The MBA is What You Want it to be

My value system may very well differ from yours. That's why it's important to talk with current students and alumni of MBA programs to make sure you'll get what you want out of it. The MBA is fully customizeable and most leading programs today will surround students with more opportunity than they can handle. For example, I've discussed many of the health care ones at Fuqua here. It's important to make sure that your expectations going in can be realized by the program.

The MBA is not for everyone. However, if you need any of the above to have a successful career, then the MBA may be worth looking in to. They are the things that I value most from my Duke MBA. Because I did not have a business background, getting the MBA allowed me make the transition in two years. It would have taken me a lot longer to accomplish the same goal with just my science background and work experience.

On a separate note - I've completed the Advice to First Year MBA series and you can find a page to all the posts on this page. It's been tough to keep up with the blogging with so much going on in both my personal and professional life. However, I will stay committed to writing as I wrap up the MBA and venture deeper into the business world.


  1. Hey Steven, your comparison of MBA with an amusement park where we define our own experience is amazing and eye opening. keep up the great work

    1. Thanks Sathya! Hope all is well. I'm going to start posting a lot more now that the holidays are over.

  2. I think your third point tends to be under-appreciated by the contingent that says an MBA is not necessary: The MBA can get you into a typical post-MBA position. I have heard repeatedly, and seen through the careers of my friends and colleagues, that people who hold other advanced degrees (not MBAs) hit a "credential wall" when they try to transition into typical post-MBA positions - which are all of the top, decision-making roles in a company. I don't think this was the case 20 or 30 years ago, but today it is almost impossible to build the right portfolio of projects and experience with a non-MBA background when there is such a bias towards awarding corporate finance and strategy positions to MBAs. The MBA experience at the right school launches you directly into those roles - the only cost is a brief 2-year investment. It is the fastest and most direct route into those positions. If you try to enter from another track, you are swimming against the elite MBA - great internship - great post-MBA career current, trying to hack out your own path.
    The number of CEOs who hold MBAs is not a good metric because the "credential wall" was not established until somewhere in the 1990s, and not fully in place until the early 2000s - and it then impacted people who were in their late 20s, who couldn't land really great positions without an MBA. I expect that 10 years from now the number of CEOs who hold MBAs will be significantly higher, because at that time the first wave of people who had to leap over the credential wall early in their careers will reach that level within their company.

    1. Thanks so much for your detailed comment! The MBA is definitely the fast track for folks who are interested in roles designed specifically for MBAs, and the credential wall does exist for these industries. Traditionally, these included finance, consulting, and banking, etc. However, your point on changing CEO credentials is interesting, and we'll have to see what happens.

      My hope with this post was to provide a framework for understanding what the MBA can do for people, especially for folks who are on the fence about getting the degree. Thanks for adding to the discussion and adding your contribution!

  3. Last time, I read an article contrary to your opinion, it was stated there that "If you can’t get into a top-five MBA program, don’t even bother" and it really makes me feel confused whether to take an MBA or not. For people like us who are from a third world country, its almost impossible to get in to a school like Wharton or Harvard unless you belong to a family of business tycoons or politicians that can afford to pay the fees. Sharing these kind of words gives hopes to ordinary individuals who are still dreaming big and aspiring a better future. Thank you!

  4. I like the way you top out the MBA Students at the ever so over-the-hill, 30 somethings. I am in my 40's and still going at it. Started my MBA a little late, but the path has been a learning experience. Enjoyable article

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  6. Steven, many thanks to you for imparting so much knowledge on worthiness of MBA, as I was confused whether I should opt for MBA program or not. This article is a revelation and now I am definitely going to apply for it.