Is an MBA right for you?

Is an MBA right for you?
Stanford University | Photo by Jawed

Stanford University | Photo by Jawed

Ever since the New York Times story about female students at Harvard Business School (“HBS”), I’ve read another article that argues that women should skip business school, since it would “interrupt” their career and delay their starting a family.

To be sure, an MBA is a big investment that isn’t for everyone. As someone who attended Stanford’s Graduate School of Business ten years ago, I think it’s important to understand what an MBA can or cannot do for you. This is especially crucial with an MBA because it is not a specialized or technical degree. Below are some of the common reasons for getting an MBA, and my opinion on whether they make sense in reality.

“I want to explore my options.”

As a career coach, many people tell me they want to go to business school to “explore their options”. I think that this is a mistake. If you want to explore your career options, read “What Color Is My Parachute”. Or shadow someone whose job you want, so that you understand the daily grind of a job that may sound glamorous on paper.

My advice – you will get a lot more out of business school if you know what you want to do before stepping onto campus. For example, campus recruiting starts within the first few months of school. If you’re not networking and prepping for those internship interviews within the first couple of months, you’re late to the party.

 “I need an MBA to progress at my company.”

This used to be true in some industries. We’ve all known grandparents or uncles / aunts who were held back from management positions because they did not possess a college (or graduate) degree. However, this is less true today. Rather than a fancy degree, many employers want specialized or technical skills and/or industry expertise.

Many women also like to “check the boxes” or ensure that they are so qualified that they won’t fail. It may be comforting to have an MBA as a safety net. Just don’t undersell yourself. There are some things even an MBA cannot teach you to do well. Before breaking away for two years, talk to hiring managers in your industry to see if you can realistically make the progression without an MBA.

Picture of Degree

My advice – I have seen many MBA graduates return to their previous employers to find themselves reporting to a peer (a colleague who stayed and got promoted). Ask yourself, “Can an MBA really teach me skills that I cannot obtain on the job in the next two years?”

“I want to switch careers / industries.”

This is by far the most popular reason for an MBA. It is also one of the best reasons. However, an MBA – even from a top business school – is not a magic bullet for a career switch. These days, employers still prefer new hires who have had prior experience and can hit the ground running. For example, many people go to business school hoping to land a prestigious venture capitalist or private equity job upon graduation. As it turns out, these jobs are close to impossible to land if you don’t have prior investment banking experience. A far more common path for career changers are investment banking or management consulting jobs – considered “entry level” in the business school world. If your goal is to get into investment banking or management consulting, then a top MBA could indeed open doors.

My advice – ask yourself, “What prior experience do I need to make that career switch? What transferrable skills do I bring to the job? How will an MBA help me make that transition?” Often times, you may be able to make a career switch without a costly MBA program. Other times, an MBA may be your best option.


Ultimately, a business school degree – especially one from a top MBA program – is a big investment in your career and future. There are plenty of websites that will help you calculate your Return On Investment. I think that business school could be a wonderful learning and professional experience. Unlike some people interviewed in the HBS article, my two years were happily spent with smart, successful yet collaborative people. These friendships and what I learned at the GSB were in a word – priceless.



About Debbie Grage

Debbie Grage
Debbie is an ALIST founder and Career Section Editor. She holds an MBA from the Stanford Graduate School of Business. Her past community roles have included serving as CFO of the Asian Society at the Stanford GSB, and as a board member with the Association of Women MBA (SF). Debbie is also founder of the MenMuu Leadership Institute and specializes in helping professionals who want to manage their careers proactively. Her career blog can be found at