Know Your Why

Know your “why”: Two reasons to go to business school (and five reasons not to)

By Matt Miner

The Kirby Winter Garden at Duke's Fuqua School of Business in Durham, NC

The Kirby Winter Garden at Duke's Fuqua School of Business in Durham, NC

I’ve observed bright, hardworking, savvy people achieve both awesome and miserable outcomes from the same effort of attending business school.

Business school seems to provide a plethora of options.  And it can be a whole lot of fun.

But success or failure as an outcome from this effort comes down to one key difference between b-school students: You have to know your “why”.

If you know your “why” b-school will be awesome.  If you don’t know your “why”, you’ll fail.  And you’ve got to know before you go; hoping your “why” comes to you after you’ve signed up for six-figure student loans is a bad plan.

There are two reasons to go to business school and five reasons not to go.

Reasons to go

1.)    You have a clear plan to use that degree from that school in a specific way

2.)    You’re independently wealthy already and looking for a great time for two years

Reasons NOT to go

1.)    You want to make more money

2.)    Your company will pay for it

3.)    It’s what you do at this point in your career

4.)    You have no clear plan for your degree, school, or career

5.)    You’re not wealthy, but you’re still looking for a great time for two years

You need to arrive at the decision to attend business school by looking forward in your life, considering what you want in your career, and then, based on that clear career goal, determine that business school is the way to achieve your career goal.

On the other hand, if you think an MBA would be a good credential to have, and you figure you’ll find a place to apply it and an employer to finance it (before or after the fact), you’re taking a big risk with both your career and your money.

Two good reasons to attend business school

The first good reason to go to business school, or to medical school, or to law school, or to enter a PhD program, is this: You have a clear plan to use that degree from that school to in a very specific way.

If you want to do strategy consulting (and you need a good “why” for your job choice too), go to a school where McKinsey, Bain & BCG recruit heavily.  Also, pick a school you enjoy.  Then, plan your courses and your professors to be the most helpful as you start your career after school.

For most people, geography matters too, both while you’re in school and because of the jobs most likely to be available afterward.  If you strongly wish to be west coast, don’t go to school in Ithaca, NY.  It’s just that much harder to find what you want.

My “why” for business school was this: I was working in finance giving recommendations to general managers.  I wanted to be a general manager paid on results.  Additionally, in talking to dozens of MBAs in my hometown, I liked who they were and admired the work they were doing.  Finally, I wanted a friendly school my family and I would love during our time there.

For all these reasons we picked Duke’s Fuqua School of Business and from day one I was focused on either strategy consulting or John Deere’s rotational executive program.  After talking with many people both in the consulting firms and at John Deere, I was confident that Deere was a much better fit for me.  So that’s the route we went.

The second reason to go to business school is that you’re already independently wealthy and looking for two good years (packed with learning and experience!) before transitioning to life at your family’s estate on The Vineyard or your Tricked out Jumbo Jet.

Since this reason doesn’t apply to most people, we’ll move on to the five reasons not to go to business school.

Wanting to make more money is not a good enough reason to go to b-school (or any other seemingly lucrative career path, including lawyer, physician, dentist, or whatever).  There are two really important reasons for this.  First, The people who make the most money and have the most satisfaction are serving a need in the marketplace really well.  Money doesn’t care about credentials.

The second reason making more money is a bad “why” is that business school is incredibly expensive and very hard work.  If money is your “why”, you will not attract enough money to make your degree pay.  Your degree will pay if you’ve got your “why” right.  It will not deliver money if you seek the degree for the reason of money.  You can substitute “prestige” or “a good qualification” for the word “money” in this paragraph, too.

The next bad reason to go to business school is “My company will pay for it.”  The fact that your employer will pay for your grad school is great news.  And if this is a special privilege they are conferring on you, rather than a part of the standard benefits package, this may be an indication that the program would be a good fit.  But the fact that something is free or subsidized doesn’t, of itself, make it useful to me or a good use of my time.  Healthcare is free if you’re broke enough or sick enough.  But I have no wish to get poorer and or sicker in order to quit paying my ridiculously high insurance premiums.

The better strategy here is to turn this on its head: First pick the graduate school program you want for the reasons that make sense to you – then go find the employer who will pay for it.  Brandon at the Mad Fientist has a great story about that plan here.

The third bad reason to go to business school is that it’s just “what you do” at a particular point in your career.  This is a particularly common reason from analysts who went to fancy undergrad schools who are already working for big banks or consultancies.  These folks often get to a point in their career two or three years in, where the MBA is perceived as a required credential to continue to move up the ranks.

The first problem is this reason is not based on facts (though there is some statistical truth to it).  The second and more important problem is that our aforementioned analyst at least needs to ask the question of whether the career track she’s running on is in fact the one she wishes to continue.

Look at the lives of the older members of your firm.  Ask yourself if you want their lives.  Ask them about their thought processes in arriving at the place they are in their careers.  Ask them if they would do the exact same thing or if they’d do something differently.

Specifically if you’re thinking of pivoting to entrepreneurship or to family life, business school or other professional school may not be the best use of your time, energy, and money.

The fourth reason not to go is if you have no clear plan for how the degree fits in your life or career.  This one seems self-explanatory, but I had at least a few classmates who had come to b-school because it seemed like a generally “good opportunity.”  But once there, both the academics of the program and the job search process were a complete non-fit for these admits.  One could argue that the admissions office fell down here, but truly it’s the students who failed to put to use the Delphic maxim: Know thyself.

The fifth bad reason to go to business school is that you’re looking for two years of fun before you buckle down to your grown-up job (the job you need, because you’re not already independently wealthy).

If you want two years of fun, just go take two years and have fun.  Although student loans provide cheap and easy financing, here’s the thing about them: They have to be paid back.  You will pay the piper in either money or freedom.

You can pay in freedom by trying to use one of the government programs to get your loans forgiven.  But at that point not only are you giving up your time (which is your life) for a job and money, you’re actually giving up your life for loan forgiveness.  Ugh!  That's misery!

We chose the rapid-repayment option: $225,000 cash-out-the-door in three and a half years.  Those are after-tax dollars.  That’s an amount sufficient to buy a pretty nice house in many parts of the country.  That’s an amount sufficient to rent an awesome house anywhere in the world for an extended period of time.  That’s an amount sufficient to buy hundreds of airline tickets, hotel nights, meals out, parties with friends, books, cars…almost anything you think is fun.

It’s enough money to start a business or repay a mortgage on your house.  It’s enough for a very major home renovation.  It’s enough (with hustle) to send at least three children to the in-state school of your choice.  That's enough money to provide you an incredible, self-directed business education.  It is a ton of money.

If you don’t want the school for the school, in support of your particular goal, find a different way to have fun.  You’ll save money and probably have more fun.  Fun is a side effect of business school, not the goal of business school.

That’s it.  Two reasons to go.  Five reasons not to.  And one imperative: Know why you’re going before you go.  If you do, it will probably work out.  If you don’t, it won’t.

August 13th, 2016