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Do You Really Need an MBA?

Posted in Test Prep on March 10, 2011 by

The last thing one needs while studying for the GMAT is another denouncement of MBA programs from another business expert who never earned an MBA. Still, the arguments in Josh Kaufman’s The Personal MBA: A World-Class Business Education in a Single Volume, are worth considering. That way, if/when you decide to go to business school, you’ll be that much stronger in your conviction.

If you’ve been following the MBA debate, you’re probably already familiar with Kaufman, the rogue “independent business professor.” No doubt Kaufman is good at what he does: making a career out of telling people that MBA degrees are useless is an admirable business feat in and of itself. Plus, he navigated his way up the corporate ladder to a management position at Proctor & Gamble and successfully marketed his new book.

As a top-seller on Amazon (its received 5 stars almost unanimously from reviewers), The Personal MBA is probably destined to become a classic of its kind. The book is a concise, yet comprehensive run-down of the “make-it-or-break-it” aspects of business: value creation, finance, marketing, consumer psychology. In The Wall Street Journal, Neil McIntosh (an MBA himself) calls it a “competent guide to some of the key points of business theory.” However, McIntosh also argues that the book “doesn’t provide anything like enough detail on basic financial skills.” Plus, he says, a single book can’t possibly teach readers to think for themselves and examine their own work more critically — ”a key product of a Master’s-level education.”

In my view, there’s another major flaw in the book (and this is a big one): The Personal MBA places very little emphasis on networking, which, as any business person knows, is half the game. Even if you know everything there is to know about business in a textbook sense, you won’t ever have the opportunity to use your knowledge if you can’t land the right interview.

In a world where attractive positions receive thousands of applications, it is not so much a matter of who is actually better for the position as who is able to convince others he is better for the position. An MBA signifies instant credibility, a mastery of certain business concepts, and at the very least, the ability to navigate through a complex admissions process with high standards.

For many, networking is the reason to get an MBA degree. And it’s not a bad one. On a practical level, it’s reasonable to invest in a 100-120k education — even if that education’s greatest benefit is as an expensive interview ticket (as long as that interview will possibly lead to a career and lifestyle that will satisfy you). It may seem like a lot of money, but certain opportunities are priceless if they shape the rest of your life and change the texture of who you are as a person.

No one is denying the fact that you don’t need an MBA to “practice business,” the way you need a JD to practice law or an MD to practice medicine. Just look at Warren Buffett, Bill Gates, and other standard figures from the business world. And yet, part of the reason Kaufman’s book has generated so much controversy is that the MBA, despite its detractors, still means something and always will: otherwise no one would spend this much time talking about it. As long as business executives hold MBA degrees, they will screen for the degree when employing others. People generally value in others what they value in themselves. And most people who have MBA degrees are proud of having obtained them.

What this means for you. If you’re looking to apply to MBA programs, play devil’s advocate with yourself (it will ultimately strengthen your determination and make for a stronger application and interview). Ask yourself the following questions: “What would I do if I didn’t get this degree? What exactly do I expect out of this degree? If my dream career trajectory doesn’t play out, would I still be happy with my decision?”