Should I get an MBA?

If I had a rupee for the number of times people have asked me this…. well, I would have dozens of rupees! My answer is almost always is “Don’t even think about it”.

Well, let me add some qualifiers. I am not saying that an MBA is not useful (I am one myself) but it is not always the answer. Most people who ask me are folks who have 7-10 years of strong work experience. They usually feel stuck in their current jobs and/or they can’t see clear growth path for themselves. These are folks who are struggling with the eternal corporate question: “What will I do next?” And that’s when they land on the answer: “I should take an MBA!”

I suspect that this is so because most people find taking an MBA ‘doable’. Admission into an MBA program doesn’t require any specific previous education and given the number of so-called ‘business schools’ around, it is really easy to actually get into one. Even top-notch schools run distance learning/online/part time MBAs with hefty fees and are fairly easy to get into. There is an MBA available for every budget, level of experience, previous education, and mode of learning!

Usually when I am asked this question, I answer with a question of my own: “Let’s say you complete your 2-year distance learning MBA on 1st April – what do you think will happen on 2nd April?”. And the answer is “Nothing”! You would not have gained any new skills or learnt anything that you could start applying. Maybe now you know the difference between debt and equity, and you know who Peter Drucker is. Other than that, there is no difference between you with an MBA and without one.

This brings me to the part that is most critical to understand: Weight attached to your education is inversely proportional to your years of experience. The more experience you have the less important is your qualification. If you have, say, 7 years of experience with a salary of INR 1 million a year, your education or certifications don’t matter that much and so adding a degree will not add much value. Your role/salary at your current and future employers is going to be a function of your current salary (as a benchmark) and experience (as a proxy for your skills)– not of your education.

The exception is if you are looking for a career re-set and are willing to start afresh and/or you quit your job and took a full time MBA from a top business school. Or if you are in a company which will not promote you unless you have an MBA (you should leave that company anyway).

Most people who ask me this are not in any of these situations – their expectation is that the MBA will provide an immediate boost in their current jobs. I think it’s important to remember that degrees/certifications have very little to do anything with real life. Those degrees are nothing but a signal or proxy for who you are (if you passed JEE and then took a BE from IIT, you are probably hardworking and disciplined). These signals are important because you have no work history or demonstrable professional achievements, i.e., when you are just starting out. However, as you start working, you start building a history of professional achievements, functional and soft skills, problem solving skills, etc. That history and those skills then become more important than the education signal. When I recruit for mid-to-senior roles, I just glance at the education listed on the CV. My focus on assessing structured thought, problem solving, soft skills, etc. that the candidate brings to the table.

Back to the question: my recommendation then is to learn new skills that are adjacent to your current skills. If you are a front end JavaScript developer, then it might a good idea to learn node js or databases or python/R. If you are in sales, it could be a good idea to development operations or social marketing. If you are in operations, it could be useful to learn design thinking. And so on.

There are several advantages to this approach. Most of us forget things we learn if we don’t get to apply them. Adjacent skills, because they are adjacent, are applicable right away in your current job/skill. Learning a skill is also a narrower task, so it takes a lot less effort compared to committing your weekends for a year or more. Excellent platforms like Edx.org, Coursera, Udemy, etc. have made the best instructors/materials available to anybody at very reasonable prices. Finally, and most importantly, adjacent skills will, almost immediately make you a more valuable employee and improve your chances of getting a better role or even a new job. As a leader, I can attest that triple (or more) threat employees are holy grail of all employers – way more valuable than an employee with a single skill set and an MBA.

Again, I am not saying that an MBA is not useful, but its usefulness depends on your goal, your years of experience, your current skill set and so on. What it is not is a magic wand!

Remember that in the long term, skills are ‘leverageable‘, education is not.

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