Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Deciding to Apply to Business School

One reader asked if I could explore in a bit more depth how I arrived at the decision to apply to business school and how I determined when the right time for me to apply was. That is a loaded question, but I will give it a go.

Why grad school at all?
Today if you are a relatively risk-averse and intellectually curious person, I think a graduate degree is a natural step. Grad school offers:
1. learning/skills
2. another network
3. resume/credibility booster
4. the ability to enter into MBA/professional degree-required jobs
Numbers three and four are interrelated but I believe that they should be separate because #3 means that you are more seasoned and that you "have an MBA or whatever degree to fall back on" while #4 means that you can be a lawyer if you get a law degree and that you can apply to "MBA required" jobs once you get an MBA. After talking to headhunters this year, I learned that there are many great jobs that require an MBA.

The three major professional schools are law, medical, and business. Then you've got PhD programs and masters programs.

I think that any of the three professional degrees, a PhD in a relevant subject (e.g., economics, engineering), or a master's in policy/international affairs from a top program can open doors into many different business fields (e.g., consulting, banking, management). I think other masters degrees don't offer credibility-building or door-opening in the business world that you don't already get from a strong undergraduate experience. These are anecdotal thoughts; I am sure there are many exceptions.

Why business school?
1. Time commitment: 2 years for business school versus 3 for law, 4 for med, 5+ for a PhD.

2. Relevance: I want spend my career managing some sort of an enterprise. Thus, business school is the natural winner both in terms of content and like-minded classmates. Content: the curriculum and extracurricular activities are tailored to someone who wants to be in management and include offerings to dive deeply in many specific management areas (e.g., marketing, non-profit management). Classmates: business school students have a wide variety of experiences across different organizational functions. Their diverse experiences are helpful for understanding new problems and offer exposure into other business fields. Plus the majority of MBA students want to return to the business sector and will be important contacts in the future.

3. Recognizable: Hiring managers around the world know what an MBA is and know what the top schools are. They may not always know that such-and-such school has an amazing graduate economics department and they may not believe that an attorney would make a great real estate investor, but they understand the value of an MBA.

4. The "f-word," FIT: I don't want to do research (PhD) and I don't want to join a program in which a significant portion of the class just graduated from college (law). I want to be surrounded by classmates who have had experiences operating in a wide variety of functions across different industries. I want to learn from businessmen and women turned professors. I want to study past cases and develop business solutions to meet future problems. Also, I want to be in a grade-free environment in which I can choose how and where I invest my time.

For me, business school is the clear winner among graduate schools.

Why now?
The following rules of thumb have come from my own experiences. I didn't know them straight out of college, but rather developed them during my working years and recent business school application process -- i.e., I made up the rules as I went along.

1. Work for at least two different organizations. You will be exposed to a variety of business cultures, industries, functions, or some combination of the three. That is a good thing when it comes to figuring out what you really want to do and what kind of an organization you want to join (or start) in the future.

2. Accomplish tangible things at each of your jobs. Don't leave an investment banking job for business school until you have closed a few deals. Don't leave a consulting firm until you have been able to lead a segment of a project. Don't abandon your marketing position until you have been able to grow share or increase brand awareness in some quantifiable way. Accomplishing something, anything, is important not only for business school application essays, but also for your own awareness of what kinds of activities excite you, what achievements you are proud of, what you want to accomplish in the future.

3. Manage something. Since most of us are pretty young and may not have the opportunity to manage much at work, I suggest getting involved in your community. Start a new organization, join a board, lead a fundraising effort, revamp a program. Take charge and learn how difficult it is to manage. Feel the exhilaration of changing an organization (hopefully for the better). It will make your essays stronger and I believe it will make your business school experience richer.

4. Don't get too old. I know all of the business schools say that you should apply when it is the right time for you. That is true, but I implore you not to wait too long. HBS's 2-Plus-2 program and Stanford GSB's average incoming age of 26 (implied by an average of four years of work experience in their most recent class) clearly indicate that business schools are going younger. This trend may change in the future, but a simple word search for "age" at the Business Week forums will reveal the current challenges of admission to a top school much above the 24 to 27-year-old range. Also, think about how much easier it is to be impressive at age 25 versus age 30 when you have had almost a decade in the workforce; I believe expectations increase exponentially beyond age 27/28.

5. Do what you want. Take everything I have just written with a grain of salt and a dose of skepticism. This post is merely how I arrived at the conclusion to go to business school and when I think the right time to apply is. I suspect (hope) that the majority of my classmates will not fit neatly into these criteria and that their reasons for going to business school will be very different than my own.


JR said...

In general, this is as well thought out of an explanation for when/why go to grad school as I've seen. Kudos.

But I do take issue with the age point. It sounds formulaic: 2 jobs, 2 years each, apply by 26. That's how lemmings are made, and I suspect that's part of the mentality that creates business cultures where dissent is not appreicated. But more fundamentally, my grad school experience, in a leading econ intl affairs program suggests that the best students are ready to be there and want to be there -- not just those that have checked requisite boxes. I don't think you were supporting something that absolute, but I'd caution on endorsing something like that, even with qualifiers.

Omne said...

Excellent post. You should add your blog to Hella's list of MBA blogs

Anonymous said...

This is a great post. Like Omne says, do get your blog added to that list.

D. G. said...

Excellent post, dude.

Tony said...

Great post, I wanted to ask you a question in regards to "why now"
I currently have two years of work experience as a financial management consultant with a Big 4 audit firm. I would like to move into strategy consulting. I am up for promotion this year but given the economy my chances are looking pretty slim. I would like to apply this year but my concerns are as follows:
1) Will Adcom ding me for not having a promotion?
2) Will strategy firms ding me for not having a promotion?

Tony said...

I wanted to ask you a question in regards to your "Why Now" section:
I currently have 2 years of work experience as a financial management consultant with a big 4 audit firm. I would like to move into strategy consulting. I am up for promotion this year, though my chances are looking slim given the economy. I would like to apply this year but my concerns are as follows:
1) Will the adcom ding me for not having a promotion?
2) Will strategy firms ding me for not having a promotion?
Thanks for your help!

Palo Alto for a While said...

Hi Tony - I think as long as you can demonstrate to adcom/recruiters greater responsibility and position growth over time, you should be okay. I don't think that people automatically assume that after two years, you should have been promoted. Good luck!

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