January 2, 2011

Accelerate your career

A LOT of people ask me for informational interviews at my Day Job.  Most of them are coming out of MBA programs with some sort of emphasis in sustainable or responsible business.  I think it's great, and I love meeting them and telling them about the industry.

But I hate to tell them I think they just wasted $80,000 on their MBA.  So I just keep that to myself.

Honestly, unless you're getting practical education in a specific field of business, I just don't see how an MBA pays for itself.  Most of the people I see went back to school for the degree, not the education.  Most got a "management" or general business MBA.  They did it under the vague impression that having an MBA would get them a better job, make them better dressed... I don't know.  I never understood the appeal beyond being able to put MBA on the resume.  I always thought practical experience trumped classroom theory.

Last week on the train I saw a poster for a night MBA program for working executives.  The tag line was, "Accelerate your career."  And I got it.  People (other than me) have careers.  They view their jobs as a pursuit rather than a means to other ends.  As such, a faster career would be a better career, in the same way a bigger house would be a better house.

And having MBA on your resume could, in theory, accelerate that career.

Back in high school, I took a job at a local drug store.  It actually was the ideal high school job--good hours, cute female coworkers, quality supervisors, low pressure.  But I didn't need money.  Something drove me to have a job.  I didn't know it then, but I think I see it now:  I wanted a job so that some day I could leave it.

A lot of people I know strive for biggerbetterfasterMORE.  An accelerated career means bigger paychecks, which means a bigger house, in a better zip code, with more prestigious friends who wear better clothes, drink fancier wine, and drive faster cars.  And, remarkably, most of them seem happy on that path.

But it's not for me.  As much as I love my Day Job, I can't imagine diving in so deeply as to strive to accelerate my career.  I'm not ambitious in that way (though when opportunity steps in front of me, I'll take it).  So I walk a tightrope with as much balance as I can muster--success at Day Job, but only so much as it supports Real Life.

That's why I quit my second job in high school.  Why I didn't rejoin a company when they offered to bring me back after a layoff.  Why I refused to compromise my integrity at another job, and I got fired for it.  Why I took a 30% pay cut to do something I believe in rather than take a two hour commute for a lot more money.  Why I'm far more likely to get an MFA after I retire than I am to get an MBA.  Ever.

Some people are desperate to accelerate their careers.  Me?  I'd love to slow down real life so I can live more of it.

(By the way, I've never really understood why "executives" go back to school for MBAs.  If you're an executive, shouldn't you already know from experience what they'd teach you in classes?)


Stephen Parrish said...

Most of the people I see went back to school for the degree, not the education.

In an interview, credentials are so much easier to prove than skills, especially abstract skills such as how to make decisions or manage people. I've reviewed thousands of applications and interviewed hundreds of applicants, and unfortunately didn't have the resources to determine whether (say) a candidate with only a high school education could perform as well as his college graduate competitor.

I agree with your questioning why an already successful executive would get an MBA (like a doctor taking a biology class), but young people have little choice but to chase paper to prove they're capable of tackling and completing a long, difficult project.

Great post.

Laurel said...

There are two kinds of people who reach management levels and stay there. The first kind believe in the work/life balance theory, where you work to support your life, and have exceptionally strong work ethics that propel success. The second kind live to work. Career defines them and IS a huge chunk of their life, not just the paycheck chunk.

I know and respect both types and I think they're both valid. I'm more of the first- work is for sustenance, life is for living- and I've heard people like me get very judgy about the second, assuming they are rat racers. And I've heard some rat racers describe people like me as living for payday and quitting time.

As long as what you're doing is what you want to be doing, you have work/life balance. 80 hours a week focused on the job is as fulfilling for a rat racer as 40 hours focused on a paycheck and 40 hours pursuing outside interests is for me.

The MBA phenomenon does matter if you're young, I think. It's code for "the job is my life" for one thing. And if you are 28 competing against a more experienced 35 year old for an executive position, it helps balance your resume. But, yeah, it does seem redundant after you reach a certain point in your career without it.

PJD said...

I suppose I'm biased. After college I spent several years in startups, and at 26 I was managing a group of four+ people in a tech pubs department. I realize this is not an option open to everyone, but I think it's way better than school. Why? Because school is the study of other people's successes and failures in the past. School is preparation by hindsight. While you can certainly learn by looking at what has happened to others in the past, I think you learn a lot more by having to plan for the future and perform in the present, with real consequences.

I don't think school can substitute for experience. In the same way that reading a book about writing can not possibly teach you as much as the act of writing can.

In the example of a 28 year old with an MBA competing against a more experienced 35 year old without one... unless you're naturally a phenomenally talented 28 year old I am going to hire the 35 year old every time. When that 28 year old has seven years more experience, and he's now a 35 year old competing against another 35 year old, the MBA may carry a little weight for me, but not much. By that point, I expect you to have a strong track record.

Perhaps what's happened is that the supply of MBA programs has outstripped the real demand, and the resulting glut of MBA degrees has watered down its meaning. Of course, the real pedigreed programs (Harvard, Stanford, etc.) will always carry significant weight. But those people typically don't have to go through the resume slush anyway.

Stephen Parrish said...

I don't think school can substitute for experience. In the same way that reading a book about writing can not possibly teach you as much as the act of writing can.

Agree. My brother earned an MBA and told me afterwards it was a waste of time and money. But he got a job. And that's really the point: as long as employers select the MBA grads over the others, an MBA will be a valuable credential.

Unless, of course, you're applying to work for Peter Dudley . . .

Sarah Laurenson said...

While I love the idea of going to school just for the sake of going to school, I have to say that practical experience is sadly underrated. I work with too many people steeped in theory who look blank when their theory fails in practice. But they get paid more because they have that advanced degree. At least they do at the start.

I have two bachelor's, but I hold my own because I know (most of the time) what I'm talking about. Experience counts, but it is sometimes harder to get your foot in the door without that slip of paper. And in this economy, that's becoming even more of a problem. We have people with very advanced degrees flipping burgers. And not because they want to.

jjdebenedictis said...

My uncle went to school with a fellow who got outrageously high grades. When they both began applying for jobs, of course the genius got snapped up.

My uncle said he felt sorry for the employers because Mr. Genius was the laziest person my uncle had ever met.

The proof is in the doing, and it's actually a bit scary how many kids come out of school and realize the hard way they don't know how to do the things they've learned about.