I received an intriguing e-mail today, well-written and thoughtful, from someone considering going for an MBA degree and asking my advice about it. Here’s a portion of it (quoted exactly):

I’ve been thinking about developing some actual products for sale; but basically I have about a million ideas and as I trudge forth, I am realizing how little experience I really have when it comes to the nitty gritty. Things like accessing risk, being a better sales person, managing and dealing with potential employees, it’s all new to me. And the more I read about it and learn about business, the more interested and passionate about it I become. But reading only gets you so far. I feel like I’m at a stopping point and I need a shove to get over it.

I’m very against just going to back to school because I don’t know what to do or I’m bored or whatever other reason people cook up for avoiding real life. I don’t NEED an MBA. I wouldn’t be going for the degree, I would be going for the experience of it. Which makes me think maybe it would just be better to try to get a mentor and learn by doing, but at the same time… I think it might make me much for successful and give me the confidence to go big. And then of course, do I really want to “waste” 2 years in school when I could be running a business, and I would absolutely need scholarships to get me through.

gildedgraduationiStock_000000962916XSmaller[1]Great question. I want to answer it. I’ve been posting about this a lot on my main blog (link here). I think it’s an important subject, and I’d like to spread the discussion to this blog. But I need to answer with a somewhat disorganized collection of points. I’d rather have a clearly worded, simple response, but it’s a complex question.

  1. Do you like school? Rank yourself from 1 to 10 where 1 is “I hated every minute I ever spent in a classroom or doing homework” and 10 is “I love school as long as it’s a good teacher, and if it weren’t for needing the money, I would just be a full-time student forever.” If you aren’t above a 7, or maybe a conservative 6, you’re going to regret going back to school.
  2. An MBA degree from one of the top 10 (or so) schools gives you special job-seeking powers, bragging rights, and, probably, more money. It’s awkward to say in print, but I always say “Stanford MBA” instead of just MBA, and so do the MBAs from Harvard and Wharton and a few other schools. Probably this also means you get a swollen head and swollen ego. But when people stop appending the school name to it, it doesn’t do as much for the job power.
  3. I loved my two years back in school getting an MBA degree, starting when I was 31, ending when I was 33. School was exciting. I liked what I learned, I liked studying, I liked the classes and the professors and my classmates. It was a great time. My wife and kids and I lived in family housing on campus, which was a lot like paradise. Even though I consulted full-time to make ends meet while I also studied full-time, I loved it. It kick-started my business career and taught me tons and made a huge difference to the rest of my life. But it was two years on campus.
  4. You refer to experience when it comes to the nitty-gritty, and I’m afraid few if any MBA programs give you that experience. Life does, work does, entrepreneurship does, but school doesn’t. School gives you perspective and analytical tools,  deep background, vocabulary, understanding of principles of finance and marketing and all. But not nitty-gritty. Background: this post on five things the b-schools can teach, and this one on five things they don’t.

One final point, one that I’m pulling out of the list for emphasis: Don’t quit working and get an MBA degree full-time for the money. There’s an odd chance, a small chance, that the extra money you generate in your career might compensate for the money you lose in two years of not working; but that’s only if you’re in one of the really top schools, in my opinion, and even then, it’s only a chance. You’d better do the MBA degree because you want to, because you want to spend two years in school again, and you’re interested in the subjects they teach. Otherwise you’ll be disappointed.

Tim BerryTim Berry

Tim Berry is the founder and chairman of Palo Alto Software and Bplans.com. Follow him on Twitter @Timberry.