The Truths and Half Truths of Getting My MBA / by Matthew Cook

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There are multiple lies that higher education tells students today. The biggest of which seems to be what a college grad can expect to gain from their experience and expense. The cost of college has never been higher and students today keenly feel preyed upon by the institutions who educate them and the banks who saddle them with school debt. Despite a US economy that has generally recovered since 2009, the employment situation for US citizens is hardly bright and happy or clear.

The data supports what most Americans are starting to feel: college is not worth the money that we pay for it, especially when you consider the increasingly hollow promise of fulfilling and lucrative employment.

This feeling doesn’t just exist in collegiate America. For those of us who serially attempt to go above and beyond, graduate school and PHDs are a potential goal in life. They’re pretty to put on a wall and are sometimes a rubber stamp of demonstrated skill, but they also make promises for an even brighter and more fulfilling career (in addition to highly specialized learning).

A good measure of whether educational degrees are being utilized in careers is the rate of underemploymentForbes draws a handful of keen correlations between education level and underemployment. I’ll pull one statistic:

“A full 59% of those employed holding a masters degree were classified as underemployed… To further put things in perspective, the number of underemployed masters degree holders was more than the total number of masters degrees produced between 1998 and 2008 (5.75 million).”

Whoa. That number is worse than college degree holder underemployment

When I was looking for sources to cite I expected to find that 15%-25% of masters degree holders were underemployed and then I found these numbers based on US Bureau of Labor Statistics data. This is incredible, and goes to show that:

The tuition most graduate degree holders pay artificially supports an educational system that gives them little to no monetary benefit in return.

Credential inflation can be blamed partly for this phenomenon, but there’s a wider lesson to learn:

Potential students looking to get another degree need to carefully consider that degree’s value, both personally and professionally.

For example, let’s look at a Master of Business Administration (MBA) degree. My MBA. Two years ago I finished my academic journey at Clemson University. I began my studies in June, 2011 as a 24 year old finance grad with 2 years of small business experience. 18 months and $19,000 dollars later I was a freshly credentialed man, Matthew Cook BS, MBA, who was gainfully self employed. Fast forward to today and my perspective on the experience is starting to round out.

Considering the personal benefit of my MBA is best accomplished by weighing the promises that my institution made about the degree against what I actually experience today. Here’s what most MBA programs sell, mine included:

  • You’ll gain an indispensable network of colleagues which you can utilize to make lots of money in the future
  • It’s an invaluable learning experience
  • Career coaching and connection with potential employers will put you a step ahead of your non-MBA peers
  • Moving up in your career and getting that promotion that’s out of your reach is no longer a problem
  • You’ll get better at working in teams
  • You’ll get better at managing and leading, both soft and hard skills

While in the program, here’s what I found out:

  • Most of my classmates are hoping I’ll be part of the network that gets them money/jobs/promotions, but very few of them are interested in giving back to a network of colleagues
  • The academic environment in MBA school exists, but it’s generally more obligatory than involuntary
  • Career coaching from impersonal mentors at the institution feels like you’re being told to follow a prescribed path
  • Your classmates are frequently people trying to change their career or start their career rather than move up in their career
  • Scholastic teamwork, even at the graduate level, is closer to learning how to deal with teammates rather than learning how to be a good team as a group
  • Not everyone is suited to manage and/or lead

This was disheartening at times. Even though I considered my motives more pure than some (I don’t care to be an Enron-style greedy quantifying monster), I was finding that there was a disconnect between what the degree purported and what actually felt helpful. After about a year in the program I realized something. Even though a lot of the sellable benefits above turned out to feel like a sham, I was gaining other experiences that amounted to tectonic shifts in how I approach my job and career. Here are just a few:

  • I started to learn what I was actually bad at. In college and high school I could coast through almost any class, but MBA school made me face the music.
  • I learned what I was passionate about. I was in the right field, business, but sitting through my classes and rubbing shoulders with my classmates caused me to realize what really made me excited and energized.
  • I gained a healthy distrust for traditionally trusted institutions. MBA school impressed on me that honing and utilizing my own skills and employing them in a margin compensated environment was the safest career choice. 
  • My courses raised the bar. I gained more training across a multitude of topics that I use every day. From business law, to finance, to business innovation.
  • Scholastic credentials aren’t as important as being sharp and hungry. Nobody can fix a lack of true deep curiosity.

Getting my degree wasn’t so much gaining a credential as taking a $19,000 learning journey. I’ve spent much of my life’s time pursuing things to learn and developing my ability to learn. I’ve realized that a very potent skill for my chosen path is being the fastest learner in the room. I don’t think I would have realized that if it weren’t for my MBA studies, but I also don’t think I’d have taken the scholastic plunge if that’s what Clemson was selling.

What my graduate degree sold me and taught me wasn’t a lie, but it also wasn’t truth. The academic content ranged from useless to valuable, but the personal enlightenment was, for me, invaluable. So much of our culture is bent on quantifying education when sometimes results are by necessity very intimate and unquantifiable.

Nobody can tell you whether an academic journey is right for you, except you; and at the end of the day, you’re the one who is responsible to make it worth the effort and expense.