If Not An MBA, Then What?

CAT just got done! Before I go on, I’d like you to take a moment, take a deep breath, and pat yourself on the back for completing such an amazing achievement! No matter how you did, getting through the CAT is no joke, and it takes an incredible attitude to even take the test. Good job!

But, let’s get down to business. The CAT is an incredibly intense and competitive affair, and no one knows where they’ll end up. Over the next few months, chances are, that you will encounter a time when you start asking “what if”. Even if you don’t, an interviewer may ask you “Why MBA?” or “Why not something else?”. I’m going to try help you get an answer to those questions, and highlight your options. While the ultimate answer to that question is yours, and yours alone – understanding what your options are will help you, and impress your interviewer with your logical thinking. As for all of you who, like me, are in B-school already, I aim to help you gain a definition as to your answer, so you can nail that next interview with all the annoying HR questions.

I’m not going to give you a straight yes or no answer. Instead, I’ll give you the facts of the matter, so that you can arrive at this decision yourself. Before I start to evaluate options, however, it is important to account for the sheer breadth and diversity of the applicant pool to an MBA program. There is no “one size fits all” solution to this, every single person will have a different perspective and opinion. I am a fresher, and in class, I sit next to someone with over four years of work experience. Your age and experience alter your perspective drastically, and I will attempt to address all these perspectives individually. A brief survey on campus yielded some very interesting results – the top reasons for doing an MBA were to earn more or to improve their skill set for freshers. For folks with less than two years of work experience, the most prominent reason was that they wanted a change in the type of work they were doing.

When asked which other options people considered, by far, the most repeated choice was continuing in their current job path, followed by a Masters in Science, or a Masters in the field of their undergraduate degree. A large number of respondents (25.7%) indicated that they did not consider any other options. Broadly, given the survey results, and my conversations with people in the industry, I believe that the following options exist:

  1. Masters in Science/Engineering
  2. PhD
  3. Status quo/no MBA
  4. Start up
  5. MBA
  6. Executive MBA

Let’s look at them one by one. I’ll talk about MBAs in another article, I want to do them justice.

I. M. S./M. Eng.

A Masters in Science or Engineering is a fairly popular choice. We’ve all heard enough and more stories about relatives migrating to the United States, getting an admission in a decent university, doing their masters, marrying someone, and emigrating there permanently. This sounds like a very nice dream, earning in dollars is always attractive, especially with the rupee’s current status. Admittedly, the standard of living there is significantly better. If you are in an urban area, food is hardly a problem, the commute is nowhere near as bad as traffic in India, and you can live comfortably. Further, the kind of people you will meet and work with will be well-educated, they will be fairly talented, and the States or the UK are great places to build a career (Having lived in both countries, I can attest to this).

There are a few problems with this plan, of course. In chronological order, getting a visa is becoming more and more difficult. Student visas (the F-1 or the J-1 in the USA) are fairly coveted, and the political landscapes across the world are tending to isolationist, and broadly not being receptive to immigrants. Second, communication barriers are quite difficult to overcome sometimes. Accents are a problem, and the average level of communication skills are higher in the States and the UK. It’s worse in non-English speaking countries, for instance, Germany, where one would have to learn an entirely new language to be eligible to emigrate there. Unfortunately, communication skills are not emphasised in India – unlike in the rest of the world, and the trial by fire is not one everyone survives. Thirdly, earning in dollars or pounds is only as glamorous as long as you spend in rupees. Unfortunately, the standard of living is many times better than it is here in India, and your salary and disposable income is nowhere near as high. As such, it is expensive to live there, and while you may make a lot of money, in real terms, it is not as much. Finally, commute and daily living. Say you work in New York City. You don’t want to live in Manhattan, it’s too expensive. You’ll end up living in Queens or Jersey City, and taking the train into town every day. You’ll commute in peak hours, which is significantly stressful, the trains are crowded, the roads are full. If you commute in the off hours, your biological clock is displaced, and you won’t be able to sustain that over an extended period of time. There are enough disillusioned people that can lend a good perspective on this life.

If you can get past these issues, and you’re set on moving abroad, perhaps this is the option for you. It requires a different mindset and a lot of effort, adaptability and dedication to live there, but if you can be Sunder Pichai, well, go for it! The rewards are plentiful, it’s great for your kids in the long run, and you can be the fun uncle or aunty who lives in America. I speak more on this in my article that you can check out here.

 

II. PhD

This is not really an option many people consider. In fact, I first heard of this option from the managing partner at the private equity firm I interned at in the summer of my third year. Going the PhD route develops a lot of the same skill sets that an MBA gives you. In addition, you become an expert in your field, which is quite valuable to the corporate world, you can learn everything else on the job. A PhD shows dedication to your profession, which is something recruiters look for, and that passion is something you can channel into your work. In my personal and humble opinion, that ability to channel passion into your work is one of the most important things you can carry with you – it’ll keep life interesting, at least. The other major advantage of holding a PhD – if you make an impact in the industry, you’ll be in a position to easily transfer to teaching if and when you are ready to take that up.

PhDs take time. According to the University of Waterloo, Canada, “The PhD degree is granted by the University to candidates who have demonstrated both achievement in independent research in a particular field and a broad knowledge of that field.” It may take even five or six years to reach that point. You can, of course, work with a particular company and conduct doctoral research which has real-world implications, but the approval process takes time, and the level of depth required is much greater than a simple master’s thesis. Also, many industry specialists are invited to teach as visiting faculty all over the world, a PhD is not one of the requirements to do so. It is also worth considering that after years in the industry, it is possible that you will be in a better position to craft relevant research.

 

III. Status quo – Continuing a steady career path

Patience is the name of the game here. Loyalty and good performance in a company will grant you the skill sets, salary and recognition that someone in upper management has. Over time, given a consistent track record, one will ascend to middle and upper management positions. Given network connections and good relationships, the position such a senior person holds is that of an expert in the industry. For instance, someone with 10-15 years of experience in a big corporate could be tapped at the CXO level in a new venture by a Private Equity fund for their portfolio company, or as a lateral hire in another firm.

The obvious problem here is time. This process requires a lot of effort, dedication and good people management. The skills naturally develop over time with experience, and rising through the ranks is not easy. Depending on the career path, this has the potential to set you back anywhere between 2-10 years, depending on the role and function that you work in. It is not uncommon for some promotions to be capped by an MBA requirement.

 

IV. Startup

I was hesitant to include this. I’m from IIM Bangalore, and “Start up” is a buzzword all over the world, more so here than in most places. A startup is arguably the best learning experience one can ever have, and is valuable to boot, whether you succeed or fail.

I know I said I wouldn’t give you a straight answer about whether you need an MBA or not, but if you want to do a startup, unless you’re in the top five B-schools in the world, or IIM Bangalore (essentially places with free access to an incubator), don’t waste your time and money on an MBA. You don’t want the same skillset as every other manager with the same degree. Sure, you’ll want to know more about valuations, operations, etc., but you learn all of that on the job. You want to disrupt an industry, not spend ages knowing what they are doing now. It might help to get an MBA, but more often than not, whatever you pick up from an MBA college, you pick up on your own.

The reason the incubator matters is the network that it allows you to tap. An incubator in a B-school will have a major launchpad, guidance and a network of both other entrepreneurs, and Venture Capitalists – in other words, exactly what you need to pad yourself. There are ways to get to these incubators outside of actually going to B-school, many a time, they operate as independent organisations, like NSRCEL at IIM Bangalore does.

All in all, these are interesting choices that can lead to the same end result as an MBA. Each choice requires a different mindset, different internal dedication, and a wildly different approach. It’s up to you to evaluate which option suits you best. Don’t go after an MBA because everyone is going after an MBA, it’s not worth it. Does it help? For sure. But do you really need an MBA?

Anish Malladi

Anish is a first-year student at IIM Bangalore. He draws inspiration for both his writing and photography from extensive travel - he's visited over 18 countries around the world. He started writing to inspire himself - he now chooses to write to try to inspire everyone else.

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