To MBA or Not to MBA? That is the Question

Your Life

It’s a question that so many motivated, young professionals face as they continue to progress through the early stages of their careers—should I go back to school to get my MBA or should I not?

And yet despite the ever present question so many young professionals face there are hardly ever any simple answers. In fact, it isn’t even really just one question, but rather a bunch of larger questions rolled up into one, many of which have no clear or quantifiable answers.

What Do You Want to Be When You Grow Up

Remember as a kid the question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” We would respond with the ease and simplicity that only a child can muster, with answers like a pro football player, an astronaut, or a firefighter! As we grew up that vision evolved as new passions and talents emerged and will likely continue to evolve. The difficulty in answering the MBA question hinges on this simple fact. If we all knew exactly the career we wanted, answering the MBA question wouldn’t be that difficult.

The more clarity around what future you hope to shape will make it easier to create a plan to arrive at that destination. This is why it is so critical to work first towards achieving clarity around what your aspirations are, when attempting to answer the MBA version of the Romeo and Juliet question—to be or not to be?

The Art and Science of the MBA Question

In addition to a lack of clarity surrounding an uncertain future, there is another inherent issue in answering the MBA question: unfortunately there is not a right or wrong answer. Instead, we are faced with varying degrees of better or worse answers. This is because, unlike math and science, the answer cannot be simply answered true or false.


The scientific side of the MBA question can be made black and white, but only to the extent that there is clarity around future career aspirations. Take for example a 29-year old who has been working as a consultant at McKinsey, BCG or one of the other top consulting firms since she graduated from undergrad. She has aspirations of moving into an upper management position and would like to stay with her current company or make a vertical move to a different firm.

In this scenario, given the size and scale of the top consulting organizations, there is structure around what future promotions might look like, as well as the compensation associated with those roles. On top of that, there is a significant sample size of upper level management that can be used as a litmus test in determining how an MBA has opened up doors and provided advancement opportunities within the firm. All of this information helps to provide clarity around what the future might hold both with and without the MBA, allowing her to assess the tradeoffs.

Unfortunately, not all scenarios are quite so clean cut. We do not live in a black and white world, which is largely what makes questions like whether or not to go back to school so difficult. You might be at a smaller organization with less career path clarity. You might have evolving aspirations. At this exact moment you might not be 100% sure what you want to be when you grow up so answering a difficult question that hinges on that answer is all the more difficult. This is where financial planning—the weighing of tradeoffs in a world with limited resources—becomes more art, less science.

A Framework for Answering the Big Question

In arriving at the answer to the “should I go back to get my MBA” question it can be helpful to have a framework for analyzing and assessing your situation. Below is a breakdown of six steps that can be taken to arrive at an answer appropriate for you.

  1. Create Clarity Around the Future: Answering the question about where you want to take your career—and ultimately—your life should be the starting point. In fact, once this question is answered, you can become more scientific about answering the broader MBA question.
  2. Map out Your Career Path: Once you’ve established a sense of where you want to go, start mapping out the steps required to get there. If you plan to stay within your organization, this likely includes mapping out the steps required to get to where you want to go. If you’re in a smaller organization, work to create a list of competencies required for advancement.
  3. Do Your Homework: Once you’ve mapped out your path get some alternative perspectives from people you trust. There will likely be few things more valuable than eliciting alternative views on the value of an MBA.
  4. Calculate a Breakeven: Start assessing what schools might make sense given your aspirations, geographic preferences and aptitude. From there start estimating the cost for both a full-time and part-time degree and estimate what you think is a reasonable bump in pay upon returning to the workforce. This net increase in pay will allow you to determine how quickly that money will allow you to breakeven, taking into consideration the money spent on the degree, as well as the opportunity cost of forgoing income while in school.
  5. Consider Alternatives: Before taking the leap of faith into MBA-hood, give some thought to the alternatives. It can be worth it to explore simply taking a few classes to improve a few weak areas in your skill set, as well as sharpening some of your strengths. Also, be sure to check out the Personal MBA and MBA hacks for ideas on how you might be able to acquire much of the knowledge on your own and at a much lower cost.
  6. Take the Leap (And Be Willing to Pivot): Like many of the uncertainties in life, sometimes it requires an honest effort in assessing what’s best and then a little blind faith in taking the leap. The MBA is no different. Do your best to assess the situation using the framework above, but then there comes a time when you just have to take the leap, while always staying open to changing course as life changes with it.

About Matt Cosgriff, CFP(®)

Minneapolis Financial Planner | Intrapreneur | Young Professional | Millennial Guru | Tech Aficionado | Traveler | Food Lover | Minnesota Wild Fan | Movie Quoter | Follow on Twitter| LinkedIn

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