Why Business School?

Why would I uproot my life to leave a well-paying, fully remote tech job, losing two years of earnings and experience in the process?

Thoughts and reflections of a major life decision.

1. Introduction

Next year, me, my partner, and two cats will leave our long-time home of Chicago. I’ll be leaving my fully remote job as a project manager at an enterprise software startup, where I am appreciated and well-compensated, in order to enroll in a full-time MBA program.

My whole seven-year career has been in software. By opting to sacrifice two years of earning for a piece of paper with no intrinsic value, direct exposure to technology, or guarantee of employment in my current field (all while in a tech industry downtown) I’m taking on, to put it lightly, some risk.1

However, I believe the risks are justified by the opportunities two years in business school will provide 2:

  • Chances to do great work on a variety of problems with a variety of amazing people
  • Guidance and practice reps to develop my “personal brand” and networking skills, enabling me to find and make connections with people who enjoy working on similar problems
  • An accelerated introduction to a new area of the country with proximity to family, amazing nature, and great long-term career prospects
  • Life-enriching experiences bleh as I’m surrounded, in-person, by people who come from unique backgrounds but are experiencing similar emotions during a transition periods in their lives

If you’re still reading, congrats on your gag reflex being strong enough to handle MBA cliches and idealism.

Opting to go to business school is the most deliberate action I’ve taken to steer my career. Up to this point, my career decisions have all been made partially out of convenience. But with each decision though, the balance as tilted away from convenience and towards greater risk and opportunity. With this decision, more than ever before, I’m actively taking on personal and financial risk in a hope that I’ll emerge with a more fulfilling career path and, in turn, more meaniningful life.

I hope this may help someone making a similar decision in their life, and have included some links at the bottom of resources that I found useful.

2. “Why MBA?”, The Pond Analogy

Throughout the application process, I’ve been frequently asked to justify “Why MBA?”. I’ve given many answers, but there’s one I found myself settling on:

“I’m not learning enough - most of the feedback I get from my peers amounts to ‘keep up the good work’. I’m in a small “pond” which makes me feel like I’m not realizing my full potential. Attending an MBA program in (insert coastal tech hub) will put me in a big “pond” where I’ll be surrounded by talented, ambitious classmates and tech industry leaders I can learn from and work with.”

Finding a larger “pond” is conventional wisdom, but not an unalloyed good. The tradeoffs of “big fish in a small pond” vs. “small fish in a big pond” have been discussed at length by Malcolm Gladwell and in academic contexts. Here’s the gist:

  • Being at the top of the group hierarchy, even if it’s a small unremarkable group, boosts one’s “academic self-concept.”
  • On the other hand, being at the bottom of a group, even if it’s a remarkable group (like I will likely to find at a “top” MBA program) can harm it.
  • This “academic self-concept" is correlated with motivation and academic performance.

Put directly, there’s a chance that I might find myself overwhelmed by the caliber of my classmates and lose motivation to grow my career. Personally, my approaches to both the application process, and career progression in general, mitigate this risk.

  • I was very selective in my MBA applications. I didn’t apply very widely or chase MBA prestige. By the numbers, regardless of where I go, I’ll be an above average student and my background in software and consulting is likely to help me fit into the culture well.
  • I’ve already made many jumps to bigger “ponds”. I’ve a very risk averse person and, like many, have dealt with imposter syndrome throughout my career. In changing jobs, I’ve favored incremental jumps to slightly larger “ponds” rather than reaching for the most prestige. With each jump I’ve had to manage anxieties that I’ll be inferior, and keep an intense focus on being humble and learn from those around me. But with each jump I’ve found a way to succeed. Going to business school represents a larger but still incremental jump that I believe I can handle, if not thrive by.

The bigger “pond” also comes with a major upside.

The greatest moments of enjoyment and growth in my career have come from working with talented, opinionated managers, teammates, and clients focused on understanding and solving interesting problems. These people were open to being vulnerable, asserting their ideas, and learning from those around them (regardless of place in a hierarchy).

My big bet (for the investment into an MBA) is that I’ll find more of these moments through an MBA program, and find a cause/organization that can continue to deliver those beyond graduation.

3. Footnotes and Further Reading

  1. Avoiding lifestyle creep while working in consulting helps reduce this risk.

  2. This is applicable to so-called “top” programs that, due to their prestige and reputation, attract individuals from diverse backgrounds and have opportunities to connect you with individuals in a large variety of roles and industries.

  3. This blog post makes a strong case for why to get an MBA that I found reiterated in my one-on-one chats with current and former MBA students.

  4. I used Applicant Lab. It helped me realize how much of the application process required playing a game where only a few know the rules.