Defending the Honor of the MBA

The dean of Tuck business school came to the defense of the MBA degree in October's Atlantic Monthly in response to an article by Matthew Stewart that had appeared in the magazine in June ("The Management Myth"). Stewart, who had earned a PhD in nineteenth-century German philosophy before starting his own consulting firm and then chucking it all to become a "philosopher at large" (and publishing bedside reading like "The Courtier and the Heretic: Leibniz, Spinoza, and the Fate of God in the Modern World"), questioned the value of an MBA:

As a principal and founding partner of a consulting firm that eventually grew to 600 employees, I interviewed, hired, and worked alongside hundreds of business-school graduates, and the impression I formed of the M.B.A. experience was that it involved taking two years out of your life and going deeply into debt, all for the sake of learning how to keep a straight face while using phrases like "out-of-the-box thinking," "win-win situation," and "core competencies."

He conceded that MBA training does confer some benefits, none of them curriculuar:

Like an elaborate tattoo on an aboriginal warrior, an M.B.A. is a way of signaling just how deeply and irrevocably committed you are to a career in management. The degree also provides a tidy hoard of what sociologists call "social capital"—or what the rest of us, notwithstanding the invention of the PalmPilot, call a "Rolodex." For companies, M.B.A. programs can be a way to outsource recruiting.

He argued that MBA programs fail to teach important managerial skills that can be learned only on the job, corrupt their students' communication skills with "obfuscatory jargon" (coming from someone who reads Heidegger for fun... yikes), teach only the most superficial ethics and values, and certainly don't teach them "how to think." Better to study philosophy instead in preparation for a business career, according to Stewart.

Responded Tuck's dean:

Many of our best students here at Tuck come to us with a broad liberal-arts education, and successful business leaders are as likely to have undergraduate degrees in poetry or fine arts as in finance or economics....

An M.B.A. from a top business school gives you a solid foundation in quantitative fields like accounting and finance; it gives you the terminology, the underlying theories, and the best practices; and it allows you to expand your understanding of how that all works in actual business settings. It also explores the "soft skills" that are so important, from ethics to leadership to communication."

Interestingly, even a Stanford business school professor, Jeffrey Pfeffer, has argued that "[t]here is little evidence that mastery of the knowledge acquired in business schools enhances people's careers, or that even attaining the M.B.A. credential itself has much effect on graduates' salaries or career attainment."

In my experience working with MBA applicants, most of them want to go to business school because (1) they want to change careers and think an MBA will be the easiest way to break into their desired field, (2) they don't like the track they're on, aren't sure what they do want to do instead, and think they'll figure it out in business school, or (3) they are working in entry-level roles at the big investment banks or consulting firms and think they face a glass ceiling without an MBA. (Unlike the legal profession, the business professions are not legalized cartels, so investment banks and consulting firms can decide for themselves which degrees to require, and from whom.) Whether those applicants really have to spend six figures in tuition expenses in addition to two years of lost work experience and income in order to reach those goals is a legitimate question.

(For a peek at what it's like to attend Tuck, check out "The Blushing MBA" by Feddy Pouideh -- it's self-published and a bit rough around the edges, but a good first-hand account of life at Tuck by a recent graduate.)