[This article originally appeared in Indonesia Mengglobal, a site where Indonesian students and alumni from US top schools such as Stanford, MIT, Harvard and UC Berkeley share their study-abroad tips and experience. Indonesia Mengglobal aspires to make high-quality global education more accessible for Indonesian students.]
It has been almost six years since I got my MBA degree. Some prospective, current, and alumni of MBA programs often ask me for advice on navigating their careers. Many ask whether I thought the MBA was worth it.
When I re-entered the real world from the safe ivory towers of academia, I wondered whether all the knowledge, frameworks and relationships built during my graduate school years could truly bring order to the messy business of the real world. It prompted me to reflect at my reasons for going back to graduate schools and whether or not I had learned anything useful along the way.
Let me just say the most important lessons I learned during that journey were actually about life itself. Yes, it sounds cliché, but it is the truth.
I wanted to learn something about business. This may sound peculiar because I am not convinced that everyone who goes to b-schools wants to learn business. Many go because they think that’s what they’re supposed to do. They just want their tickets punched “Top MBA” and off they go, either return to what they were doing before or moving on to greener pastures.
I wanted to learn how business people and leaders think. I was fortunate to attend a school where there was an abundance of opportunities to learn how business people or leaders think straight from the horse’s mouth. We constantly learned through the speakers, classmates, alumni, teachers and companies who seemed to swarm our campus almost on a daily basis. Today is Bill Clinton, tomorrow is Kofi Annan. Oprah even taught a class called “Dynamics in Leadership,” which was of course a perennial favorite that was always over-subscribed. For those networking-obsessed people, being in b-school was like a child in a candy store.
I guess there is some truth to the saying that b-school is the perfect place to “network.” At times, I was in awe by the people around me: seems like everyone has stellar pedigree and credentials. There was the pharmaceutical heir who has climbed the Seven Summits while raising educational funds for sherpa communities around the world so that their kids could go to school. Countless scions of industrialists, cabinet ministers and heads-of-states. A speech writer to a US President. An Olympic gold medalist. And so on and so forth.
The sheer number of “highly-accomplished” people around me was just mind-boggling. It was a mixed blessing: it’s great to be surrounded by ambitious, successful people because discussions become very interesting, but it can also be detrimental, for these types of people are usually highly competitive, and by nature, insecure. You learn that everyone is groping towards something called business success, and that what marks out the successful gropers — if you excuse the term — from the unsuccessful gropers can be anything from an engaging personality to analytical brilliance to plain dumb luck.
Further fueling the competitive game is a particular sport peculiar to top b-schools, called “recruiting.” Amid never-ending classes, exams, team meetings, projects, networking events, speakers, community service, every top b-school student experiences the hell called recruiting. It is the mating dance between companies and students, which for many students, seems like a matter of life and death. It starts as early as the second week you arrive on campus.
You’ve just arrived, all wide-eyed and have just finished with a boot camp, and companies have already started courting you — but you are also expected to deftly return the courtships and play the game. When you go to these invite-only events, smile and try to be witty to be remembered so that they’ll include you in their closed lists later on. Different companies intentionally hold their events at the same time so you need to be resourceful to make sure that you attend all of them.
They keep a checklist of who shows up and who doesn’t, because you don’t want to be the one to whom they ask, later on in an interview, “If you’re really interested in our company, how come we’ve never seen you before?”
Companies spend a fortune trying to woo students. The world’s largest software manufacturer arranged for their summer interns to have a BBQ at Bill Gates’ home where Gates himself tried to convince these whiz kids to go back to said software manufacturer post-graduation. The Oracle of Omaha, Warren Buffet, also the world’s 2nd richest man, offered a private dinner and talk to 100 lucky students. All in all, you can see how all these things get into students’ heads. After all, we’re just impressionable kids.
They wine and dine you at the most expensive restaurants. They fly you out for second-round interviews and put you up at the nicest hotels. They even fly your spouses out and arrange for a city tour, complete with a real-estate agent, in case you are interested in relocating after accepting your offer. These are just for interviews, before you have even received an offer or yet accepted a position. Companies compete with one another trying to get the best minds in business to be groomed their next generations of leaders.
I found the social experiment part of the MBA experience the hardest. Yes, the academics were demanding, but the social pressure was even more so. Things seemed to center around jobs and more jobs. If you do not secure a job one year in advance prior to graduation, you risk being a social outcast. B-school is a bubble, a very painful social bubble. It takes guts and courage to rise above the masses. A good friend of mine aptly puts it as follows:
“‘Swimming upstream alone,’ that’s what I’ve felt like spiritually for the last couple of months here at Kellogg. It’s like there’s this current that is “Kellogg” that seems to constantly be flowing in the opposite direction of where I’m trying to go. Sometimes the current switches directions and I get to swim with it for a while, but mostly I end up with a mouthful of water as I try to stay afloat going, well… no where.”
There is a herd mentality in b-schools year after year, though the flavor of the day changes. For the last two decades or so, depending on the state of the economy, the MBA, particularly from a top school, is a feeder for two industries: banking and consulting. At the top schools, around two-thirds of the class go into these two industries.
In the 1960s it was advertising. In the 1970s it was conglomerates. In the 1980s it was bond trading. In the 1990s it was dot-coms. Right now, it’s private equity and hedge funds. You have hordes of people who want to do this “hot” thing, not because they actually like the job, but because it would make them feel good about themselves for getting a job in a “sexy” industry that would be the envy of others.
The irony is, the majority of people at the top b-schools are precisely the people who don’t need the prestige of that degree to get ahead because they already had the goods to succeed in the first place. They don’t need the prestige because their talents and achievements speak for themselves. But if you ever become extraordinarily successful, the b-school will try really hard to take some credit for being a part of your “formative years.”
Yes, b-schools are big business, they know it and act the part (that’s why the Dean knows you by name, that’s why the alumni office has started being friendly with you even before you walk out the door, that’s why they practice to pronounce your name correctly for they know you may be an important “asset” to the school for the years to come).
Again, those who have the experience and accomplishments that speak for themselves don’t need no prestige.
There are people, even at top schools, who spend their lives collecting brand names, ranking everything in sight and see the world in some crisp hierarchy. And there are those who see through that and focus on the important things.
So, was it worth it? Somewhere in that fog, and here is where business school comes in, is a set of tools any old Joe can use to improve his chances. Whether it is drafting a list of personal priorities and sticking to them, managing the brand called “you,” or learning how to apply a balanced scorecard to your business.
The goal is not so much to develop a specific tactical skill, which may or may not be useful in five years time, but to develop an intuition or palate for business that lasts a lifetime. In the short term, this risks serving neither the MBAs nor the companies that hire them especially well. But over the long term, it should all work out.
I do have a far greater appreciation for the rational processes that go into business decisions than before. I have learned that the easily parodied jargon of the business world is often the product of very worthy efforts to conceptualize and solve real problems. I can say quite confidently that levering up a business to juice the returns has its risks. I know that debt can be both a pillow and a sword. Was it worth the time, money and personal sacrifice of living separately from my husband for three years? I certainly do hope so.
I think b-school has allowed me to develop that sixth sense in trying to define a good business, similar to finding that elusive ‘soul-mate’: It is hard to define, but you will know it when you see it.
Sonita Lontoh is a clean technology expert and is a frequent speaker and contributor on energy, cleantech, and women leadership topics for publications such as Forbes, Fortune, CNN, MIT Review, etc. Follow her on Twitter @slontoh.