Category Archives: MBA

Harvard and the Age of MBA Students

I’ll lay my cards on the table:  I think Harvard’s 2+2 program is a crock.

Even though I do not hold the degree (yet), I feel comfortable in asserting that the purpose of an MBA is to prepare one for the working world.  It is an academic setting, but only exists to build tomorrow’s business superstars.  These students’ only application fodder is academic in nature, belying the importance of the #1 facet of an MBA applicant: experience.  So is it arrogance or ignorance to believe that Harvard could identify the next decade’s VPs before they’ve even been accepted to their first job?  The applicants for the 2+2 program still have the stench of cheap beer in their favorite shoes from their 21st birthday blowout.  Pardon me for being wary.

As fine an institution as Harvard admittedly is, even they are unable to teach a person to be a good employee or to create value for their company.  They can provide the necessary tools, but many times, that’s not enough.  The academic portion of an MBA application is simply a question of whether the applicant can satisfactorily complete the course of study.  Graduating from a tier 1 business school with a 4.0 vice a 3.0 does not make you automatically more qualified as a venture capitalist or a brand manager.  However, 5 years of experience making private equity deals would be significantly more valuable than 2 years in the same field.

We all learn from our experiences, both in and out of the suit and tie.  The value of a Harvard education in minimized when there is no experience to which to tie the concepts learned in the classroom.  For example, young professionals can read every book ever written on the subject of leadership, but none of the concepts will “stick” until the reader has an example from their past to connect to.

I have many more questions than answers:

  • How can an MBA admissions committee evaluate the strength of a business school candidate before he has worked in business?
  • How does the applicant know that an MBA is right for his career?
  • What motivation does the already-accepted worker bee have to perform at his best in his 2 years of obligatory work experience?
  • Instead of the first step in his career, could he see the 2 years of work as the means to an end: that he has to endure even if the setting/company/industry are all wrong for him?
  • What incentive is there to work hard and fight for advancement?
  • Would he be treading water and biding his time?
  • Would he place less emphasis on learning and growing at work?

And if these questions have validity, how does that affect the rest of the HBS class?  If I had worked my butt of for 6 years earning 2 promotions, while studying 3 hours/day for the GMAT, I would want a class full of other similarly experienced and motivated students.  I find it hard to believe a 2+2 admit would bring much to the table.  I hate to watch HBS turn into a puppy mill.

MBA = Leadership?

I often laugh at the claims of business schools to turn you into a leader during your 2 years in school. How exactly do they expect to pull that one off?

I guess I don’t quite understand the thought that anyone can “become” a leader in a school environment. What does it really mean to become a leader anyway? At exactly what point in his life did Abraham Lincoln become a leader? Of course the real goal is build your leadership skills as your grow personally and professionally, but can a business school help accomplish that?

In some small ways, I admit that it’s part of any person’s natural development, but the great leaders of the past and present didn’t study discounted cash flow models to hone their leadership skills. They led. I can read every John C. Maxwell book in print, and be mentored by the greatest leaders in the world, but there is no substitute for the real thing.

As an Air Force officer, I’ve commanded groups as large as 70 people, and I’ll promise you that no amount of preparation can get you ready for the first time that 70 people are standing doe-eyed waiting for your first order. It’s terrifying…

And so I learned… One day at a time, I learned about me, about each of them, and about what works and doesn’t. No school (and I had already been to a few) can teach the subtleties of charismatic leadership. The ONLY way to become a better leader is to lead, fail, assess, learn, and lead again. Rinse and repeat. This can be accomplished at work, at church, a volunteer organization, your daughter’s PTA, etc. If it involves influencing others toward a common goal, then it can contribute to your self-awareness as long as you take the time to assess your performance.

Don’t misunderstand my disdain for leadership learning: several books on leadership have single-handedly changed my life. But these books are only useful with a bevy of leadership failures to draw upon.

Business school will present its fair share of challenges, and opportunities to lead small groups, projects, etc. I wholeheartedly accept that every such challenge will push you one more step down the path, but I reject the propaganda that indicates you’ll arrive a timid boy working the fry-stand at McDonalds, and leave as a hairy-chested man ready to take a post as a CEO.

With that metaphor, I bid you adieu.

Financial Situation

I have a family (including 2 kids), so 2 years with no income is a daunting idea.  Fortunately, business school is going to be a bit cheaper for me than most.  A couple years ago, congress upgraded the GI Bill education benefits which have put my MBA dream on clearance.  My benefits will cover the undergrad rate of the most expensive public university in each state.  Additionally, the Yellow Ribbon Program is a voluntary program where private schools can offer additional benefits so that veterans can afford the higher cost of tuition of private schools.  Lastly, the new GI Bill pays the qualifying vet a housing allowance which is a substantial load off of the financial requirement of 2 years sans income.  This benefit ranges from about $1000 to $3000/month based on the cost of living of the city.

This brings the cost of tuition and fees down significantly – down to, and including, free.  The preliminary list of schools I could attend tuition free includes Wharton, Tuck, Ross, Fuqua, Johnson, and GA Tech, among others, and this doesn’t even take the housing stipend into account.

So that means the world is my oyster right?  Well… kinda.  My parents are finishing their 1500sf basement in Atlanta and they’ve offered to let us live there rent-free for 2 years.  So now we’re in the realm of being able to survive the entire 2 years without my wife having to work and without taking 1 cent in student loans.  This is a very enticing possibility, but the huge question that I need to answer for myself is this: is that financial freedom worth giving up on the “better” business schools elsewhere?

Savings realized by living in Atlanta include:

Rent: 1000-2500/mo (remember: wife, 2 kids, 80 lb dog)

Cable/internet: 100/mo

Efficiencies from combining meals w family: 200/mo

Free babysitting: priceless

I estimate that the total savings from living in Atlanta over the 2 years will be between $35K (in a low rent area like Duke or UVA) and $75K (in a high-rent area like Boston, Philadelphia, NYC, etc).  This doesn’t even include the additional cost of tuition if I chose a school not on the “free list”.  Harvard would be $25K/year extra bringing the total to $125K.

In pure financial terms, Harvard would almost definitely be worth $125K more than Emory or GA Tech, and Wharton would undoubtedly be worth $75K more.  The lifetime earning potential for a top3 grad could easily be $1 million more than Emory/GA Tech.  But there is also added non-financial benefits such as company for my wife when I’m working on projects late and on weekends, plentiful childcare making life easier, easier Christmas scheduling/decreased travel requirements, no need to find an apartment that will accept 80-lb dogs, the happiness associated with being close to extended family (all of our families live in the Southeast) and a myriad of other small problems.  In addition, I question the value of a top3 business program if you A) don’t want to live in the northeast and B) don’t want to be a banker or consultant.  More on this in a later post.

There are also issues with getting a job in the south from a school in the northeast, but this too I’ll talk about in a later post.  I’ve rambled enough for tonight.

MBA People

The self-aggrandizing (aka self-important) vs the self-discovering (aka self-actualized)…

It ultimately goes back to the question of “why?”.  Like in any major undertaking, some people get MBAs for the right reasons, and some get them for the wrong reasons.  Those who are searching for meaning and passion in their career endeavors are the ones who’d gladly get their MBA at Billy Bob’s Trucking School despite their admit to HBS if they felt the fit and connection was better at BBTS.

Most of the reason that HBS has so many billionaire alums is not because of the education itself – any number of schools can prepare you as rigorously as the crowned jewel of Boston.  The reason HBS alums are so dominant is the type of people who apply there.  Armed with an HBS admit (i.e. assuming a top tier candidate), I believe that person could attend any of the top 20 schools and become just as successful over the long haul (perhaps more so).  My point is: going to the school doesn’t make you a profit-creating monster.  If you’re capable of securing a top3 admit, you’re capable of nearly anything.  Use your talents wisely.

But MBA people (from what little  I’ve seen) are more wrapped up in going to the most prestigious school they can get into so they’ll have the name on their resume.  Boo.  You disappoint me… you who are supposed to be the great ethical business leaders of the information age.  Go where you fit.  This includes school, company, geography, church, circle of friends, etc.  If you are not comfortable, you will not be operating at full capacity.  Why is business school any different?

Maybe I’m wrong… there’s a first time for everything 😉



I guess it’s a fair question – and one that should really underpin the remainder of my MBA experience and my career.

So what’s the purpose of an MBA?  More importantly, what’s MY purpose for an MBA?

Clearly we all have different reasons for doing things.  Reasons for an MBA fall into 2 main categories – self-aggrandizing and self-discovery.  I’ll explore these in some detail in later posts.

From my introspection, I believe my intentions are pure… as pure as I’m capable of anyway.  I’m not interested in an MBA for financial reasons – I currently make over $85K and have solid prospects for continued raises.  I plan to use my MBA as a portal – a new start into a career that moves me.  I deserve to have a job that gets me moving in the morning – that I truly enjoy and that enjoys me – an industry where my talents and passions intersect.

In his excellent book More than Money, Mark Albion makes the (brilliant) point that we should not get too good at something that we don’t enjoy just because we’re talented at it.  He’s got me pegged.  I wish I’d read the book 10 years ago.  If I “stick around” in the AF until 20 yrs for the retirement benefits, then I’ll be pigeon-holed into government work.  My experience will be too specific, and I’ll end up as a career government-man.  The time to make a clean break is now (well… the summer of 2012).

Who am I?

Thanks for joining the quest.

I’m an Air Force officer with aspirations of a Tier 1 MBA.  So what does that mean?  I was hoping you could tell me.

I have far more questions than answers, but 2 years to figure them out.  Due to a service commitment for a free masters degree, I’m not going to be applying for another 18 months.

Will you be my friend along the way?

Feel free to contact me at airforcetomba [at] gmail [dot] com