Penelope Trunk: Why B-School Attracts People “Who Are Lost”

“MBA applications always go up during a bad economy. That is because business school generally attracts people who are lost, and more people feel lost when the bad job market is lousy.”

So opens Penelope Trunk’s provocative 2010 essay, “Why an MBA Is a Waste of Time and Money.” In it, she outlines how the MBA has grown pointless and limiting, compounding debt, inhibiting entrepreneurship, and putting off an inevitable slog back to the real world. Agree or disagree, her opinion is a challenge to conventional wisdom that the MBA degree is a sure ticket to the good life.

Trunk is an uncommon player in the career management business. Founder of three startups, including Brazen Careerist, an online career community for Gen-Y professionals, she loves the controversial, once Tweeting about a miscarriage during a board meeting. Her career advice—along with her musings on sex, her divorce, dating a Wisconsin farmer, and how to get promoted–appears on her blog and in more than 200 newspapers.

The biggest career mistakes people make? According to Trunk, it’s focusing too much on money, relocating too often, forgetting to get married, doing too much work at work, and being too truthful on your resume.

In a wide-ranging interview with Poets&Quants, Trunk maintains her reputation as an unconventional provocateur. She contends that an MBA only has value if it’s from a top ten school. Otherwise, Trunk concludes, the degree can be “an albatross” due to the large debt that most MBAs graduate with. She considers B-school professors little more than a commodity and that the real value in an MBA program is a well-run Career Services Center to get graduates good jobs. Trunk also advises women to go to business school if they want to “land a better spouse.” But be careful, she cautions, two upwardly mobile people in the same family is a recipe for romantic disaster.

In 2005, you wrote, “If you dream of climbing ladders in the Fortune 500, get an MBA” In 2010, you wrote an article entitled “Why the MBA is a Waste of Time and Money.” What caused your position to shift over five years?

I haven’t totally shifted. What you have to remember is that an incredibly small percentage of people are able to climb the ladder. Most of them are ENTJs on the Myers-Briggs scale. If you’re not an ENTJ, you should forget it. Look, there are lots of great marketers, but few make it to marketing director. With Top 10 MBA programs, they’re so incredibly selective. You’re really betting the house that you’ll get in. It’s crazy. It’s so high risk. If you’re going to get in, you may as well do a Top 10 school. It’s a harsh reality. If you’re not climbing to the top of the Fortune 500, you may as well not get a MBA.

Also there’s the issue of relocation. If you climb the ladder, it’s 90% sure your kids will have to re-locate, probably in junior high school. You have to be willing to take your kids out of school. After an MBA, you have to get a new job and relocate. Very few people have that value in a company and it’s not really good to do. Not everyone wants to have kids, but there is a subset who can get into Top 10 and move up the ladder. But it’s too small a group of people.

In recent articles, you’ve alluded to the possibility that an MBA no longer provides a career advantage, let alone is a necessary prerequisite to success. Why is that?

For anyone not climbing the Fortune 500, it’s an albatross. It creates a huge debt. It won’t open many doors unless you’re in the Fortune 500. In fact, it closes doors because you have to get a job that allows you to pay the debt. If nothing else, b- school only prepares you for high paying jobs. Careers are more dynamic and must be more accommodating to personal lives. You don’t want to be tied to a job because of debt, and a MBA puts you at a disadvantage right out of the gate.

You’ve encouraged your readers to learn by doing. MBA educators would counter that their programs teach high-level thinking skills employing a range of methodologies and scenarios. Where does each philosophy potentially fall short?

There’s no evidence that high-level thinking skills will get you a better job. There’s no evidence that an MBA will make you a better thinker. There is lots of evidence that an MBA means you’re a lousy entrepreneur. Entrepreneurs require risk taking and ingenuity. MBAs are more likely to follow rules. There’s no evidence – outside of Top 10 schools – that MBAs do better in their lives. The Top 10 only does better if you go there at the beginning of your career. And going $150K in debt for a MBA program is preposterous.

You’ve mentioned that B-school sometimes attracts individuals who are lost, uncertain, lacking a plan or pushing off the inevitable. How can students know if they are pursuing MBAs for the right or wrong reasons? What career or passion tests would you encourage them to take to find out?

You can’t get into a Top 10 school without a plan. And business school is completely ineffective if you don’t have a plan. The Top 10 won’t even let you in without plan. But if you’re not in Top 10, it won’t matter; it’s a moot point. You’re better off working, going to night school to get the degree.

What population segments or career paths do you see still benefiting from a MBA…and why?

That’s so important. You need to graduate business school and go into the workforce before you have kids. For women, this is a problem. Schools like to see you have work experience and you have a good plan. If you go in at 26 and you’re a woman, you don’t have time to leverage the degree and have kids. That’s why the Top 10 are letting women in earlier than men. But forgot it if it’s later than 29.

If you can’t get into the Top 10, don’t go. If you didn’t get a 700 GMAT, don’t go. If you haven’t done anything amazing between the ages of 20-25, forget it. There are so many people splitting hairs and unsure. It doesn’t matter. You don’t have a chance to get in. The world is hard. Getting a job is hard. Should I get an MBA? That’s like asking if you should date a model or Nobel Prize winner. Forget it. It’ll never happen. It’s all a pretend conversation.

  • desack

    The data on the topic suggests otherwise. Even for non-Fortune 500 jobs an MBA generally leads to a higher salary. This is true both starting out, and later in the career. I am not the biggest fan of the MBA degree, but these are the facts. When you browse job openings even jobs that require little experience are requiring an MBA now.

    As for the statement about kids, and how an MBA is a bad idea if you want kids I think the author is wrong. She compares it to being an entrepreneur, well it is even worse to attempt to be an entrepreneur and have kids. Kids take a huge amount of time and money, the opportunity cost of having kids is huge. Nobody that has kids seems to have any energy left, add the huge amount of time it takes to be an entrepreneur and having kids is probably a deal-breaker. Also, it is almost impossible to justify having kids (or vice versa being an entrepreneur) if you are going to do something where you might not take a paycheck for a year or more.

  • sam

    To bash MBA’s because most people coming out of the programs don’t have original Ideas is to bash the program because human beings graduate from it. Most scientists, doctors, lawyers and any other profession populated by human beings suffer the same problem. Most humans never have an original idea. Most humans are followers. So your advice is to stay in your foxhole and let the world drive by you.
    This kind of thinking is why America is in the state it’s in. Let’s all be safe and make no decisions. Let’s all just go with the flow.
    You miss the point that a lot of lower tier MBA schools are much cheaper and will help people work up into middle management jobs they’d never have gotten without the degree. Sure most of those poor non ENTJ (or ESTJ or ENTP’s) won’t crawl to the top but they wouldn’t do that if they went to Harvard. The ENTJ’s will crawl for the top with or without the MBA. Not recommending everyone get one, in fact I’ve argued for years colleges turn out too many Masters degrees overall.
    But to argue that no one should try and we should all just accept the initial roll of the dice life starts us with is to argue for a sad dreary world.

  • rudy

    An MBA degree is only 2 years of your life, why not do it anyways? People routinely make poor life decisions that are costly in terms of both time and money, in many cases more expensive than getting an MBA degree from a mid-tier school. Education doesn’t depreciate over time and masters degrees put you into a higher income bracket. So why push back against MBAs?