An MBA Trashes The Degree’s Value

by John A. Byrne on

3d-book-homeMariana Zanetti had been working as a product manager for Shell in Buenos Aires when her husband got a promotion to a new job in Madrid. One of her colleagues, a Harvard Business School graduate, suggested that the Argentine native go to business school for her MBA while in Spain.

She took his advice, enrolling in the one-year MBA program at Instituto de Empresa (IE) Business School In Madrid. Zanetti borrowed money from her family to pay for the degree. And when she graduated in 2003, it took her a full year before landing a job as a product manager for a Spanish version of Home Depot at exactly the same salary she was earning three years earlier without the MBA.

For years, Zanetti says, she wanted to write the just published book but didn’t for fear that it would hurt her professional career which included stints as a product manager for Saint-Gobain and ResMed, a medical supplier. Now that she has left the corporate world, Zanetti says, she can tell the truth about the MBA degree.

THE AUTHOR ADVISES APPLYING AND GETTING ACCEPTED AND THEN DECLINING THE OFFER

Her take, in a self-published book called The MBA Bubble: It’s just not worth the investment. “There is an education bubble around these kind of degrees,” she says. “I don’t think they have much impact on people’s careers. There are exceptions of course in management consulting and investment banking where the MBA is always valued. But for the rest, it’s a nice-to-have degree. It’s not that it harmful to you, but every market expert I interviewed for the book says that what is needed today is specialized knowledge and skills and an MBA is generalist training.”

Zanetti, now 40 and living in France, says it’s not like the degree had no value. “I met wonderful people. I met brilliant professors. I learned some interesting business concepts that gave me a global vision about business. It just wasn’t worth the cost in time and money. I could have had both those things by staying in the marketplace. I had the same salary as everybody else doing the same job, working the same endless hours. MBAs get high salaries but the degree has nothing to do with it. I was hired because of my previous work experience at Shell.”

She is even advising people to apply to a top school, get an acceptance and then decline to go. Put the fact on your resume and Zanetti thinks it will have nearly the same value as going to an MBA program for two years. “It’s like being an Academy Award nominee instead of an Academy Award winner,” she writes. “But the difference between the two is mortgaging our future and accepting the risk of getting stuck with a monumental student loan.” When an employer asks why you didn’t go to Kellogg or Yale for your MBA, she advises, just tell them, “I preferred to use that time and money to develop strategic skills to benefit my employers’ competitive advantage…”

‘FEW MBAS CRITICIZE THE DEGREE BECAUSE IT MAKES NO SENSE TO SAY ANYTHING BAD AGAINST THEIR BRANDS’ 

Of course, Zanetti’s complaint about the MBA is hardly new. It falls neatly into the growing genre of anti-higher education tirades that decry the rising costs of education and the lack of any guarantees. But what makes her MBA bashing somewhat different is that she has the degree from a prominent European business school and has decided to write a 232-page book trying to convince others to pass on the MBA, which has been the most successful degree in education in the last 60 to 70 years.

She believes that other business graduates would fess up to the same conclusion, if not for the fact that their views would endanger their careers. “There are few people criticizing MBA programs because it makes no sense to say anything bad against their brands,” Zanetti says. “I will not make a lot of friends with this book, but I won’t make enemies, either. People need to have this opinion.”

Her initial mistake, she says, was to blindly follow the advice of her Harvard MBA colleague instead of just getting a job when she moved to Europe with her husband. “I didn’t ask myself the right questions. Everyone was getting an MBA. Unfortunately, many people take the same position.”

EXTRAPOLATING FROM HER OWN EXPERIENCE TO MAKE BROAD STATEMENTS AGAINST THE DEGREE?

Asked if she thinks her opinion would apply to MBAs from Harvard, Stanford and other elite business schools, Zanetti has no doubt. “The same would apply to Harvard or whatever school because Harvard is three times more expensive,” she insists. “The benefits would have cost much more. The arguments I make are against all business schools. The improvement is marginal. It breaks a tie if you’re competing with someone who doesn’t have the degree, but people who have scarce skills an employer needs will get the job over you.”

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  • rami

    nowadays and onward the hard science is better. the question is: which degree is safer? hard science or MBA? which one offers broader opportunities inside and outside the business world? I guess it is the hard science specially from top university. The fact you mentioned was 6 to 10 years ago but now as many mentioned the number of mba candidates is just unbelievable and certainly will have its impact in the near future. plus the world of businesses is changing and becoming very specialized..

  • RENEgade

    Some outstanding points are made regarding this topic. One of the most valuable benefits associated with an MBA is the professional network and affiliation doors it can open. While Top Tier programs do an excellent job in this area, programs with a lesser cache simply do not. Some boast high alumni numbers which are misleading. Unless these individuals are in senior decision making roles and source talent from their respective schools, the overall number does not matter. I think in the case of the author’s school, this rings true.

    As with any graduate degree, employment and wage enhancement are not guaranteed. Moreover, holding an MBA does not equate into real life, hands on experience and certainly does not qualify one to succeed in a leadership position that typically garner higher salaries. I know many people who have invested in MBAs with stagnant careers and other without who have achieved great success. In the end, everyone has a different story. It is important that MBA students have realistic expectations.

    I believe it is important not to lump all MBA programs together. The top labels, although overpriced, likely meet or exceed student expectations primarily due to their deep networks and brand appeal, ultimately delivering a positive ROI. The lesser tier programs, especially bargain level are likely to have a much reduced return on investment. Higher Education has morphed into big business, this especially holds true of B-Schools offering a variety of degrees and programs. It is critical to determine what is propaganda verses indisputable facts. Again, in the case of the school attended by the author, propaganda seems to be robust. But do not accept my word for it, conduct your own due diligence as with all matters.

  • Dan

    1.Its impossible to make a blanket statement about which degree is “better” without person specific details. Hard science degrees are not applicable to all industries (much in the way that MBA are also not directly applicable to every industry).

    2. I don’t think using the full universe of MBA graduates is a good way to determine whether or not the degree is worth it to a specific person. Especially given the fact that a degree from an unaccredited school would be included in the same analysis as a degree from a well regarded top school.

    3. I will say pairing an MBA with a hard math/science degree would be the best of both worlds (ex. MIT’s LGO program)

  • RunMG

    Can you go into more detail regarding your disappointment with INSEAD?

  • COMMO

    lets say: MS in Engineering or Physics vs MBA ..both from MIT for example! which one is better and gives broader choices..? (broader in all fields of life..public..private..for profit..not for profit..consultant..entrepreneur… academia..etc..) … to make it simple: lets assume the student in both cases: 25 to 26 Ys old, 2 to 3 Ys we.. with the most common goals..do good in the job..and earn money..

  • SuperUpset

    I attended LBS, my friend attended Kellogg, and we are all disappointed 2 months into our MBA.

  • Dan

    Your thought experiment doesn’t really relate to real life decision making. A person who goes into a $100K+ degree program, or spends a year+ of their life on something without any clear goals (actual goals not just “do good in the job”, I mean goals with regards to what they want to accomplish) shouldn’t be attending either. The answer to all the industries you mention (all of which are too broad to have a one size fits all answer) is “it depends”.

    Ex.

    If i’m running a non-profit geared towards providing food to poor children in the developing world, and I have limited resources and no business structure to speak of…why would I hire a Physics Grad from MIT over an MBA with courses geared towards the non-profit arena.

    Conversely, If i’m running a non-profit geared towards heightening the global interest in Physics and I already have a pretty well thought out management structure….why wouldn’t I hire a physics MS student from MIT?

    Both are non-profits, but they lead to different answers. I think people need to shy away from this one size fits all mentality. In some arenas an MBA is better, in others an MS is better. It all depends on the person. To say either is useless in broad terms ignores all the nuances that should be involved in a persons decision to attain either.

  • LIMA

    the MBA is NOT academic degree, it is a professional degree, kind of advanced training with very basic knowledge! it can be earned by many ways, the best way though is through life experiences NOT through classes.

  • Dan

    1.I’m not sure what you mean by not an academic degree, so i’m going to leave that one alone

    2.Again whats best for someone varies. It depends on what you want to accomplish and what time frame your working with (among other factors). Just because “life experience” (your definition) is the preferred method of learning for you, doesn’t mean the same is true for everyone.

  • 1 year MBA

    She took his advice, enrolling in the one-year MBA program at Instituto de Empresa (IE) Business School In Madrid

    I don’t know how you can possibly get an MBA in one year?!?!?!!? My guess is prospective
    employers thought the same……

  • Mariana Zanetti

    In fact, after I got a job, my salary almost doubled in the three years that followed. If an MBA had anything to do with any career output, the 1 year MBA at IE would have the best ROI of the whole MBA spectrum. But that is not my point. My point is that MBAs are not the cause of any career output. B-schools just take the credit for the succcess of the driven and ambitious professionals they admit, and deny any responsability if they are in trouble.

  • Himanshu

    I read this article and to be frank I have close to 10 yrs of experience working on IT field in a technology which has gone obsolete but still clinging on it because of its penetration. The point is that if I ever opt to go to MBA it will be solely to try and change my career path or atleast get a push-up.

    A very interesting point to be pondered over is how do the B-Schools price their degree at such an exorbitant price ? Its not as if they are investing a lot of money which is required in other disciplines like say Engg or Medical exams

  • Ray

    I agree with the author, plus the MBA graduate is considered by many companies as overqualified or high risk. Reading and being curious are the real assets!

  • BusinessGURU

    I believe MBA is good for people in their mid twenties with no more than 3 years experience. But the current prices of many MBAs are very expansive and unjustifiable, any good mba program should not exceed $20K per year! otherwise it is just ridiculous.

  • malkovich

    Socrates – completely owned. What a disgrace to the name; seems “Socrates” can’t even read the second paragraph and see that the author graduated in 2003. Amazing how bigots like Socrates and Joe turn this into a Spain-bash.

    Leaving them aside, the author’s main shortcoming is the sample size of one. To her credit, there’s something to be said about the cost-benefit situation with business school. I’m attending a top-ranked program on a fairly generous merit scholarship, and I’ve been strongly questioning the financial wisdom of my decision. I can’t recommend business school at all – any business school – at the full price tag, unless the candidate were earning less than $75k pre-MBA.

  • Mariana Zanetti

    I do not use my case (sample size of one) to generalize, I present consitent pieces of evidence in my book and I support those statements with my experience and many other MBA graduates’, even from top tier business schools.
    We agree on the fact that B-school is not always a wise financial decision. Thanks for your comment.

  • Mariana Zanetti

    You might be right, I might have done my MBA three years earlier instead of changing companies right away and getting a 100% salary increase + a company car as I did… that way, if I had that career evolution after the MBA instead of before, I would have fit the statistics and the whole business education industry would have applauded my case… My point is that CORRELATION does not imply CAUSATION. I really believe that the MBA had very little to do with any of my career outputs. Statistics show what they swhow, but the MBA is not the cause of those outputs. We as a society have some deep unanalized beliefs about education that we are taking the wrong conclusions and paying any price, and everybody is still doing it. That will not last forever. I don’t think that the reality in the US challenges this conclusion, as the main studies proving this took into account mainly the American market.

  • Dan

    I still would like to point out that most of the studies you’ve mentioned have
    used the entire universe of MBAs to come to their conclusions (including schools which barely have accreditation). Additionally in the one study you mentioned the researchers themselves said they didn’t have enough data to come to a robust conclusion.

    My main point is that you can’t say the MBA in itself is not worth it because not all MBAs are created equal, and not every student comes to an MBA at the same point in there career. Stop trying to turn a fact about a specific group of MBAs/Applicants into a fact about the entire degree. For some people you’re right, for others you couldn’t be more wrong. I think what is causing a lot of the disagreement in this discussion is your contention that your idea applys to all MBAs for all people. Simple words like “many” or “often times” before you says “MBAs are not worth it” would make your argument more sound. Don’t argue more than you can prove.

  • Mariana Zanetti

    I do not think that my statements apply to all MBAs or to all MBA’s applicants at all. Again, I apologize if I give the impression of trying to impose my vision, because that is not my point AT ALL. I just would like that anyone taking the irreversible decision of going into 150k in debt in order to get an MBA take into account my arguments. If they do, but think that they are not valid, I will be happy. If it is your case and you don’t find them convincing, it probably means that you have made a great decision by pursuing an MBA, which is REALLY GREAT! I mean it. There are lots of people really happy with their degrees, I do not try to change that, but to challenge a little bit some commons beliefs to make sure that they are making an informed decision.

  • PS

    It is what you make of it. There are lots of opportunities that get opened up during and after the MBA but if you don’t out the hard work in to leverage them, they are going to pass you by.
    But one thing is for sure, the MBA degree without effort is not worth it. And MBA degree with some effort is maybe worth it. But an MBA degree from a top school with the right type and lots of hard work is definitely worth every penny.

  • Farrukh Mushtaq

    “If you lead a study among Ferrari owners, you will surely prove that there is also correlation between higher incomes and the Ferrari, but the Ferrari is not the cause of their wealth.”. Isn’t that like saying that all good undergrad colleges or high schools (and you can continue regressing down the chain) take the most talented students and thus aren’t adding value? Why wouldn’t it be useful for those “who have what it takes” to double down on their skills, grow their talents in tandem with others at the same level, and have access to the tremendous resources – recruiting access, academics, peer learning, and more – that an MBA program can offer?

  • JL

    I am an IE graduate and I couldn’t agree more!!!!!

  • Mariana Zanetti

    First: the 100k in tuition + ~150k in opportunity cost are not worth those benefits you mention.
    Second:The MBA learning experience is amazing, but it has no real impact in people’s careers. If you take a brillant professional and isolate him or her from the market for two years, your are depriving him of what has more value in today’s envirement: Real world experience. The world changes at a mad pace nowadays while the MBA learning experience was created 100 years ago for a predictible world, where the past served better to predict the future (the case method). The world do not work like that anymore.
    Third: I believe that the “tremendous ressources” are overrated. There are much more cost-effective ways to get those benefits while the MBA (even top-tier’s) have a negative ROI nowadays (except for management consulting or investment banking)
    While bachelor’s degrees are still a requirement for most jobs, the MBA is a pretty optional degree.
    I am not trying to impose my vision. I believe it is great if someone is happy with the MBA experience. But many people will regret it just as I did. They should take into account the detractor’s arguments before going into 200k in debt. The decision of enrolling an MBA program is one of the most irreversible decisions in life.

  • Mariana Zanetti

    Thanks for sharing your story. I do not think it is fair to point to IE, as people from other top schools, even Ivy leagues’, are admitting that they feel the same. After reading what other detractors all around the world (even from top tier American b-schools) wrote about this, I am convinced that my statements apply to the whole business education industry and not only to my experience in a particular school.

  • ProWORK

    Whether or not an MBA is worthless, I believe, is really up to the individual. Let’s face it, an MBA is not a certification or a qualification to be a business professional. You don’t need any qualifications to be in business…and many who don’t have an MBA do famously well in business. So, that structural element alone tells you…there are no guarantees with an MBA. But what an MBA is, I believe, is the edge you give yourself to be an outstanding business professional, but that means hard work….everyday. What this means is that you can’t expect your MBA to pull opportunities and wealth….that weight rests with you. If you don’t have this expectation or mindset going into an MBA….if your mindset is that your MBA will land you $$$ and great jobs…then you’re setting yourself up for disappointment. I believe that’s the point Mariana is trying to make….that you need to think about whether you’re the type to really benefit from an MBA. Put it another way….whether you’re the type who will proactively monetize your MBA. I earned my MBA in ’06 from an elite school in Canada. In my batch, there are some who are extremely disappointed, and some who have already made a fortune. All depends on who you are and what you’re prepared to do with your MBA.

  • MrMM 2

    IE Grad 2013. It was a waste of money and time…

    I recommend not doing an MBA at all… but if you want to do so, dont go to European B-schools ( specially IE).

  • http://batman-news.com/ Bizzarelife

    Mariana, I see that you are commenting on this site. I have a question for you.
    I have met several MBA grads that managed to save for their degree, apply for scholarships, and some even got fellowships. Granted, this is not really the norm, and it is hard to get that kind of financial help from outside sources (especialy for a grad degree). Still, I wonder if maybe the financial aspect was not fully fleshed out?
    I have not read your book, so I ask you, did you reveal the advice that these “market experts” are giving to people who have worked in one industry for many years and now have decided to switch careers? This is what I want to do, and I can tell you, simply picking up some books and telling them you applied for your MBA is NOT the way to go. I have interviewed at least a dozen professionals in the arena that I want to work in, and they have all told me that they would prefer an MBA with an internship at their respective firms. Again, I realize you are doing your best not to generalize, but I do feel that this books might dissuade those that are younger and imppressionable to choose a path that will not work for them.
    I do applaud your effort to reveal what is behind the ruby curtain of dissatisfied B-school customers. I had a colleague who was an HBS grad, and she really did not enjoy the experience. It is what you make of it, and it you are not ready or prepared, it will not be the way forward.

  • Janella

    I’m sorry, but I agree with Rufus on this one. No offense to you or your hard work, you should be commended for exploring a different side here. HOWEVER, IE is NOT the same as the top tier schools in the United States. Ask any employer. It just is not.
    Does this mean a top tier grad will get a great job, find happiness, and find the yellow brick road? NO. Still, this is a great deal of generalization for one person. The employement stats and career services offices are primary factors every B-school applicant needs to consider.
    I think this brings up a good point – some of these schools tend to recruit at a much-younger level. I think you might have a point in that – those persons do not ask the right questions about a school’s specialization, it’s employment stats, etc. I think your book could help in this scenario.

  • Guest

    This is where I agree 100%.

    I know someone who is well into his 30s, and he is in his second year at Wharton. He was miserable in his old job, and KNEW he needed the network to achieve his ultimate career goals. At that point, just reading a book or getting the career experience in “some other way” just is NOT enough. He needed that network, those doors to be opened. He just was not sure how to do it any other way.

    Well, let’s see, how did he go about it? Well, he immersed himself in the culture, and MET people. Did well in classes, and networked his proverbial behind off. Now, he is working at a fulfilling internship. His future looks good, and he is glad he did it.
    The author states this is not for everyone. I agree with her. I think if you want to apply to MBA school, you have to ask yourself – WHY? That is the number one question you will be asked in essays, interviews, etc. etc. If you cannot come up with a palpable answer to this question, and think of ways to maximize your investment while in school, then you simply cannot go.
    ALSO, I am curious as to whether the subject of internships and career development have come into play? It’s a common fact that one year programs are not nearly as strong as two year programs in relation to internships. Internships are REALLY important for those persons looking to get a leg up, maximize new skills, and possibly change careers. One year programs and executive programs are typically (not always) for those that want to stay in their current job, and need the degree for a managerial or higher-level position. You cannot rely on it for your job search or security.

    I think the real lesson here is ultimately choice and selection. Sound choices lead to much better chances of success. Better reason to apply WHEN YOU ARE READY! Career service and admissions staff from all schools will tell you this. They have their reasons for saying so, and they are quite firm.

  • Angelica Meyers

    OK, let me ask you something.
    If you had a candidate that took an interest in marketing, but had worked in a field completely different from that up until that point, what would be your recommendation for them? How would they get the experience needed to work in the marketing field WITHOUT having to take a massive pay cut? Would you recommend they work as an intern in addition to their regular job? Should they take a degree that is cheaper but has a specialization in Marketing? Is that not an MBA?
    I’m definitely understanding your point, but I want to get a fix on what your recommendations would ultimately be. For many, forming a bridge between what they do now and what they want to do is really difficult. This can be the case especially if they are in their late 20s and early 30s. The time for working at a lower-paying position is over. Yes, they will have loans, but many folks feel it is faster and a little bit more beneficial to have that degree. There is no arguing that it will open some kind of doors that they would not otherwise have. I sincerely doubt you would get a Chief Marketing Officer to sit down to lunch with you if you were just a layperson with no degree. Or, I seriously doubt you could find a top marketing guru to take the time to mentor you and show you the ropes if you were just a layperson. These are exactly the kind of initiatives offered at Berkeley Haas. They have one of the best marketing programs, aside from Kellogg.

  • Angelica Meyers

    Mariana,

    What your book NEEDS to provide is some solid suggestions and or evidence of how to perform a career switch or succeed WITHOUT the MBA. Do you recommend a specialization certificate, lesser degree program, etc.? If so, WHERE? How?
    What the folks you have interviewed have said is very interesting. What you need to find is folks who did not go to the top level business schools, and still did exactly what they wanted. Was it harder? How did they do it? Did they still get the networking and skills in some other way? HOW?
    If some meat is put into this research, and some solid alternative methods are produced, then I think I can see your point. I have not read this book, so I do apologize if those items are already in there.

  • Angelica Meyers

    Dan,

    I agree on this. I think solid research and then suggestions on how to move forward would really boost the credibility of this book.
    If anyone says something does not work, then the SOLID reason of WHY must be presented. We have sweeping claims, thoughts, and some anecdotal sentiments. If the career services section of these schools is really that awful, then WHAT did some folks do to boost their own professional lives without the MBA? Even where I work, it is quintessential that a person has an MBA or graduate degree. It does not have to be top-tier, but upper-level education is required. I have worked in multiple industries across the United States, and every single company I worked for required a grad degree. Not a single executive was without one. I even worked in the film studios in Los Angeles, and I have to tell you that all the upper level exes have gone to some kind of grad school (mostly UCLA/Wharton/top tier).

  • Angelica Meyers

    Texas is truly a great state for education as well as work. I have a great friend that lives there, and she is thrilled by the new job she has acquired.

    Great to hear a good story. Good luck!

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