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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  • IsItJustMe?

    Can any recruiters speak to her get accepted, decline, put it on your resume theory? Sounds foolish to me.

  • Joe

    “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.” ”

    No, her initial mistake was blindly assuming that her personal mistake applies to the general population…and looking for a job in Spain…

  • K!-Mink

    @ John!
    The underlying reasons behind her bitterness will surely apply to any degree when one did not do the initial fit self-screening. I suspect she was misled by the fancy rankings (FT after all ranked IE in top10 for long, and article on HEC Montreal’s website celebrates their top ranking by Economist). I remember last year April IE came to make a presentation in Cameroon, I could tell by listening to their local new recruit in the room that the school wasn’t for the best. Same goes for my pre-MBA summer in Montreal where my friends pressed me hard to study at HEC, or McGill which in their thinking, were top100 schools. Having spent the summer exploring, I found that the Canadian job market is in niches, you have to be really good at networking to get a good job, not to mention a top one. Here comes my take on journalists as a whole: Is there a way to correlate your rankings with some kind of fit analysis? I mean, if you rank HEC Montreal for example ahead of say Columbia, and you know Montreal is a town for immigrants, is there a way to tell them hey, watch out, your degree won’t have internship opportunities, you may find a job but things aren’t quite easy? I see schools like EM-Lyon (France) or SDA Bocconi on top rankings and to me it looks like the ADS I watch on CNN (Invest in country X, the best in XYZ). In the real context though, less than 5 schools in Europe will truly answer to the job question. Some people only rely solely on Internet for their research, how can journalist profession come as a help and not a tool for schools to create confusion?

  • Dan

    Yea, this sounds like a woman who didn’t get what she wanted out of her degree, due to a lack of appropriate research, who now wants to apply a one size fits all logic to the whole degree. I stopped believing her when when she said an HBS degree costs 3x as much. Honestly speaking, there is a group of lower ranked schools for which this story rings true, however I don’t think you can compare her experience to what one gets when they choose to invest in a degree from a top 5-10 school. More likely than not, the same personality/intellectual traits that spawned this story are to blame for her lack of success.

  • http://www.masteradmissions.com/ Betsy Massar

    This is one woman’s opinion, and I’m not sure it’s that well-argued without reading a chapter or two of the book. So I am only commenting here based on the article and the comments below.

    I think there’s a danger in assuming that her experience (focus group of 1) is true for the hundreds of thousands of students who have embarked on and succeeded at MBA programs. I think her title, her subtitle, and her thesis are designed to get attention and sell books — and nothing wrong with that, but she is self-proclaimed and self published — so it’s just one voice out there, one voice assuming that most MBA students don’t make informed choices. I find that to be a stretch.

  • Socrates

    She tried to get a job in Spain: a country with 50% unemployment. Is anybody surprised she had a hard time?

  • TA

    I think this woman isn’t making any sense. You can’t over glorify MBA degrees yes she is right about that. However to say it adds “NO” value is a bit of a stretch. I’d like to know what her background was . What did she study in college, where did she go to college, what was her specific role at Shell, how much money and business was she handling on a day to day basis. There is a reason adcoms look at this stuff before admitting someone.
    See Top MBA’s are magnets for people who are a certain type. I believe its the people who don’t wanna be the extreme networker or the extreme nerdy physicist. Its for people who have a work hard play hard dynamic.
    I’m getting my MBA at a top 20 school (#1 in Texas- which gives it immense value in Texas because of the healthy economy here). I have an engineering degree from the same university and I have a job offer lined up with a top tier oilfield services companies consulting unit. I’m happy. I couldn’t ask for more. Maybe in another lifetime a princeton economics, harvard MBA , goldman sachs associate role would have interested me. Now it doesn’t. Value of life and even your income is based on several factors. Cost of living, quality of spouse, work mates , friends and most importantly your own individual journey.

  • http://www.accepted.com Linda Abraham

    I haven’t read the book and am responding just based on the article, but anyone who applies to a professional graduate program solely because someone — even an HBS MBA — says it’s a good idea is making a mistake. That is not a good reason to spend thousands of dollars and one or two years of your life.

    Every MBA applicant should know what they want to do with the degree and have done the homework to feel that pursuing that goal is an investment that will pay off. If they don’t do this basic thinking and research, an MBA is likely to be a big and expensive mistake.

    Apparently it was for Zanetti. But as Betsy says, a focus group of 1 isn’t terribly compelling when compared to either the ROI results in the recent Forbes’ ranking or GMAC satisfaction surveys, which tell a very different story.

  • Mariana Zanetti

    Hi Linda, thank you for your comment. I absolutely agree with you, I applied to my MBA for the wrong reasons. Unfortunately most people in their twenties make their decision in the same way. My book is meant to solve that problem. The Business School sales message is everywhere, I think most MBA applicants should also take the time to consider the arguments of business school’s detractors to make a more
    informed decision about their higher education. When I enrolled the MBA program
    in 2001 I had not that possibility. As for the different story some statistics
    show, I have reasons to believe that not all that glitters is gold.

  • Mariana Zanetti

    Hi Betsy, thanks for your comment. I have had the exact level of success my business school “promised” to me. A few years after I graduated, I had the same salary level showed in the rankings statistics. But there is a lot of convincing evidence pointing to the fact that the MBA has nothing to do with it. I believe that that evidence is consistent and my experience only confirms this. I have no doubts that there are a lot of successful MBA graduates… but I have no doubts either that they
    would have been as successful regardless, no need of taking the debt. Just for information, I did not try to get a publisher in English, as it is not my main market, but the book is going to be publish in French in 2014 by Editions Maxima.

  • Mariana Zanetti

    Hi Socrates, I graduated 10 years ago, when the unemployement rate in Spain was lower than today’s unemployement rate in the US.

  • Mariana Zanetti

    I have had the exact level of success I expected in my carrer when I pursued my MBA degree in terms of salary, position and international experience. I do not blame my school for my lack of success as I consider that I have been succesful. I state in my book that my MBA degree had nothing to do with my career outputs. It was difficult to find a job after graduation, but the MBA is not to blame. A few years later I had a high paying job in a big company, where I held a management position. The Business School is not to take credit for it