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


Career blogger Penelope Trunk

“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?

  • It really doesn’t matter if you agree with Penelope or not. If you are not successful, your opinion does not matter. You either are hot or cold. Discrediting Penelope is not going to make you better. If you have nothing wise to say, it is because you have failed.

    Take heed to what she is saying: Obviously you don’t have the answers!

  • Fool Following The Fool Following The Fool

    LOL. Drivel. Anyone that trashes any opportunity in life to learn and grow only reveals their complete and utter laziness and stupidity.

    Penelope = “Full of sound and fury, signifying nothing…”

    Quiet down…you can go back to your corner of the herd of sheeple now, P.

  • Zimmy –
    If you’re out there, please drop me a note through P&Q’s messages (go to community, search for my name and drop me a line there). I’m curious to hear your story if you’re interested in sharing it.
    Mica Bevington

  • Zimmy

    I went to a top 5 school. Unemployed 2 years on and drowning in debt + running interest. I wish I’d never gone. Biggest mistake of my life.
    This article is good for one thing and that is don’t buy the marketing the bschools run. The great stories are very few and your brains are not what matters in getting those great jobs.

  • This article is juvenile at best, coming from a woman who has not been there and done that! On one hand, she wanna get laid only by top 10 school gainfully employed dudes and on other hand, she puts down the effort it took to get there.
    I am not sure most of the people know this, but MBA degrees are not the most expensive around. The law school and medical schools cost double time and double money than top MBA debt.
    She is not an authority here to be worth published period.

  • Pradeep

    Penelope: Your article succeeds in generating controversy and attracting eyeballs, but thats all it does. You generalize far too much and you have far too little experience for what you say to be first hand info.
    For eg, I managed a 750 on the GMAT with 2 weeks of prep and a $8 used Manhattan SC book. I know friends who managed more with similar preps. I know people who had no clue what an MBA was. They then applied with some 2-3 months of research and are now in top schools. So….

  • Anonmyous

    She is straight busted to begin with.

  • Kady

    Wow. She makes my gender look bad…

    Where do I even begin? The woman acts like it’s a top 10 MBA grad would be blessed to have her date him- who says he wants to date someone as ignorant as HER?

    And who said women get their MBAs to meet men and have families? This is not the 1950’s and I’m not gunning for my MRS. If I meet someone, that would be fabulous, but I’m not just going to grab the nearest male with a pulse because this idiot tells me too.

    And several years of studying for the GMAT? Are you kidding me? I scored a 710 after 3 months of preperation, and I believe myself to be of slightly above intelligence, but definitely a hard worker. And an application consultant? Seriously? Yeah, like I have years to spend tens of thousands of dollars to blow on that, if I did, I wouldn’t be going to get an advanced degree, I’d probably be really happy with the salary I already have. I wrote my essays by myself and had a friend edit them. I’m 27, single, love moving to new cities and guess what, I’m starting at Wharton this fall. I know MANY women in my class whose husbands and boyfriends are following them to school this fall- in fact, I think more women in our class are together as opposed to single, like me.

    And I agree that you don’t have to play to coach, but coaches typically know the rules of the game- which she clearly does not. Is she aware that most people DON’T want to be entrepreneurs? Side note- If I had a lemonade stand, I guess you could techincally call me an entrepreneur as well. I’m going to B-school to be a consultant, others I know are going to be I-bankers, healthcare administrators, Marketers, non profit leaders- pretty much anything you can think of.

    If anything in this article made any sense, it was quickly swallowed up by an overwhelming amount of drivel. I’m sorry you couldn’t get into a good school honey- but that’s your problem, just like this is your tantrum.

  • Akash

    It is hard to agree with a lots of arguments made by Penelope. Curriculam does not matters, Network is necessary. Study 4-5 years for GMAT. Well studying 4-5 years will rust your analytical skills for GMAT surely. High scorers crack it in 6 months hardly. I myself did that. Also, curriculam does matters as it is the thing for which you are paying off. Ans yes, i feel there is no need to get an MBA to be an enterpreneur. Steve Jobs and Hewlett were not MBAs and yet they created a visionary company.

  • Gin

    I agree that getting the value proposition of the MBA while young is worth it. The older you get, the less time you would have to realize the additional benefit of school.

    However, the entire article reeks of high school blog writing style. She sounded very harsh against females, at times outright sexist and misogynist (yet another example of a woman attacking/judging/feeling jealous towards other women). Examples include that women can’t “have it all” or that they must choose between a career or family. Who says that by virtue of having a baby that you must take on a home maker role and stop your career? I’ve seen many women take 3-4 months off and have no problem resuming work.

    What is it about “top ten” and dating the men there? The writer sounds like a lonely single woman who resents women who have made the choice to obtain higher education and feels jealous towards those who went through it at a young age.

  • Brit Brit

    @ anonymous

    If you get into an MBA at 26, you’ll graduate at 28. Immediately after you need to leverage your degree to get a job since essentially the MBA is a door-opener.

    A lot of good MBA jobs (i.e. consulting, general management rotations, etc.) expect you to put in at least two years before moving on. Which puts you at 30. Then you might want to move on to a director type job, in let’s say marketing. You need to put in a maybe 3 years or so to gain traction in the field and build your rep. Now you are 33.

    I’m looking at this through a General Management lens which is my field. But I’m assuming it’s about the same in Finance. Maybe even worse.

    As a woman, you might be able to have kids then but it’s hard. Even after having the kid. It’s hard to balance the work and the child’s needs, unless you have a really supportive husband. (Which is why she’s right that two high-powered people won’t do well together).

    I read an article in Forbes about high-powered women, like Bonnie Fuller (who’s in magazines), Meg Whitman, Carly Fiorina, etc. and many married men with flexible careers or stay-at-home dad types. Family doctors stood out b/c they can set their own hours.

    Anyway, an MBA later in life for women isn’t necessarily the best choice, unless you had your kids early.

  • Gosh

    “You need to start studying for the GMAT years in advance to kill it. You can’t study for the GMAT in one year and disrupt your working and personal life”

    Really? Might be if you are not that smart but personnaly I did it in 2 months and got 740 which is not that bad i think, and i don’t assume i’m a genius at all. And i did it age 30, 5 years after finishing my MA.

  • anonymous

    Can someone please comment on why Penelope said that “If you go in at 26 and you’re a woman, you don’t have time to leverage the degree and have kids”?

  • Bruce Vann

    “Aside from the ideas that schools should improve their career advising services, and that students shouldn’t run up too much debt for a degree — hardly breaking news — this article was like reading Carolyn Hax, only worse.” LMBO!!! I love Red Poet! Red Poet’s response is so critical.

  • Tom Edison

    I’m an ENTP, so I shouldn’t go to B-School? I’m not understanding this one at all. It’s not provocative, just nonsensical.

  • Arthur Featherstonehaugh Dullsworthy

    Now I understood her problem. Found this quote in her blog: “You think it would be really fun to have sex with me. Because, I think you can tell from my posts, I’ll do anything. But maybe you can also tell from my posts that it’s a little bit weird. Because you know that I’ll say anything, too, but sometimes, I make you cringe.”

    I don’t mean to be unkind, but she’s a freak. MBAs are conformists. We, and I do mean “we,” stay away from people like her (except for dirty weekends). She’s not one of us and there’s nothing and there’s nothing an outsider like her can say to us or about us.

  • Arthur Featherstonehaugh Dullsworthy

    Much of this is silly. Although an MBA from one of the top 10 is expensive, the b-schools of state universities deliver value for people who seek employment close to home. Not everyone seeks to live in NYC and SF A rational person from a good family would deplore the prospect. Then there’s the supposed lostness of people who attend the elite schools. They do know what they want. They want consulting, ibanking, private equity, hedge funds, venture capital and marketing jobs at Frito-Lay (I agree that entrepreneurship isn’t an MBA aspiration). These forms of employment — some more attractive than others and all intrinsically worth seeking if money’s the criterion — are highly probable outcomes for graduates of an elite program. As for the difficulty of gaining admission to a top ten program, there are 8 Ivys, Stanford, MIT, Caltech, all the fancy New England liberal arts colleges. Graduates of those colleges are virtually assured admission to a top MBA programs if they merely do the work in college and find reasonable employment after college.

    This chick has no value whatsoever.

  • Raven

    I thought that the article was entertaining, as it was meant to be. You can derive a legitimate argument from her “don’t bother” argument, if you are not accepted into a top ten, then don’t expect a 150k starting salary to offset your accumulated debt. This may be, with exception of course, generally accurate. Just analyze the opportunity cost. Personally, I earned a MS in physics, fully funded, while I successfully invested in real-estate and worked part time, and I am an ENTJ, and I am still searching for my quintessential “perfect job”, thus kicking around an MBA. However my options are to keep my cushioned yet slightly boring job and attend a decent MBA at night for free, or attempt a top ten and accumulate debt while losing years of work experience. Here is the bottom line, employers want to know that you can learn and what sets you apart. I recently spoke to a headhunter who often places employees at Goldman Sachs, most of whom without a top-ten MBA, who said that a hard science or engineering degree is very competitive as they illuminate the ability to think logically and analytically, and if you are not awkward or socially handicapped then all the better. My suggestion: a masters degree can be a great investment, so if you want an MBA get one, but DO NOT FORGET to develop an impressive resume with a multitude of accomplishments along the way. A resume that is undeniably intriguing, now you can take that to the bank.

  • CMBA

    Is the author of your next post going to be the crazy homeless man on the corner who is constantly screaming about how aliens are taking over? It would hold about the same journalistic value as this garbage.

    Step up your game guys

  • Upright Citizen

    I can understand her views and why she feels the way she does. That being said, I have an even easier time understanding why she is so bitter. She sounds like she has had great success, but something in her personality forces her to put down other people, belittling their live choices. Having 1/10 of her success with ten times her happiness would be a great career goal.

  • KW

    I find Penelope’s brush strokes far too broad. She makes several good points that may be true for many people, but she frames them as the only truths for all people.

    Her hard line drawn below the top 10 schools is somewhat rigid; she fails to recognize the possibility of a continuum. Say someone is choosing between attending a number 11 school with a significant scholarship or paying full tuition at number 9. Are the differences in career prospects drastic enough to pass up the scholarship? It seems Penelope would say so no matter what the data showed.

    Her statement about the entrepreneurship community mocking MBA’s, is not a valid reason for an entrepreneur to forgo an MBA. If it makes sense for an entrepreneur’s unique situation, then he/she should go. Since when are entrepreneur’s so focused on what others have to say.

    She makes no mention of those getting an MBA to break into a particular industry that requires the MBA. She wrongly claims that all business courses and professors are commodities. (Many MBA’s I have met can point to a particular professor or class that fundamentally changed their approach to business). She also fails to consider that not all women want to marry and have kids.

    Penelope does make some good points, but they are drowned by her extreme and indiscriminate rhetoric.

  • gr8

    @John Koh

    My thoughts exactly. For the most part this site has plenty of interesting info. but this article is definitely questionable at best. They must be friends or something.

  • HappilySingle

    “It is imperative for single women in MBA programs to date someone who is marriage material. What else is she going to do?”

    Penelope, all single-unmarried women at 30 are not as desperate as you make it sound! And this is not learnt in an MBA – just by talking to different-minded women.

    I, a single unmarried 28 year old, will be attending a top-10 school this fall, and am thankful that I’m attending an MBA rather than am brooding alongside women like you.

  • John Koh

    “I think she once applied to MBA and did not get in, and this is her retaliation.” <– this.

    Honestly though, why is P&Q even entertaining this? It lowers the reputation of this site and just makes it feel dirty. We do *not* need online soap opera characters here.

  • astera


    You make it sound as though most MBA women will be choosing between a 100+ hour-a-week job with lots of travel and being a stay-at-home or part-time-employed mom.

    Each job is different and there are lots of 100k+ jobs that have reasonable hours if you’re qualified (still plenty of $$ to pay off debt and have a family if you have a working spouse). The reality for most ambitious 20-30 something females without a graduate degree is that we’ll most likely be working 50-60 hour weeks for between $50k-$100K a year (which after-taxes, if you have a spouse making a decent income, is barely enough to cover child-care and commuting expenses and you still don’t get to spend time with your kids).

    An MBA is a way for a lot of us to afford having great careers AND having families. I’m ENJT and I know that I would go crazy being a stay-at-home mom or working at some unambitious job because I need to pick up the kids from school at 3pm.

  • Lorenzo

    “Get a workplace spouse. Get a credit for putting person through school. I don’t know. Go to couple’s therapy. Get divorced before you have kids”

    I respect other’s opinions, but she is seriously biased, it seems as if she has had a series of bad experiences with MBA graduates… I know countless of couples that have gone as a couple to an MBA and succeded, all of them.

    I agree with the debt issue, but it’s not an entrepreneurial killer if you use the leverage of the network or a top 10 degree to speed up the seed capital and VC money in by transmitting confidence to investors, showing you are prepared.

    The fact that she says that she’d only date a top 10 mba student makes me think that the “label” is far more important to her than the actual intelligence of the person, and that is not coherent with half of her ideas posted in the article.

    And the fact that she believes that you need a year for GMAT and 4-5 years of consultancy to apply to a top 10 is way off. Myself and almost 90% of the people I know at top 10s took 4-6 months max for GMAT and 3-4 months with apps without a consultant. I did it around that and got into 3 top 10. So she’d better check her stats.

    I think she once applied to MBA and did not get in, and this is her retaliation.


  • Aside from the ideas that schools should improve their career advising services, and that students shouldn’t run up too much debt for a degree — hardly breaking news — this article was like reading Carolyn Hax, only worse.

  • gr8

    @ Jane

    31? You are doomed to failure! You missed it my one year.

  • Jane

    Thanks Penelope,

    I will be 31 when I graduate :(! Oh well.

    To everyone, she’s entitiled to her opinions just as you are all entitled to yours. Frankly, debt is a hassle, and I am glad I do not have to worry too much about that.

    Needless to say, of the 39,000 HBS graduates in the world, about 500 or so (1%) are CEOs’…yikes!

    Penelope does have great points about what many of us think within (admit it)! 🙂 which explains why we pull our hairs to get into top 10 business schools, hopefully, with scholarships.

    If nothing else, take something from other people’s mistakes and be glad you may not have to repeat it, and if you do, well, you were warned.

  • Johnnie Walker

    She also looks like an expensive date; she wouldn’t go out with someone not in top 10 MBA etc. etc. I was laughing pretty hard though

  • gr8

    There is no “convo”. What is there to converse about? It’s just bad, period. Maybe it’s worth conversing about if you get someone who has actually been through a career or perhaps someone in admissions. But to take what seems to be a random person’s opinion is just bad. No offense to Penelope or what she has accomplished but this article is just bad.

  • Jordan

    I know this was gonna stir up a nice convo the second I finished it! Guys she has some good points that me and other future mbas were discussing…..perhaps an MBA is a death sentence for an entrepreneur, considering the debt. She said all that other shit to illicit this response.
    When I worked in Hollywood we had a saying. On the crazy scale from one to ten, if tens get locked up in a mental asylum, all the 9s are in hollywood. Seems like all the 8s get English degrees and bash slightly more promising MBAs. Glen beck has a point once in a while too

  • So…people in their 30s need not bother with MBA? I know this was not stated, but definitely implied.

    While I agree Penelope gives some good advice, and I really like the alternative insights her blog gives on career and networking, sweeping statements like “There’s no evidence that high-level thinking skills will get you a better job.” and “There’s no evidence that an MBA will make you a better thinker.” need to be quantified.

  • Johnnie Welker

    Even though, Penelope is quite blund and sounds like at 20-something teenager, she offers some good stuff here.
    1- I agree that B-schools should be more focused on their Career Center. After all, that’s why 90% go there for. When I was looking for B-school the first thing I did was to look up the employment numbers
    2- I also agree that going to B-school after 28 is a stretch in your career. 4 years of work experience should have been the optimum, 2 being minimum.

  • Mark

    I remember when Penelope got laughed off Yahoo Finance for spewing drivel on topics she didn’t know about, but was “brazen” enough to try to stir up some controversy. I can’t believe someone can make a career out of jumping around the Internet pretending to know it all.

    No value in an non-top-10 MBA? Forever trapped in debt? What about someone making under 40k who spends under 20k at a lower-tier school getting an MBA in a completely different field that actually interests them, and doubles their previous salary? You can’t speak for everyone’s situation, Penelope, especially when you’re far from an authority on much of anything except blogging. Your mistakes are not everyone’s mistakes.

  • Attending a top business school for free sounds great — as long as you’re going to get out by the time you’re 30. Otherwise I think you’re probably too far into your career to leverage the degree.

    Of course the top ten lists are always changing. I don’t think it matters which list you use for the top ten schools. If you are thinking of going to a school that never shows up in those lists, don’t go.

    I hope this helps.


  • Spearhead

    Funny how she is the expert on MBA curriculum and inner workings yet she has never been to b-school…

    …and “top 10” is so arbitrary, there are probably 15 or 16 schools that could all make the legitimate case that they are “top 10” schools…

  • gr8

    Wow. What a waste of time reading this article. Why should we be listening to this person? I can write an essay of why an MBA degree is worthless.

  • Jane


    We have seen all sorts of top ten business school lists, what are your top ten business schools, not BW or US News…..Yours? What about attending a top 10-15 business school for free?
    I love your blog by the way


  • Bruce Vann

    “I would only date someone in a Top 10 school, anyway. ” Wow!!