Many see the MBA as a bridge to a promotion, the start of a career in investment banking, or the skillset needed to start a business. It can be one or all of these things. During my two years earning the MBA at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business with a concentration in economics, I thought I’d follow a path similar to others in my cohort. I’d earned a law degree, co-founded an innovative startup, and was ready to try something different – I just wasn’t sure what.
I received offers from banks and consulting firms, but I also received an offer to study abroad for a term at the London School of Economics and Political Science. I jumped at the chance, and took a course with Professor Robert Wade, formerly of the World Bank. I quickly fell in love with the LSE and, for the first time, considered earning a Ph.D. – I wasn’t sure exactly in what, but something related to economics and/or applied finance. In part to test whether I was really interested enough in the intersection of applied microeconomics, finance, and policy, I took a course with Professors Gary S. Becker, Kevin M. Murphy, and Edward A. Snyder (then Dean of the Booth School of Business, now soon-to-be Dean of the Yale School of Management) discussing exactly the types of complex issues I hoped to study in the Ph.D. It, combined with Dr. Wade’s course at the LSE, convinced me that this area of study was where I would commit thousands of hours in the coming years.
I applied, and was accepted, to the Ph.D. program at the London School of Economics. I began the Ph.D. immediately after the MBA and Professor Wade became my doctoral supervisor. The working title for my dissertation is The Measurement and Mitigation of Risk in Emerging Markets. I’m also involved in exciting consulting projects for two banks and one non-financial-sector client and, though London based, end up traveling internationally more than half the year.
So, should you consider getting another degree after (or in addition to) the MBA?
1) The MBA is a professional degree designed to train managers. It is not a research degree. If you want to do Ph.D.-level work in a discipline, consider using your MBA electives elsewhere in the university – MBA-level courses in economics and econometrics will generally not provide the strong applied economics and statistics background needed for a Ph.D.-level program. At Chicago, it is generally not difficult for MBA students to take masters-level courses in the Economics Department (from what I understand, this is true of most schools). While only a few American MBA programs reside in schools with top economics departments, it does not take Nobel Laureates to vastly improve the average MBA student’s understanding of economics and econometrics – take these courses if they are available to you, whether or not they have business school course numbers. They will help you in understanding problems in business and in life, even if you do not continue your studies.
2) The Ph.D. is not the only option. Many earn other masters-level or professional degrees in tandem with (or sequentially with) the MBA. Common choices are the JD/MBA and MBA/MPP combinations, but MBA/LLM and MBA/MD combinations are not unheard-of. The key factors to consider here are: financial commitment, time commitment, and interdisciplinary strength of the university in question. If you are at Harvard, there is clearly departmental support for adding a law or policy degree to your studies that matches (many would say surpasses, in the case of HLS) the quality of the HBS MBA. If you are at a program with a top-30 business program but law program that scarcely grazes the top 100 in any law school rankings, that JD/MBA might be a more questionable investment.
3) The cost structure of the Ph.D., from the student’s perspective, is wildly different from that of the MBA. While nearly all MBA students pay at least some tuition, most Ph.D. students in top programs are generally associated with research fellowships and paid to do research. At minimum, students at top Ph.D. programs usually pay no tuition, and they generally make enough money teaching and doing research to cover their living and travel expenses. In other words, while many students take on more debt to earn a top MBA, there is generally an inverse correlation between the quality of a Ph.D. and the amount of debt incurred.
4) An MBA is arguably the most versatile graduate degree, which is both a strength and a weakness in this context. Most MBA programs are meant to produce general competence, while most Ph.D. programs force the student to develop narrow expertise. The student who excels in one environment may not do well in the other. Degrees that require good writing and communication skills (such as the LL.B. or American J.D.) tend to produce people more able to write a compelling research proposal or dissertation than degrees like the M.B.A. – if you don’t enjoy writing and research (not merely one or the other), a Ph.D. probably is not right for you.