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Member Of Harvard’s 1st 2+2 Cohort Has Tons Of Advice For The MBA-Curious

Harvard Business School

It’s the question foremost on the minds of Poets&Quants readers: Is business school worth it?

The answer is different for everyone, of course. But P&Q isn’t the only place to look for it.

Diana Kimball Berlin, a partner at early-stage venture capital firm Matrix Partners and a Harvard Business School Class of 2013 MBA, has set out to offer guidance on that burning question for a major subset of the B-school candidate population: product managers. After years of counseling would-be B-school applicants, Berlin, a former product manager herself, has published The MBA Decision Guide for Product Managers, chock full of insider knowledge, game-planning, and sound advice for the MBA-curious.

AN HBS MBA WITH ADVICE TO GIVE

Diana Kimball Berlin

“One thing that strikes me about people who are prone to considering MBAs is that these are people who tend to maximize optionality in their lives,” Berlin tells P&Q. “And in a way, investing in an MBA is a way to supercharge optionality in your life. And I’m all for that. That’s part of what I write in the piece, about the optionality an MBA gets you over a multi-decade-long time horizon, largely because of relationships in an intensely interpersonal program.

“I believe that an MBA can give you clarity about what you’re here to do and what you want to accomplish in life. But I would recommend seeing it as the last blast of optionality before really committing to a path, because the truth is, you will have options later, no matter what, if you go all out on the thing that you believe in more than anybody.”

Berlin was admitted to Harvard Business School in summer 2008 as part of the first cohort of the 2+2 program, a way for current students in either undergraduate or full-time master’s programs to apply to HBS on a deferred basis. After getting her BA in history from Harvard, she went to work in 2009 as a product manager for Microsoft in San Francisco, then moved back east to start her HBS MBA in 2011.

Since graduating in 2013, she has counseled countless people about going back to school for an MBA. She finally felt compelled to write down the advice she’s given over the years — and in the process came to appreciate an uncomfortable reality: graduate business education candidates working in product management are often advised not to go to B-school by managers, peers, and mentors alike.

“It’s hard to have a lot of success in life without having someone in your life who supports continuing education,” Berlin says. “And all of a sudden you have this kind of tender idea that you might want to continue your education and something that’s interesting to you — and for the first time ever people around you are like, ‘Nah, that’s weird. You could, but why?’ And I realized how deep that cuts when you had a tender little hope. It was something that you were sharing in the spirit of being vulnerable, and to be kind of discouraged like that really sticks with people and often kind of knocks them off that path completely.”

‘MY 2 YEARS AT HBS ARE A PART OF ME’

“And so when people come to me and they’ve had that experience of having some people discourage them, and then maybe they’re looking to me with the idea that I’ll encourage them because it’s the path I took — I do, that’s kind of my bias. But I realized over the years that the real problem is that people’s instincts were being cut off. The people around them, insofar as they were discouraging them, were cutting off their access to their inner knowing about what they wanted and what was right for them. And so I wrote this piece to restore that in a way.”

Berlin worked on her guide for three months before publishing on June 2. “Looking back on it now, I think I can see what business school meant to me more clearly,” she writes, before listing the key advantages an MBA can provide, including a career reset, a huge breadth of knowledge, and a network of lifetime friends and associates.

“In the end,” she writes, “my two years at HBS are a part of me. It’s so hard to picture my life without them that I’m reluctant to even try. But what I can say is that I’d probably feel similarly about any way I’d spent two formative years. I don’t believe I’d be in exactly the same life I’m leading now, but I do believe I’d be in a life I’d love.”

Following is a Q&A with Diana Kimball Berlin, edited for length and clarity. And click here to read Berlin’s MBA Decision Guide for Product Managers.

Poets&Quants: Why did you write this?

Diana Kimball Berlin: The main reason is that I just had so many people come to me seeking counsel about this decision. And over the years, I came to realize how essential it was for them. And it wasn’t until I sat down to write this that I realized there was this experience people have when they’ve often been surrounded by people who really encourage pursuing more and more education. It’s hard to have a lot of success in life without having someone in your life who supports continuing education, and all of a sudden you have this kind of tender idea that you might want to continue your education and something that’s interesting to you — and for the first time ever people around you are like, Nah, that’s weird. You could, but why? And I realized how deep that cuts when you had a tender little hope. It was something that you were sharing in the spirit of being vulnerable, and to be kind of discouraged like that really sticks with people and often kind of knocks them off that path completely.

And so when people come to me and they’ve had that experience of having some people discourage them, and then maybe they’re looking to me with the idea that I’ll encourage them because it’s the path I took — I do, that’s kind of my bias. But I realized over the years that the real problem is that people’s instincts were being cut off. The people around them, insofar as they were discouraging them, were cutting off their access to their inner knowing about what they wanted and what was right for them. And so I wrote this piece to restore that in a way.

This was written for product managers, but it could easily apply to people in a lot of other fields. Why did you restrict it to product managers?

Well, first of all, I try to acknowledge the perspective I’m coming from and writing this. I had to acknowledge that I was writing from my own perspective as a product manager. The thing that I think is perhaps unusual about product management — and software engineering would be an adjacent field for that — is the prevalence of discouragement for going into the field. I think there’s specifically an allergy to business-y people in the software industry. And that allergy has permeated the culture such that, for let’s call it the 100 APMs across Facebook and Twitter and Salesforce and Google who enter every year, those hundred people are getting a lot of discouragement relative to how much they should actually be discouraged. It’s not proportionate, it’s just in the water. And so I wrote it from that perspective, as a corrective to that discouragement, and so that I could be more specific about my experiences that I felt were relevant.

But I have heard a lot of feedback from folks who feel like it’s more relevant than they expected. And the insight I got after getting the feedback from folks is that what’s interesting about product management-into-MBA is that you can’t lean on the usual lift that you get from having already gone to a top-tier undergrad university, and having a product management job at a top-tier tech company. Then the incremental lift you’ll get from going to business school is less obvious in terms of career opportunities. In fact what happened is that my piece distills down the subtler, non-obvious benefits that you would get from an MBA in the base case, even without the kind of major built-up opportunities available. And so I think that’s why the piece ends up being relevant to everybody.

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