Friends often ask me, should I get an MBA?

Often, this is in response to some article they read claiming that an MBA won’t increase their salary, or knocking down some strawman argument that an MBA is the one and only path to corporate success.

These criticisms are partially correct: universities routinely inflate post-graduation MBA salaries to increase their rankings. And clearly you can found a company and get very rich without an MBA, just like evil Mark Zuckerberg — though you may need to hire some MBAs on your way up.

But to me, the most important thing about the MBA is not the skills you learn, the contacts you make, or the fancy piece of paper — though all are valuable. What you’re buying is the flexibility you have afterward — to explore a new career, to go into a new industry, or to pursue a completely self-invented path. And you can take advantage of this flexibility several times during the course of your career, not just after graduation.

Think of it: most degrees shuttle you into a single career. The MBA, however, gives you a tool chest that makes anything possible. And companies recognize this when you graduate.

When you come out of an MBA program, you are a newly-minted MBA from X university (just be sure it’s a good one!). Your pre-MBA experience may be relevant to potential employers, but if you decided to focus on a new industry while in school, it’s easy for you to reinvent yourself and propel yourself into a new direction. Your breadth of skills also makes it easier for employers and supervisors to take you in new directions.

In other words, an MBA gives you options, not just upon graduation, but at many stages of your career. And as our finance professors taught us, options have real value — though they are a bit difficult to estimate.

So my advice is this:

If you’re already earning $125,000+ a year AND you want to stay in your current industry sector indefinitely AND you know that there is no glass ceiling preventing you from moving up in it, then there is no need for an MBA. Otherwise, you should look at it. I only knew one person who was unhappy with the MBA program at Haas, and all three conditions applied to him.

Most importantly, make sure an MBA fits with your ultimate career objectives. If you want to be a writer, organic farmer, or a therapist, the MBA will not get you there. If what you want to do requires skills that an MBA can provide you, and you’re not a very good self-study, I think an MBA is worth considering.

A final word of note: Yes, MBAs cost serious money — not just the tuition and expenses, but the opportunity cost of not earning a salary during your studies. But in general, you will eventually earn more money after the program, and you will also get career flexibility. Isn’t that worth it? Personally, I’m quite willing to trade money for the option to pursue what interests me. If that flexibility is not important — or if it’s too hard to wrap your head around spending money now to make more money later — than frankly, an MBA just isn’t right for you.

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