On a balmy summer evening in Charlottesville, Virginia, I found myself at a wedding where I knew no one, the plus-one of a friend. My date was in the wedding party, leaving me at the table of misfit singles.
Freshly back from four years in the Middle East, I was still evaluating whether I thought America was where I should hang my hat. The salt-and-peppered gentleman to my right definitely got more than he bargained for when he asked, “So, what do you do?” After an hour of audibly gushing about my desire to “make a difference in the world” and explaining my next move (learning French and moving to West Africa), he didn’t say anything.
I waited. He subtly reminded me that a great deal of difference can be made with a better understanding of how business and global economies work, as opposed to being part of the feet on the street movement. Until that point, I had never considered getting an MBA. Giving his words time to marinate, I finally mustered up the courage to take the GMAT and considered if I could afford two years off from work. Two years later, I applied to business school.
Master the myths
Below are some pre-MBA misconceptions I faced before heading back to business school, which might prove helpful for others in a similar position. Unfortunately, like most things in business school, the most common answer is “it depends.”
- “An MBA means I’m going to become super rich.” Maybe—depends on your definition of “super rich.” If you were pulling in $300,000 before your MBA, it’s not likely you will exit making more than that initially, so it depends on your salary (pre- and post-MBA) and also depends on your field. I had been a teacher and doing fundraising work at a nonprofit, so I received a big financial bump from my pre-MBA life. Consultants, investment bankers and finance roles are typically among the highest-paid traditional post-MBA career paths. That said, non-traditional paths could be lucrative as well, and sometimes more fun.
- “My MBA comes with a robust network of impressive people.” A network isn’t something gifted to you; it requires work to develop and to maintain. When you go to business school, you will be given countless opportunities to network with people, both in and out of your program, who are peers and people significantly more senior than you. It’s up to you to take advantage of these opportunities and get to know as much as possible as those around you. Your classmates may be future CEOs, and they will also be the people who know you and your work best. Make networking a priority and find a way to make networking not feel like networking. Find authentic reasons to reach out to people and learn about them. The more organic the relationships in your network are, the less like work they will feel.
- “I’m going to die with thousands of dollars in student loans.” Could happen. This depends what your savings are like prior to business school and what sort of scholarship, GA or job opportunities you seek out while at school. They can be brutal, but they feel great when they’re paid off (or so I hear) and the relationships I made were well worth the cost. When I was an MBA student, I was a house director at a sorority house that offered free room and board and I got paid a stipend as well. Those opportunities exist; you just have to be creative and open-minded. Business school is expensive, but given the choice again, I wouldn’t do anything differently—except maybe study more for the GMAT.
- “I’m going to be an Excel whiz.” It’s possible. The opportunities will exist for you to become a mastermind at all things technical, but you could probably also do that without your MBA. (Check out “Excel with Wayne,” my Excel professor from Kelley who’s the guru if ever there was one.) As a non-business major in undergrad, my MBA program was my first hack at finance, accounting, marketing and many other subjects, so, needless to say, my technical skills improved markedly
If I had one piece of advice to a potential MBA, it’s to be curious. Be genuinely interested in opportunities and people around you. Everyone has something to teach you and it’s your job to figure out what that is. Useful connections, contacts and opportunities can come from the least likely places.
Get your MBA. Make incredible friends. Learn how business actually works. Land your dream job. Live the life you want.