The True Value of an MBA

At the beginning of business school, everyone's on his or her best behavior. Conversations stay shallow. In our attempt to paint ourselves in the best light, our "story" becomes very generic. It's a series of linear events that led us to business school. We pretend that we expect this will continue after business school, and our post-graduate careers will turn out exactly like the essays we wrote, so we could get there in the first place.

Then, at some point, everyone stops pretending. The coursework is difficult. Most people have at least one class that truly challenges them, and some (like me) find the entire core semester material to be outside their comfort zone. Some love the coursework, but dread networking with a stranger. On top of that, their grades in some instances depend on their worst nightmare—class participation.

In one way or another, most first-year MBA students find themselves swimming upstream. As people begin to realize this, the real stories start to come out. Unlike the rosy pictures we all painted during orientation, our early careers were a series of fits and starts, big wins, upsetting steps backward, and, at times, complete stagnation.

MBA's Value Questioned

That's why we're in business school. At least, for me, a big reason I came to business school was that I thought if I had an MBA, I would have the credentials to skip forward and never find myself standing still. And while business school has delivered on just about everything I expected, it's not possible for an MBA to provide that. Because the most important thing I've learned in business school is that business is messy.

No doubt, the economy has played a part in this. Many MBAs nationwide don't have jobs. Some will work for free this summer, hoping to prove themselves, and some have accepted positions they swore they would not take in September. The value of an MBA has been called into question.

And yet, what I keep hearing from most of my business school colleagues is how badly they're suffering from MBA withdrawal as the summer begins. I think what we miss most is the real-life case studies we were exposed to every day, just by talking with each other. While we learned theories in class, every professor acknowledged that, in reality, nothing ever goes by the book. The advantage of having 240 classmates from a wide variety of industries and backgrounds is that they're able to bring topics to life. And because business is messy, the people you think will teach you one thing often end up teaching you something entirely unexpected and infinitely more valuable.

Political Values Challenged

For example, a classmate of mine is a former rocket scientist (no, really). He taught me not about a complicated technological process but about patience. I was frustrated with a group dynamics situation and wanted to fix it immediately. He told me to hold on, that these things often fix themselves, and that sometimes trying to "fix it" only makes it worse. He was right.

There are countless things my colleagues have taught me this year. My values have been challenged—I'm a liberal from Portland, Ore. who recently fired a 12-gauge shotgun on a ranch in central Texas and liked it. My technical skills have significantly improved and when I get stuck, I have a former Microsoft (MSFT) product developer on speed-dial. Most important, I've made peace with the fact that, in business school, there's no award for "best all-around." A good manager delegates, and as the year has gone by, we've each gotten more and more comfortable saying to a colleague "you're better at this than I am, you do this part."

It has been fun to watch people start to find their areas of expertise. Initially, we may have known a functional area that appealed to us and made broad stroke claims, such as "I'm a marketing person." By now, I think most people have gotten a lot more specific. It's not: "I'm a finance guy." It's: "I'm really interested in restructuring," or "I want to work with startups and help them develop better financial structures."

Excited for Next Year

My primary goal for next year is to broaden my circle. The problem is, for everyone, inertia sets in. You don't mean for it to happen; you swear to yourself you're going to branch out, but then you're busy, and it's just easier to do a project with people who are all in your cohort, or are all involved in the same club. This means you miss out on working with amazing people.

For example, an international student in my cohort is a financial whiz and I assumed that she was going to pursue an investment banking job. So, I was surprised this semester to find her sitting next to me in an entrepreneurship class. For someone who kept quiet in our core classes, she was surprisingly vocal and developed a fantastic new business plan. Her financial savvy and my marketing experience would have been a great combination, if only I'd known she was interested in startups. Similarly, I participated in a global exchange trip to Russia. In the process, I became close friends with a number of people I had never met before.

It's easy to miss people when you're buried in new material, overwhelmed with work, and trying to find your career path. But by now, we all know how to manage the workload and still find time to look around. We're figuring out what we do better than anyone else and when to pass things off to others. This is what makes me so excited for next year. It's going to be fun to watch everyone hone in on his or her go-to skills. As we discover who the experts are, new faces will emerge, ready to teach us something entirely unexpected. Even in a bad economy, where careers are a series of fits and starts, and disappointments are inevitable, the value of this experience is unquestionable.