CardHub Founder: My MBA Was Redundant

One of the most important career decisions is whether to go to business school for an MBA. From time to time, we ask business leaders to reflect on their decision, experience, and the value of an advanced business degree.

Is an MBA worth it? That is a question countless young people are asking themselves these days, while they consider the need to separate from the herd in this cutthroat job market, as well as the prodigious student loan debt they will amass along the way. What’s the answer?

Plenty of researchers have examined the mostly positive return on investment for contemporary MBA candidates at different schools. Their work provides an interesting prism through which to consider the value of an advanced degree but—based on my personal experience—you must first consider your goals.

What type of career do you envision having 10 years from now? To what extent has your educational and professional background prepared you for that career path? What complementary skills must you accrue to succeed? Such are the questions one must explore in the interest of devising a strategic career plan and avoiding the grad-school-for-the-sake-of-grad-school trap that so many have fallen into while weathering the Great Recession.

To be clear, I didn’t exactly follow my own advice. I do believe that both my experience and the perspective that hindsight affords me provide a number of important lessons for prospective B-school applicants.

I always knew that I wanted to start my own business and, in time, I realized that it would be an Internet company. With that in mind, I attended Brown University and graduated with a dual degree in Economics and Civil Engineering. Through those areas of study, I garnered a solid understanding of economics, finance, and quantitative analysis.

It was my intention to then seek a Masters in Construction Management, but I decided to interview for a job with Capital One at the behest of a classmate. That “why not?” interview ultimately turned into a senior director position in one of the most sophisticated credit-card operations in the banking industry, eight years of marketing and management experience, and a degree from Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business on the company’s dime, which I earned in 2005.

I’ve since founded a pair of personal finance websites: the credit-and gift-card marketplace CardHub and the personal finance social network WalletHub. Was B-school necessary? No doubt I made a number of great connections and learned a lot at Fuqua, but considering my background and career ambitions, I can’t help but think that business school might have been redundant in my particular case.

My undergrad education gave me finance, economics, and quantitative analysis experience. Capital One prepared me for the management demands of entrepreneurship, as well as the unique characteristics of online marketing. What was the missing piece that would reduce the barriers to me becoming chief executive officer of an Internet startup? Probably not an MBA that would mainly serve to reinforce existing skills, appease societal expectations, and tie me to Capital One for two additional years. I probably would have been better off spending a few years as a product manager at a premiere Silicon Valley tech firm. That would have given me Web development experience to complement my existing strengths, as well as enabled me to get my first company off the ground at a much faster pace.

The point of my story is that blanket advice doesn’t really apply to the MBA decision. No one can tell you that business school is a necessarily good or bad decision because they have no way of understanding your ambitions, motivations, finances, or station in life.

Sure, you’d be a fool to ignore rising tuition costs, declining ROI, or the close ties between school rank and value proposition. Full-time tuition at North American MBA programs rose 33 percent from 2007 to 2012. The average payback period—how long it takes to recoup education costs through post-graduation earnings—has jumped from 2.7 years to 3.7 years in the past decade. And there’s a $12,430 difference in five-year profitability—the average student’s ROI five years after graduation—between a top-10 program and a top-20 program.

What matters most at the end of the day is doing whatever it takes to maximize your chances of succeeding at something you love. If that involves going to business school, get into the best program possible and make the most of the resources at your disposal. If you decide that a different graduate degree or more work experience will prove more valuable, be sure you have a plan and are looking out for No. 1. By all means, don’t let parental or societal expectations divert you from your pursuit of personal and professional happiness.

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