Dear MS. An MBA is BS.

I got a fun question in my inbox recently from a long time reader of this blog.  This answer is aimed at those of you who have ever thought about going to business school.

I’m an entrepreneur, software developer, and occasional angel investor, who is thinking about going to business school. I’m looking for something new to do, either in VC or in finance more generally, and want to use business school as a way to change career direction. Since I live in the Bay area, I talked to the Stanford GSB admissions office, which recommended that I apply for their Sloan Fellows program. I did so and was recently accepted, but upon further investigation I’m a little worried because, as you may know, the Sloan program is a one-year program which results in a MS in Management rather than an MBA.  My question to you is if you think that the fact you have an MS rather than an MBA has ever closed any doors to you? If so, which ones?

Before I answer the question, I want to straighten up some facts.  I don’t have an “MS in Management.”  I actually have an SM in Management Science” (I try to clear up resume fraud wherever I go.)  When I went to MIT in the mid-1980’s, they didn’t have an MBA program.  For some reason that I can’t remember (presumably to be more true to the original latin – Scientiae Baccalaureus), MIT reverses the letters on the BS and MS degrees (so they are actually SB and SM degrees.)  In addition – MIT didn’t want to be known for giving out BA degrees, so the undergraduate degree that I have is an SB in Management Science (yeah – a bachelor of science degree.)

Now that that is cleared up, let’s go on to the question.  Five years ago, I was approached by a bright young man (ok – I was young – but he was younger) looking for advice on which business school to go to.  He had a bachelors and masters degree from Stanford.  He’d recently been accepted to both Stanford GSB and Harvard Business School.  He had been working for four or five years – first as a management consultant and then as an early employee (ultimately the director of corporate development) at a recently public company.  My answer to him was “how about neither – why don’t you come work for me instead.”  Chris did, and I don’t think he’s ever looked back.

Business school certainly has value and serves a useful purpose in this world.  However, the essence of the question points at one of the fundamental problems (and possibly misconceptions) about business school.  I’m 40.  I don’t believe that the degree I have has ever had any material impact on my “career” during the last 20 years.  I can’t think of a single situation where it came up in a conversation about anything that I was considering doing.  For a while, I obsessively corrected the “MBA” and “MS” listings that would show up on web sites and in public filings – I finally gave up because I decided it simply wasn’t relevant.  While many people wear their degrees as badges of honor on their chests, I prefer to let actions speak for themselves (and – rather than look at the badges people have, I look for the actions.)

If you want a two year break from life, go to business school.  If you want to meet a bunch of new, generally smart, and always interesting people, go to business school.  If you are a techie but like the business side of things, want to get an intellectual (and functional grounding) in business stuff, want a two year break from life, and want to meet interesting people, go to business school. But please – don’t worry about whether you are getting an SM or an MS or an MBA – that’s not what you are going for.

Recognize this will cost you $100k plus two years of opportunity cost, so make sure it’s worth it to you.  There are many careers where you generally (but not always) need the MBA badge to advance to the next level.  If you are an investment banker or a management consultant, it’ll help.  If you are looking to be a VC, it might help, but it probably won’t, as the population of people being recruited into the VC business continues to be very small.  Don’t be misguided by the idea that doors will now fly open to you since you are a newly minted MBA (or MS, or SM.)