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MBA Isn’t a Four-Letter Word

While some question the relevance of a B-school education in this era of distance learning and fast-track careers, the Wharton School’s Robert E. Mittelstaedt Jr. argues for the sustaining value of an MBA.

Business school is a great place for transitions. Students are typically looking to super-charge a career on an already-established track, change careers with a specific goal in mind, or have their eyes opened to the range of options available. Why would anyone question whether B-school is a good idea, given all the evidence that it has phenomenal economic and career-enhancing returns? But some do question it, so for those who don’t get it, here’s what B-school offers you.

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You learn how to be productively competitive. Highly motivated individuals are typically competitive already. This is not something that is created by B-schools, but rather by the type of individuals who seek admission. In B-school, you learn to use your natural competitive instincts in a focused and productive fashion. Have you ever noticed that some companies seem to be competitive for the sake of being competitive and — without focus in setting priorities — aren’t successful? Individuals in MBA programs learn to avoid unfocused competition.

You learn how to function in teams. This was part of B-school for me nearly 30 years ago, but it is even more necessary now.

You accelerate the acquisition of skills. It isn’t that you can’t learn some of these skills elsewhere, but why wouldn’t you take the chance to have the most knowledgeable experts in the world teach you at an accelerated pace? What is it worth to already know how to do something the first time you try it in the real world?

You expand your perspective and build critical thinking skills. Have you ever hit a brick wall trying to solve a management problem and then realized you weren’t thinking broadly enough? Suddenly, five ideas flow, and you are on your way to choosing from a set of possible outcomes. B-school helps you think more expansively.

You learn a lot of specific skills like accounting, market research, people management, finance, and strategy. And you’ll get practice with the ever-popular NPV, IRR, yield to maturity, and other formulaic approaches. But guess what? Those techniques help you get started, but over your career, their importance will pale in comparison to the broader items above.

B-school should teach you that learning is a lifelong endeavor and that, regardless of what you learned there, the most important skill you acquire is learning how to learn continually. There is an old adage that if you give a hungry man a fish, you have fed him for a day; if you teach him to fish, you have given him the ability to sustain himself for a lifetime. Business school is where you learn how to fish in the business world.

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Robert E. Mittelstaedt Jr. (mittelsr@wharton.upenn.edu) is vice dean of executive education, director of the Aresty Institute of Executive Education, and adjunct associate professor of management at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.

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