Where you choose to learn is one of the most important decisions you’ll make in your career. The choice between attending graduate school and working in the real world is in fact the choice between two different models of education—and two very different outcomes. Each will enhance and challenge you as a professional, but you will emerge a fundamentally different person depending on where you spend your time.
Meanwhile, the world is changing. The cost of a graduate education is at an all-time high, but employers are entertaining candidates from a range of backgrounds and fields, with an increasing interest in productivity and results. The Internet has opened up new channels for employment, networking and professional development, as well as entire industries, tools and communities. Resources that were previously locked up in the hallways of the university are increasingly accessible in the real world.
So as you navigate the decision, you must ask yourself whether grad school—particularly an MBA—will help you accomplish the things you want to achieve and become the person you want to be. Answering that question honestly is a critical step for every business professional.
I’m an entrepreneur, and my view (particularly in this unique era) is that working in the real world is a far more valuable, enriching experience than grad school. I therefore chose to opt out of an MBA and pursue my education through real-world startup experience. Here’s why:
1. Doing Over Learning
The old adage that you learn best by doing has never been truer. Two years hard at work in your field, as opposed to two years in a university learning about your field, will always be a more valuable experience. All theoretical training must eventually find its application in the real world, so why not play there from the start? Even with a graduate education, most candidates will find that employers care far more about real-world experience than business school training. Ask yourself: How best can I spend the next two years? I’m confident that for most people, a truly productive two years will center on the real world.
2. The Value of Paper
It’s a glamorous, interesting degree, but the MBA is no longer a requisite passport to the kingdom of business. Nor is it always reflective of the real world: Discussions in the classroom only simulate the dynamics of the working world. Real-world experience, in contrast, always speaks for itself. It also says a great deal about you—your priorities, your passions, and your abilities. What’s more, the market is teeming with MBAs, and companies in this increasingly specialized world want more than a degree. They want a person, and one who can achieve real results.
3. Life on Hold
In addition to the sky-high costs of grad school, there is also the significant opportunity cost that all candidates take on when they head back to school. Two years in a classroom also means two years not spent making money, developing relationships, enhancing skills and learning about your field. Many candidates find that personal lives are put on hold as wedding and family plans are delayed until after graduation, even though the burden of these costs (tangible and intangible) can last years. Part-time and fully-employed graduate programs are designed to manage that downside, but many students end up straddling both school and the real world without getting the full experience from either.
4. A Demanding Vacation
Grad school is often celebrated as a vacation from the real world—that is, to some degree, the allure of the MBA for many professionals—but a rigorous program done properly is one of the most strenuous experiences imaginable. Assignments build up, extra preparation and teamwork become paramount, social and extracurricular activities beckon, and sleep becomes a distant memory. Many candidates end up wondering whether they wouldn’t rather be paid in the working world—where they would also be getting hands-on experience—to forego so much of their personal lives.
5. The Right Education
Take a moment and define your goals. Make them clear, honest and attainable. Invest the energy, emotionally and intellectually, to truly understand where you would like to go—and, most importantly, why. Then ask yourself how grad school will bring you closer to that goal. Oftentimes, grad school becomes a replacement for the hard work and choices you must make in the real world. Or it is a common path that was thrust on you by a company or encouraged by your industry. In many cases, the MBA isn’t as pivotal as it seems to getting where you want to go in life. Operating in the real world, where you ultimately want to advance, is the greatest education imaginable.
Bottom line? Education is a deeply personal choice. And it’s important. It helps define who we are, what we know and how we work. Where you decide to learn should reflect your goals in each of those areas.
But when it comes to advancing your career, your education and your life, the instincts and insights you acquire in the real world will always serve you better than the ideas and concepts you explore in a classroom. I encourage you to continue playing in the real world, as I did. I’m confident you’ll be a stronger, smarter person for it.
Jay Wu leads Innovation at A Forever Recovery. In his startup experience, he has built a digital marketing agency, a content network, and an e-commerce store. Jay speaks in the Bay area about social media marketing, SEO, and current trends in the internet-startup industry.