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What I Wish I’d Known Before Getting My Harvard MBA

An MBA is a tool that helps you work toward your goal - not a job guarantee. It's up to you to maximize the opportunity, says Harvard Business School graduate Stirling Cox.

Earning an MBA can be exciting. You’re surrounded by like-minded people who come from all walks of life, all striving toward the success you’re certain to achieve. You’re adding those three little letters after your name, letters that are catnip for hiring managers.

It’s true that the potential for success is out there. Or, perhaps a better way to put it is that the potential for success is in you. Not enough MBA students understand — including me, when I was working toward mine — that obtaining the degree is not in itself a sure-fire route to success.

An MBA may provide the foundation, but it’s up to you to build your career.

Think of it this way: an MBA is a tool that helps you work toward your goal, not a magic key that will unlock the door to success. Did you get into Harvard? Congratulations — so have thousands of others.

To make the best use of your MBA, regardless of the school name on the diploma, it’s important to understand what you can reasonably expect it to do for you.

What An MBA Will Do For You:

I’m not saying an MBA isn’t useful — it is. But as a student, you have to understand how and why it’s valuable in order to maximize the opportunity.

It provides perspective

Life can feel hectic as you race from high school to college, all the while working jobs and dealing with other responsibilities. Getting an MBA provides you with a good opportunity to step back and really look at what you want to do with your career.

It gives you a chance to gain some real-world experience, to think about who you really are and to potentially hit the reset button. Take the time to experiment and try new things.

It helps with networking

Will everyone in your program be a genius? Of course not. But you’ll be surrounded by a variety of people — some geniuses, some merely talented, and some from different backgrounds who can provide you with life-enriching experiences and points of view.

You’ll make friends and acquaintances, some of whom you’ll be in contact with for the rest of your life. Some will even end up being business contacts or partners.

It’s an opportunity to learn

At the right school with the right professor, you’ll be amazed at how much you can learn. When you’re starting out, it may not be obvious how this information is useful, but once you’re out in the real world, it will prove to be vital.

Your professor’s job is to impart knowledge — trust that that’s what you’re getting.

Let’s look at three things you should not expect while earning your MBA.

The coursework is all that matters.

The classes are important, of course, but too many MBA students fixate on them, to the detriment of other aspects of life. Success doesn’t come solely through packing your brain with knowledge. It also comes from taking time for self-reflection, friendship, travel and living.

An MBA provides direct access to a job

The bottom line is that an MBA does not guarantee you a job. Each year, schools pump out scores of people who are in the same boat as you, and there are only so many jobs out there.

You have to prove you’re the best through more than simply having an MBA.

Everything will fall in your lap

An MBA is useful for learning, networking, and finding opportunities, but none of that will happen if you don’t put in the effort. Are you going to a networking event or staying home and watching TV? No one’s going to force you to put in the effort, so you have to motivate yourself.

Finding success in the Real World

An MBA provides you with a chance to learn a lot of useful information and build a network of business contacts, but your success will be determined by what you do once you’re out in the real world.

While studying, you might role play as a CEO faced with tough decisions, but once you’re actually in a decision-making role, reality hits hard — you go back to chiselling away at the basics to earn your place.

An MBA can give you a false sense of security. You’ve just spent a few years being told that you’re amazing and brilliant; all of a sudden, you encounter a business problem that wasn’t addressed in any of your books.

It’s a humbling experience to find yourself confronted with a problem you don’t understand. Sometimes, you learn that your book-smarts are useless, and it’s only your drive and perseverance that push you to overcome challenges. Sometimes, you learn to fail.

That’s why 80 per cent of MBA students change jobs within two years of earning their degree. They find that the MBA didn’t deliver everything they’d expected, and that there was still more learning to be done.

This may sound somewhat discouraging, but don’t let it get to you. In fact, look at it like this: when you realize how much of your success will be determined by you and you alone, it’s quite empowering.

An MBA is a means, not an end. You decide how far you take it.

Stirling Cox is the managing director of AlphaSights USA, a company that connects today's business leaders with the insight and expertise they need to prosper.

Comments.

Friday 21st February 2014, 19.01 (UTC)

By
Jessica D

Thanks for the post! I think it's important to get some real-world work experience before pursuing an MBA. After 5 years of working as a marketing professional, I am thinking about applying for an MBA program this year. Probably most interested in Thunderbird's full-time MBA program: http://www.thunderbird.edu/graduate-degrees/programs/full-time-mba

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