Is going to business school worth it? A few thoughts on the occasion of graduation

Last month, our site’s founder completed the part-time MBA program at NYU while working full-time and blogging about inspiring office space as much as possible in whatever free time was left over.

Here are her closing thoughts on business school.

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People often ask me if I think going to business school is “worth it.”

“Do you actually ‘learn’ anything in business school?” they ask. “Isn’t business school really just about the networking, I’ve heard it’s really just about the networking.”

Well, I’ve learned more things in business school than I have time to share with you now.  In fact, I’ve forgotten more things than I have time to share with you ever.   But I would like to impart five of the most important things that I learned, realized, or discovered while in business school, to suggest that there is in fact something more than just networking that goes into earning an MBA.

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Lesson 1: Introduce yourself.  During our orientation Dean Fraser encouraged us to introduce ourselves to the person sitting next to us that day and in every new classroom we would enter.  You never know who is sitting next to you, but there’s a good chance it’s someone you will want to know.  He then went on to say that for some, that person sitting next to them could be a future best friend, business partner or even spouse. The audience laughed, but one of my favorite stories that I heard in business school was from a classmate, Athena, who said that she turned and introduced herself to the person sitting next to her in orientation;  then later that month agreed to go on a date with him, and a year later agreed to marry him.  As husband and wife they are graduating together.  It really makes you think about who you are missing out on meeting when you don’t say hello to the person next to you.

Lesson 2:  Stop worrying about what you’re not good at.  The morning of my first mid-term exam of business school, I woke up with the panicked thought that I was not supposed to be in business school. Grad school, maybe – but definitely one that didn’t involve accounting.  I was sorry to discover that my fight or flight mechanism was securely positioned in the upright and locked position, pointing squarely towards ‘flight’.  I wanted to quit– and the sooner the better as I had only 10 hours to go before the midterm would prove that I am not good at accounting.  But one of the most important things I learned in business school is that it’s OK to not be good at accounting.  Most people are not good at accounting. Though to look at the grading curve, most people are better than me at accounting.

On the other hand, in business school, I realized that while writing comes naturally to me, it does not to many others.  Reading and editing and re-writing group papers made me appreciate what a gift it is to be able to write and how hard it is to write well.   It’s OK for me not to be good at accounting – because I make up for it with other skills.  Over the course of our careers, my classmates and I will strike an equilibrium: I’ll edit their papers if they’ll put my credits and debits in the correct columns.

Lesson 3: You have to reward  yourself.   One of my favorite things about business school was the half-hour walk I would take through the West Village to get there.  I meandered through picture perfect tree lined streets. I fought off the siren calls of frozen yogurt while marveling at the block long lines that formed as people queued up for cupcakes. And I began to understand the big deal everyone makes about Bleeker street, though not completely, and more so in the Spring. Earning the degree would be a certain type of reward – but one that alone pales in comparison to the sum of all the other smaller rewards I treated myself to along the way. In the same vein, an important part of rewarding yourself is you being the one to reward yourself, rather than waiting for others to shower you with accolades. Going to business school was something that I did because it was something that I wanted to do. And the value that I got out of the experience was the output of the energy I put in to it.  If you wait around for others to grant you permission to work on the new project, to join the new team, to start the new company, you’ll spend your life waiting impatiently. Some things you have to do for yourself. Rewarding yourself is one of them.

Lesson 4: Half the battle is just showing up, physically and mentally. I made myself proud in business school by never “calling it in” for a final exam, even though grades don’t matter  much and business school professors are known for making it difficult to earn less than a B. I did manage to do that, by the way.  In Foundations of Finance I got a B-.   Apparently the fundamentals of finance are more than I could grasp, but even for that final at least I tried.  Scribbling furiously over a practice exam on a cloudless summer day, while a lake shimmered seductively, I hacked away at a calculator trying to make sense of the equations in front of me.  I studied, and then I showed up, and I stretched myself to learn something new that I would never have learned by any other means.

Two and a half years after I considered quitting school before being subjected to an accounting midterm, I found myself on the phone with the registrar’s office literally trying to drop a class before the mathy first assignment came due. Once again, I was trying to sneak out, to run away.  The registrar rejected my request. I was one day past the deadline. If I’d had the good sense to drop the class 48 hours earlier, they would have indulged my intellectual cowardliness, per policy. But as it was, on that date dropping the class would have cost $5,992, and even I, without a single financial fundamental to my name, could work out that this was a losing equation.  So I stuck with the class. And rather than giving up – I went to office hours.  And I went back to office hours. And I studied for the final exam – and I edited the group paper – and I showed up, literally and figuratively speaking, when my gut instinct had been to run away. This is one of the most important lessons I’ve learned in business school: showing up really is half the battle.

 Lesson 5: There’s such a thing as a “good problem to have.”

Yes, going to business school required investment and sacrifices on several levels – some people would consider these to be the “cons” of going to business school.  Things like giving up your evenings and sometimes weekends, having to study for an exam on a sunny summer day, coughing up the cash for overpriced textbooks that you might never even open; these are problems that business school presents.

But having homework from one of the top business schools in the world is what can be called “a good problem to have.”  Being tired in class because I’d just spent 8 hours at work, is also a good problem to have because it means I have a job, at one of the best companies to work for no less.   And my problems, no matter how good, began to feel less like problems at all when I would compare it to what other people were giving up to make business school happen.  I would look around at my impressive classmates and realize many of them were doing more, sacrificing more, than I was. Commuting home an hour or more after class got out at nine, missing putting their children to bed, or in the case of a few particularly impressive women, showing up in class after a full day of work all while hugely pregnant.  One day I walked out with a classmate who was 8 months pregnant and I asked her how she could possibly not be completely exhausted by working and going to school when she was so far along.

She acknowledged that it wasn’t easy, and this hadn’t exactly been ‘the plan,’ but that she and her husband had been granted a gift, even if it wasn’t right when they wanted it.

“How can you get tired of having this many blessings?” She asked.

Now, when I start to feel myself getting overwhelmed, tired, jaded or cynical I stop to ask myself the same.

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So to those who ask if business school is worth it, I say ‘yes’ because while credits bear the cost of tuition, lessons are priceless and today I leave business school with at least 5 more than I had when I walked in the door.  Special thanks go out to all those who made it possible for me to go to business school, all those who helped to impart these lessons, and thank you in advance to all those who learned something different than I did over the years.  I’ll be looking to you to balance your lessons with mine and your skills with mine.  Especially if one of your skills is accounting.

– Lauren



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