How Do I Weigh the Decision to Get a Business Degree?

A 5-Point List for Would-Be M.B.A.'s

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Tim Berry

I get this question a lot, I guess because I founded a successful company and ran it for 20 years, and now I teach an entrepreneurship class. Maybe it's that I got my degrees in literature and journalism first, then an M.B.A. 10 years later. And I have mixed feelings.

And maybe it's that a lot of people are suddenly thinking about the M.B.A. shelter as a port in the storm, to hide out until the economy gets better.

So I've made you a list; that's a typical M.B.A. trick. It comes with the degree:

1.If life gives you a way to get the M.B.A. degree without huge sacrifice—like maybe you're still young and don't have a family, maybe you're having trouble with getting a new job, or whatever—and it sounds like fun to you, do it. Consider it a luxury.

2. If it doesn't work for you, don't worry much about it. I know people who would thoroughly enjoy the M.B.A. curriculum, but they've already got great jobs, they're already in their 30s, they're juggling jobs and kids, so it would be too hard.

3. Don't ever measure education, not even business education, in money. Even business education is about some things that don't flow straight back into dollars and cents. You have to look for additional value in learning, knowing and applying techniques, and life satisfaction.

4. If the M.B.A. doesn't work for you, look into the executive education offerings of a lot of good business schools. Stanford, Harvard, Wharton, Northwestern, and many others package one-week and two-week courses that are almost always surprisingly expensive but also almost always very good. If you like certification, look to the ones that offer certification.

5. Unless you're really interested in business, don't study business as an undergraduate. Study what you want to study, even if it's literature or fine arts or pure science; you can learn business later. First, learn how to learn, and communicate, and research, and analyze. Exception: If you really want to study business, then do it.

I feel I should add, the M.B.A. worked beautifully for me, even though I was already 31 years old when I started, already married, and already had three kids. I enjoyed those two years thoroughly, and so did my wife. We lived on campus at Stanford, needed only one car, and the family housing was great. I worked a full-time consulting schedule at odd times, usually at home, and made enough of an income to keep us happy. I liked what I learned in the classroom, and not having to learn in the classroom the kinds of things that you really learn by doing. It was great.

On the other hand, if I had been doing it just to make more money, it would have been a big mistake. It took me 10 or 15 years for my wife and I to dig ourselves out of the mess I made coming out of business school, recruiting into the wrong job, buying a house we didn't like, and getting into a lot of debt.

And if I had it to do again, I would.

Tim Berry is president and founder of Palo Alto Software, founder of bplans.com , and a co founder of Borland International. He teaches about starting a business at the University of Oregon. He is author of books and software that include Business Plan Pro, published by Palo Alto Software, and The Plan-As-You-Go Business Plan published by Entrepreneur Press. He has a Stanford M.B.A. degree and degrees with honors from the University of Oregon and the University of Notre Dame. He blogs at Planning Startup Stories and Up and Running.