I hope my story drives prospective MBAs towards analyzing their situations better, and coming to a decision that is right for their professional lives.
Tell us about yourself
After graduating from college, we usually follow in the footsteps of those that have “done well” in life. Here in India, most of those that have “done well” would have gotten their MBAs right out of college, while some would have gained a couple of years’ work experience and then taken the plunge.An MBA being a professional degree, sometimes we fail to analyze whether it would really add value to our careers.Some of it by accident and most of it by design, I have, over time, continually analyzed the value that an MBA would add to my professional life, and have consciously taken the decision to not pursue it.Through all this time, I have come across people in a similar situation (as mine) falling to peer, parental, or other pressures, and succumbing to the lure of a glittering and shining pot of gold at the end of the MBA road.
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What was your career path?
Naïve as I was, I had never given much thought to how I would finance my MBA. My seniors (of the MS + PhD variety) assured me that graduate assistantships were very easy to come by. After reaching the US, I realized that there was virtually no financial aid for MBA students (I did not qualify for their fellowships, and they offered only a handful of assistantships for the entire class). Just as my personal funds were about to get over, I was lucky to find myself a graduate assistantship at one of the engineering departments.
Everything went fine till the sixth quarter. Then all of a sudden, my assistantship was cancelled. No amount of running around and begging and pleading helped, and I had to discontinue my MBA. I took up a few part-time jobs to somehow support myself, at the same time hoping against hope that I would be awarded a new assistantship.
One day I received a letter from the office for international students, which stated that I was “out of status” and therefore would need to leave the country immediately. I packed up my bags and came back to India in May 2006. So here I was, 2 years after graduating from IIT, not having gained any work experience, and having dropped out of business school.
What was the turning point? How did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and interesting career?
By sheer chance I happened to meet with the heir to a well-known business group in my city. He was planning to set up a manufacturing unit for flyash bricks and tiles. After speaking with me for a while, he asked if I would be interested in working with him, and I immediately accepted his offer. This was my first real job – and I was going to help him establish a new company.
I worked for him for a year. Through this short period of time, I gained a lot of knowledge and experience in a wide range of domains. I learnt accounting from the chief accountant of the group, and ended up building a spreadsheet-based financial analysis model with what-if scenario building capability [related post: How to create a business plan]. I liaised with German heavy equipment manufacturers, and was actively involved in negotiating price and other terms of sale of equipment for the factory.
I got to know more about how to secure debt funding. I worked with many civil, mechanical and instrumentation engineers, and oversaw the installation of various types of machinery. In short, this was the most intellectually and professionally stimulating environment that I had ever been exposed to, and I relished every moment of it.
Six months into my new job, one fine day, my parents told me that since everyone they knew had an MBA, I too should write the CAT and get my MBA from one of the IIMs. I explained to them that I was going through one of the best phases of my life, and it would be best not to interrupt it. However, they seemed to have tens of MBA examples to go by. Finally we agreed that I would take a go/no-go decision within a year or two.
Tell us about your next job
In May 2007, I received a call from a recruiter for an opening in a consulting and analytics division of a big name multinational firm. At the time, I thought that though I had learnt a lot in my job at the manufacturing firm, the learning curve was now straightening out, and if I were to do an MBA in a year or two, it would be better to be associated with a well-known brand.
Also, in the long term, I visualized myself as being in the service industry and not manufacturing. I accepted their offer and joined the MNC in June 2007.
I worked for the MNC for 3 years – June ’07 – May ’10. I joined as a senior analyst, and at the time of leaving, I was a manager leading the forecasting and modeling teams. I had learned the fundamentals of analytics, modeling, data mining, etc., and provided consulting services to quite a few big name clients. Once again, the learning curve was very steep, and I gained hugely from the experience.
From early 2010, I began to realize a things that had changed from the time I had joined the MNC till then – my learning curve was starting to level, my projects were not very different from one another, and I wanted a changed in location. I also wanted to work for a pure-play consulting firm. With no specific outcome in mind, I floated my resume once again, and received a call from a boutique consulting firm. This was for a managerial role, and it sounded very interesting. A few interviews later, I had an offer letter in my hand, which I then accepted. Within a month, I had moved to a new city, and joined the consulting firm.
What did you feel about getting an MBA?
Through my 3 years at the MNC, I gave deep thought to doing an MBA quite a few times. Many of my friends and well-wishers advised me to go back to the US and complete the 2 remaining quarters. My parents advised me to not take any more chances in an unknown and foreign land (USA), write CAT and pursue my MBA at one of the IIMs. In the midst of all this cacophony, I started thinking about what would really make sense for me.
At the MNC all my peers already had MBAs. Not having it did not impede my professional growth or learning in any way. At the consulting firm virtually everyone – peers and subordinates – had an MBA. Most had opted for the CAT / IIM route right after their engineering, some for IIMA PGPX and ISB Hyderabad, while the rest had done their MBAs from US B-Schools. And here I was, at the same level and with similar responsibilities as them, but without the coveted degree.
I thought that if I were to write CAT then (I was 29!), assuming that I would get through, I would end up in the company of students with very little or no real world work experience. I would need to look out for lateral placements since usual placements would be for entry-level positions. In any case, it did not sound like a good idea to try and get into a B-School that I was already visiting as an interview panel member during placement seasons.
The next option was IIMA PGPX. A few other managers at my level had done their PGPX MBA not too long ago. I could see no reason why I should do one, and then get hired at the position that I already was at (or maybe at a level higher), not to mention the investment and lost time in the entire exercise. A similar argument was true for ISB as well.
The last option was US and European B-Schools. For US schools, I was a little too old for their regular full-time MBA programs, and not quite of age for their executive MBA programs. Also, taking on an extra $150k in debt did not seem to be the right thing to do.
For European B-Schools though, since the average age was higher, I was at the sweet spot. Also, there were a few good yearlong full-time programs (for example, INSEAD) that would work really well for me. Both of these options, especially the European one, sounded like viable ones.
The “middleman” argument
When you work in consulting, where virtually everyone has an MBA from a top school, you can’t help but feel that you have a gap that you need to fill. This is when I felt the need to talk to someone who would be able to understand my situation and offer unbiased practical advice.
I got in touch with Sameer Kamat, who helped me see things from a totally different angle. He said that a B-School acts as a “middleman” – an agent that either preps you for a managerial role, or helps you switch between domains (IT to banking, etc.). In my case, I was already in a managerial role, and wasn’t looking to switch domains either. Therefore, bringing a “middleman” into the picture and in the process spending $150k and 2 prime years of life (not to mention the time it would take for me to repay the hefty debt) wasn’t a good idea.
He also told me that if I were to graduate from a top B-School, I would probably get hired at the same or next higher level, which I would anyway reach in a couple of years time – why spend those two years in a B-School and in the process fork out $150k?
It could not have hit me any harder – I realized what a grave mistake I was about to make. I shelved my MBA plans, and haven’t looked back since.
Where are you today?
Today, I offer MBA, B-School and career related advice to quite a few of my colleagues. I try my best to be unbiased – in addition to giving them my own example, I also talk about those in the company that have done really well after doing an MBAs. I encourage them to think hard, come up with the right argument(s) for and/or against, and only then take a decision.
Just as Sameer’s “middleman” argument worked for me, anyone wanting to do an MBA needs to find the argument that works for him, which would help him decide whether it makes sense to take the plunge, or wait for some more time, or to not do an MBA at all. I warn them against jumping into the MBA muddle because of peer, parental or other pressures.
Knowing the importance of framing the right argument (such as the “middleman” argument) for important career decisions, I have found Sameer’s book – Beyond the MBA Hype – helpful in assisting me in framing similar arguments for those that I advise, for or against an MBA, as the case may be. My advisees and I have found the book offering very practical perspectives on the various facets of an MBA that everyone should consider when taking the plunge.
It has been more than 18 months since I had the “middleman” discussion with Sameer. During this time, I have grown my team at the consulting firm acquired a large and diverse portfolio of clients, traveled to the US for business development activities, visited top business and technical schools across India for recruitment drives through 2 placement seasons, and recently been promoted.
As of now, and for the foreseeable future, I have shelved my MBA plans. I am greatly enjoying what I am doing, and will continue to do so for some time to come. Looking back, sometimes I feel that maybe I have been very lucky; things have worked out really well for me – an MBA-dropout.