Best B Schools-Should You Go?

The list of the best B schools just came out.  My alma mater, ChicagoBooth, came out number one.  It’s the second year in a row that Chicago was listed as number one.  But, Chicago has had a great business school for a long, long time.  So have some of the other schools on the list.

UChicago Graduate School of Business skylight
UChicago Booth Graduate School of Business skylight (Photo credit: Wikipedia)the other schools on the list.

I find that a lot of people like to make fun of MBA‘s.  Does going to Chicago make me smarter than someone that went to Harvard?  Or, because I have a B school degree, am I smarter than say, Jimmy John Liautaud who barely made it out of Eastern Illinois University-as an undergrad?  No.  But, an MBA can be a difference maker for a lot of people.

Everyone chooses to go to business school for a different reason.  It’s as varied as the people in the class.  Some industries require it for a stamp of approval before senior management.  Some do it to learn skills they don’t have.  If you were a philosophy undergrad, it’s doubtful you spent a lot of time thinking about operations or marketing in a concrete way.  Even many investment managers I know were amazed the first time they saw how beta was calculated.  Being exposed to some concepts in a totally different way causes something inside you to click.

Business school isn’t for everyone.  It won’t make the difference between success or failure in your career.  But for many, it is the defining difference.  Only you can make that judgement.  If you ask Bryan Johnson from Braintree if business school was worth it I’d bet he would tell you to go in a heartbeat.  He entered the New Venture Challenge at Booth, won it, and built a successful start up.

People ask me why I did it, especially at a late age.  I wasn’t the oldest person in my class, but I was up there.  When I was on the CME Board, I used to have lunch with Merton Miller.  I’d listen to Merton and Senator Paul Simon debate public policy.  It was fascinating.  They truly enjoyed each other’s company.  Paul also taught me how to tie a bow tie!  I was in my later thirties, and I talked with Merton about B school.  He encouraged me, and said, “If you do it, you do it at Chicago.”!  I figured he had a Nobel Prize and was a lot smarter than me.  I may stink at a lot of things, but I am a good listener and coachable!

Doing an MBA much later in life was interesting.  It academically and mathematically codified things that I knew intrinsically.    After being an independent trader in a pit for 25 years, I have a pretty good handle on many of the things they talk about in B school.  Supply and demand, price, game theory, and strategy.  Business school should change the way you think.  It did for me.

Because of the time I enrolled, I wanted a name school.  I didn’t want to waste my time with a lesser known program.  For me, I wanted that stamp of approval-because as a trader most people didn’t think I was too intelligent.  I also wanted a tougher program to challenge myself.  Because I didn’t want to travel, that left me with two programs, Northwestern’s Kellogg School and ChicagoBooth.  Northwestern rejected me because I wasn’t corporate enough-and Chicago accepted me.

Many people go to B schools and just go through the motions.  They want that MBA stamp of approval without really changing the way they think and approach things.  I find that they took the tests, and regurgitated the facts professors wanted them to learn-but they don’t really believe it.  If they did, they would think and act far differently than they do.

If you want some advice for going to business school I’d say it depends.  What goal are you trying to accomplish?  If it’s merely a certification, and school doesn’t matter, then spend as little as possible, go through the motions and get your degree.  There is only one way to use the net present value tables to discount capital.  Chicago uses the same method as Podunk State.  If you are trying to change your path in life, pick the school that has the culture that will change your path in the direction you want to go.  Some schools do things a lot better than other schools.  If you are looking at a top five school, they do everything pretty well.  If you simply want a network to lean on to get things done-then go to the schools with the best network.

The University of Chicago has changed a lot in the time that I have been acquainted with it. It used to be considered simply a great economics and finance school.  It still is probably the best school on the planet for those two disciplines.  However, it has become an entrepreneurial hotbed.  That has attracted a new breed of student. One benefit is that this new breed has put a lot of pressure on Chicago’s faculty to perform.  Entrepreneurs demand not only strong finance/economics, but they need strong marketing, operations, and strategy programs as well.  Great entrepreneurs aren’t one dimensional, and Booth is cranking out multi-dimensional thinkers.  Entrepreneurs are being churned out of Booth at a pretty good clip.  In my class, I bet a third of them became entrepreneurs in one way or another.

The undergraduate culture at some schools permeates the business school too.  Chicago’s undergrad community is considered pretty nerdy.  However, the undergraduate community values debate-and it smashes ideas together to see what comes out.  Mathematically based debate is highly prized in the business school.  Ironically, among professors it’s sort of a bloodsport.  I have seen it on occasion and if you are used to being in an Ivory Tower, you will be uncomfortable.  The undergraduate program at Chicago now features an entrepreneurship track. There is an undergrad New Venture Challenge.  That development is awesome.

Business school isn’t cheap.  This isn’t a decision that you take lightly.  A lot of people like to measure return on investment.  However, measuring that is very difficult.  Unfortunately, many look to short term measurements, like quarterly earnings to see if what they are getting back is equal or greater to what they put in.  I know I probably have negative ROI on my business degree if I total up the costs versus the economic gains at this point.  But it’s really early and I will live a long time.  I encourage people to do it in their younger years and not wait.

If you want to get something out of business school, it’s going to require a lot of sacrifice.  B school can be painful.  Painful on your personal and professional life, painful on your time.  To really understand concepts it takes time.  The Cranberry Case at Chicago killed me, but I learned a lot about operations that I was previously oblivious to.  It’s not a decision to go into lightly.  My family will tell you that for two years, I was unavailable.  But, hopefully now they get some benefit from it.

There are things I never would have done if I hadn’t gone to business school. There are people I never would have met, friends I never would have had.  For me, it wasn’t a mistake or a waste of time.  It’s an individual choice.  B school isn’t a prescriptive salve that automatically makes you better or smarter or more successful.  However, if you choose your school wisely, and approach it aggressively, seeking to get the most out of it that you can, it’s probably worth it for you.

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