Why I Regret Getting An MBA (& You Will, Too)
Turns out an MBA was not the cure to my imposter syndrome that I thought it would be…
I started a part-time MBA three years ago because I thought it would give me the authority I felt I lacked and make me feel accomplished. Burnout, stress and a few much-needed breaks later, it turns out that studying for an MBA was not the silver bullet to my imposter syndrome I thought it would be.
I had chosen to get an MBA for the wrong reasons. Like a lot of people in their late 20s, I had a quarter-life crisis and didn’t know what I wanted to do anymore. My high-paying jobs in the Middle East in PR (Public Relations) and magazines hadn’t translated into a similarly satisfying role when I returned to the UK, and I was struggling to understand how I fit in. I thought an MBA (Master Of Business Administration) sounded prestigious and would give me sorely needed business acumen, but I chose to do it from a place of fear and insecurity. I was looking for validation, and I was hyper-focused on what I couldn’t do, instead of what I could.
Studying for an MBA with no business background and a six-year hiatus from furthering my education is possibly the most naïve, yet bravest, thing I have ever done. It is both my best and worst decision. Frankly, I had no idea what I was getting into. At the time, I was freelancing as a journalist, and making decent money but I felt insecure and unsure of myself. So, I dived in, and committed to a student loan and aimed to cover the rest in monthly installments.
“I chose to do it from a place of fear and insecurity. I was looking for validation, and I was hyper-focused on what I couldn’t do, instead of what I could…”
Immediately, I was out of my depth; struggling to understand coursework and keep up with paying work. At first, I couldn’t see how learning about manufacturing and supply chains could be relevant to anything I would ever do. But I kept going; I assumed that eventually, everything would snap into place.
It did not.
Doing an MBA is a marathon and not a sprint, and I was no long-distance runner. The weight of post-graduate studying led me to some poor decisions. Freelance clients dried up, so I took a job I wasn’t really sure about. And then a different job, to get away from the job I wasn’t sure about. Suddenly, all my decisions were based around a degree I had to pay for, that I didn’t enjoy doing, and that I started to realize wasn’t right for me. My MBA was slowly sucking the life out of me, and the money out of my bank account.
I struggled to balance having a full-time job and part-time study. I’m in awe of people who make it work for them. I felt like I worked every evening and every weekend, and I cried before project deadlines. All of my insecurities wanted to pave over were suddenly more exposed, and I became so self-critical that, when I look back, I’m shocked at the way I spoke to myself. It’s clear I thought I hadn’t lived up to the expectations I set for myself. I had been studying to get back to the high-achiever status that meant so much to me and I felt I was failing more than ever.
“Suddenly, all my decisions were based around a degree I had to pay for, that I didn’t enjoy doing, and that I realized wasn’t right for me. My MBA was slowly sucking the life out of me, and the money out of my bank account.”
Still, I struggled on, leaning into subjects I found interesting (like leadership), and doing my best with the rest. Doing a part-time MBA took up so much of my mental space that I felt like a laptop with too many tabs open. I was constantly tired and frustrated at how slowly I was working. I realized that I couldn’t push myself any further; I had spread myself way too thin. As Ron Swanson says, don’t half-ass something when you can whole-ass it.
Eventually, I took a semester off, and the weight off my shoulders was immense. But when I returned to my studies a few months later, I began to feel resentful of this mountain of work I was climbing. When would it end? Was I ever going to see the fruits of my labor? Why was this dragging on so long?
At the beginning of the lockdown, facing redundancy due to the pandemic, I had to choose whether or not I should continue my studies. Should I admit defeat and draw a line under it? Or should I persevere and stop being so hard on myself? It was a hard decision.
Again, I chose my MBA and for the wrong reasons: sunk cost fallacy (I had spent too much money to not finish the degree, and was only a few modules away), and it was a goal to work towards while unemployed during a pandemic and lockdown. However, because I knew these weren’t really good enough reasons, I decided to be more mindful about it this time. I gave myself permission to study in Starbucks and drink as much coffee as I liked. I posted on social media about studying to encourage myself and make myself more accountable. I bought some pastel highlighters! I also approached a friend, and we founded a part-time start-up giving free workshops on subjects like confidence, leadership, and culture – all heavily colored by what I learn from my MBA and my experiences in the workplace. It makes me more excited to dive into boring texts now that I know I’m going to share my hot takes on it with others.
“Doing a part-time MBA took up so much of my mental space that I felt like a laptop with too many tabs open.”
In a roundabout way, the MBA has diluted my imposter syndrome. Not because I now know all the things I thought I needed to be a competent, successful adult, but because the months I’ve spent studying leadership, productivity and how teams work best, have shown me that there isn’t one way to do things. I now realize that not only is it impossible to know everything, even the people I look up to don’t, and it’s not holding them back. My definition of success has changed because I’ve realized that I have been capable the whole time. I still don’t know what I’m doing most of the time, but now I’m fine with that.
However, if I had a time machine, I wouldn’t choose an MBA again. It’s too generalist for me when I want to be specific, and too specific when I want to be a generalist. While I loved learning about leadership and strategy, if I were going to sink £15,000 ($20,600 USD) and the best part of three years on a part-time course again, I choose to invest in a sought-after technical skill, like data analytics, or even a law conversion course. If you go to a fancy Ivy League school or Oxbridge, an MBA may have more prestige (or connections), and that might make it worth the price tag and the time. That wasn’t an option for me, and I went to a university in Edinburgh, Scotland, chosen because of proximity and price.
“However, if I had a time machine, I wouldn’t choose an MBA again. It’s too generalist for me when I want to be specific, and too specific when I want to be a generalist.”
I think MBAs are on their way out: it’s a hangover from a different, simpler time and I feel that no one will be studying them in a few decades. The business world is changing so quickly, and I found a lot of my studies encompassed a generalist overview of how businesses operate. I still want more technical skills to assuage my imposter syndrome and become a more valuable team member. There are a lot of divisive opinions about MBAs – I don’t think any degree is “worthless”, but I agree it’s not a silver bullet to help you up the ladder to being a CEO. As the world becomes (hopefully) less elitist and embraces inclusion and diversity, I think our understanding of management and what we want from business will change – for the better.
I’ve just started my last module where I’ll be writing a proposal for my research project – and then I’m done! Finally, after all this time, I am nearing the finishing line. I can’t wait.
Laura Hamilton is a reluctant MBA student and co-founder of Compass Consultancy. She’s based in Edinburgh, Scotland, and you can find her on Twitter @lauraannham.
Images via Unsplash