MBA or startup? Ask yourself these questions first.

They say an education never goes to waste, but learning can happen both in and out of the classroom. For those pursuing more traditional, familiar paths in banking and consulting, it’s pretty standard to get your Master of Business Administration (MBA) degree after a few years of working in the real world. But where does an MBA fit in if you’re working at a startup, where on-the-job learning can be both unpredictable and pretty darn comprehensive?

Before you drive yourself crazy thinking about what route to go down, consider what you'll get out of more school versus continuing on with a startup career. We’ll go over the most important questions that you should ask yourself before you commit.

First, let's make one thing clear: the best decision is the one that you fully own. It's totally fine (and encouraged!) to ask friends, family, colleagues, and the internet for advice when making a potentially life-altering decision like this one, but it all boils down to what works for you. Got a gut feeling? Go with it! The following questions will help keep you on track and make sure that you're making the decision that's best for you and not for anyone else.


1. Do you thrive in a structured environment, or do you enjoy forging your own path?

Depending on the program, an MBA can offer you valuable, specialized knowledge in marketing, accounting, or finance (among other things), but you won’t have as much time or chance to practically apply that knowledge as you would at work. Of course, you can also consider a part-time MBA program so that you don’t have to quit your job just to go back to school—that is, if you don’t mind spending a few extra years to earn your degree and carefully balancing work, school, and life during that time.

When it comes down to it, there are some things about business—and working with others—that you just can’t easily learn in a classroom. In the startup world, many companies and positions are specialized yet flexible (for instance, just because you work in marketing doesn’t mean you’ll just be doing marketing-related things) and thus offer unique hands-on experiences that you can't even find in a traditional corporate environment. Since you’ll probably be taking on projects that would normally fall outside of your core responsibilities, your work in a startup may be the well-rounded crash course you need to succeed, even if you don’t have an advanced degree.


2. What is it that you really want to do in life?

Yep, we're making you ask yourself this dreaded question (trust us, you'll thank us later). Maybe you don't have a five year plan in mind, and that's okay. But before you fork over massive cash for that post-grad program (that you might not need), you should take the time to consider what your career goals are. Maybe that extra education would get you that theoretical knowledge that you may need, or maybe that startup experience is the kind of learning that suits you better. Whatever the case, make sure the decision is what you believe is best for you. There’s no single path that you have to take in your career, and you can always change your mind about whether an MBA is or isn’t right for you.


3. Is your existing network strong?

Many people go into an MBA program knowing that they’ll forge unbreakable bonds with like-minded members of their cohort, but you can do the same on the job. MBA students and startup employees can come from all walks of life and professional backgrounds, which makes for a plethora of resources when you’re trying to gain a new skill or find a new job. While you're still making the decision to get your MBA or not, look around at the people you work with (both inside and out of your company) and don’t be afraid to ask for their help—sometimes it’s just a matter of refining your networking technique to build the rolodex you need to succeed.

Regardless, embracing your extroverted side is a must if you want to build a solid network, b-school or not. You don't have to go to a new networking event every day, but it's always good to keep expanding your circle whenever you can.


4. Does the curriculum appeal to you?

Do you miss learning for the sake of learning? While MBA programs will teach you business theory as part of the curriculum, remember that the entire purpose of it is to teach you how to be a well-rounded manager and business leader (depending on your specialty, if you have one), so you’ll have to be able to back your learnings up with real world application. In other words, you got to live what you learn and enjoy every minute of it.

If there are specific skills that you think will help you to move forward professionally (or personally), there are many places to learn them outside a formal post-grad program, too. Sites like Udemy, Lynda, and Udacity offer courses in everything from Photoshop to data science, which may sound niche yet just what you need to secure the promotion you're vying for. Better yet? These classes can be done from the comfort of your couch and for a fraction of the price.


5. Are you using an MBA as an escape from the real world?

You won't succeed in your MBA program if you aren't in it for the right reasons. Although going back to school sounds fun, grad school isn't the place to relive your carefree undergrad days. If you're only considering going back to school because you'd really like a break from adulting, or because you absolutely hate your job but aren't ready to jump ship just yet, don't think an MBA will be the best solution for that. Take everything one step at a time!


At the end of the day, there is no one size fits all answer as to whether or not an MBA is the best next step for you if you work at a startup. Only you can decide what’s truly best for you depending on your career goals, personality, learning style, and your flexibility (both in regards to time and finances). No matter what path you choose, though, remember that knowledge is power. What you learn, be it in the classroom or on the job, will inevitably make you better, more successful employee!

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Cat Hausler is a self-proclaimed grammar nerd with a passion for the power of the written word. Based in Denver, Cat enjoys going to see live music, practicing yoga, exploring the mountains, and park days with her friends.