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Why should I even think of applying to business school?

By Bob Bruner-

As I reach out to potential applicants, most people I encounter have thought through their intentions about getting an MBA. Occasionally, though, I meet the person who is unsettled about whether to apply to business school. I may see a person who is much less developed in his or her thinking, but because of talents or particular promise merits some time to talk. In the past few days I have been challenged by a computer scientist, a lawyer, a medical doctor, a grade-school teacher, and a director of an arts organization to make the case for business school. We might deepen and strengthen the business profession by drawing into our ranks such people. Their question has to do with what an MBA can possibly offer them: “Why should I even think about applying to business school?”

The first good reason might be to reach a better standard of living. MBA graduates from Darden are highly compensated—last May, the average salary and bonus to our new graduates was $121,000. One of the strongest correlates in social science is the direct association between years of education and income. The annual income of our most recent graduates increased an average of 81 percent over what they had been earning before Darden. Graduate professional education in business from a leading school truly pays.

Another reason would be to fulfill your dreams of control over your life and direction. In most professions you can foresee a future of working for other people. Business school offers one of the fastest routes to working for yourself in the sense of running your own business. The reality is that autonomous business people really do work for other people, such as customers, investors, and the welfare of their employees—but this is vastly different from working in fields with strict codes, rules, and bureaucracies. In business there are no guilds such as unions of engineers, lawyers’ bar associations, or licensing boards for doctors—the relative absence of professional barriers to entry in business mean that good people can enter and move around the business professional world with comparative ease. If you value autonomy, creativity, and initiative, you would enjoy a career of entrepreneurial business. The Darden alumni body includes numerous graduates who founded their own companies at a relatively young age and have prospered well—I think particularly of Jim Cheng, Warren Thompson, Doug Lebda, Dustin Shindo, and Patrick Sweeney. The logo of a prominent maker of t-shirts says it well: “Do what you like. Like what you do.” The pre-requisite for this is to take charge of your professional path.

Making an important contribution to the welfare of society would be a third good reason. Darden MBAs carry best business practices to the companies they work for. This helps to improve the efficiency, stability, and growth of these companies. The improvement in corporate performance results in the creation of jobs, enhancement of employment benefits, greater tax payments to the public sector, better goods and services, and delighted customers. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the free market system is the best game in town, the source of better medicine, warmer clothing, safer housing, faster communications, and so on. Business schools help improve the welfare of society in another sense as well: we discover and disseminate best social practices in areas such as environmental sustainability, social inclusiveness and diversity, management of not-for-profit enterprises, and sensitivity to a range of stakeholders. Many of our MBA graduates serve on boards of charitable organizations; their own charitable giving helps to direct the path of such organizations.

At Darden, we are reminded of Thomas Jefferson, third President of the U.S., author of our Declaration of Independence, and founder of the University of Virginia: he is a model to us of the person who is both practical and visionary, a master of the realities of the world and an advocate for a better world, and a leader not simply a technocrat. At Darden we educate our MBAs not merely to manage, but to lead. Our MBAs form a growing network of service to society.

Finally, work in business is interesting. If offers varied opportunities and challenges each day. One needs to make decisions and take action, often in concert with other people. Sensible risk-taking is encouraged and rewarded. This is a path for people who take personal initiative, think critically, respond well to novel new demands, and work well with others.

I cannot promise that, having earned an MBA from Darden, every person will achieve all of these good ends and do so quickly. But our MBA does open up a wide array of new opportunities, and sends our graduates into the world of practical affairs with greater momentum than they could achieve independently.

And I cannot assert that all business practitioners view their work with the same idealism that we do. The recent business scandals represent a corruption of trust and community on which best business practice relies—and I argue that business schools are incubators of the very values and practices on which a better society and economy will be built. To join the ranks of MBAs is to become part of the avant garde for a better world.

Occasionally I meet an old-line socialist or communist who argues that the problem with MBA schools is the profit motive and that instead our schools should teach administration without the business stuff, in other words, to prepare technocrats for the nanny state. Business schools are champions for free markets and the profit motive. Capitalism offers the best practical system for allocating resources in society and for raising the welfare of all. But making money is not the only end goal in life. There are a host of situations in which one would walk away from more money, such as to find a more balanced life, to save one’s integrity, reputation, or health, and to serve one’s religious faith or the legitimate need of others. Darden teaches how one can navigate the complexities of a career in which one can do well and do good.

Weighed in the balance, business school offers a compelling value proposition. Even those who come into business school from another field, and eventually return to that field, go back deeper and much more capable than before to fulfill a professional mission. I would invite anyone who looks at business school from a distance to draw closer: there may be a fit here that could transform your life for the better.

Bob Bruner
Dean, Darden School of Business

Posted by Robert Bruner at 07/22/2006 04:14:35 AM