How to Decide if You Need an MBA as a Product Manager
One of the most common questions I get asked is, “do you recommend that I get an MBA (Master’s of Business Administration) to become a product manager?”
My answer is, “it depends on context, just like any other product decision.”
Too often, society tells us what we should be doing in absolute terms, and too often we seek absolute answers - either it should always be yes, or it should always be no.
Rather than provide a recommendation, I’d like to provide you a framework for deciding whether you need an MBA to become a product manager. That way, you are empowered to make your own recommendation that best suits your personal situation.
First, let’s discuss what makes a good product manager, and analyze how you line up against those requirements. Then, let’s discuss what an MBA provides you, and what the relevant tradeoffs are. Finally, let’s pull together a set of questions for you to ask yourself, so that you can make the most informed decision possible.
Product Management MBA Traits
In a previous article, we wrote about top skills that a good product manager should have. We argued that empathy, organization, prioritization, communication, and insight generation are critical skills for all product managers to master.
Think of your skills as bars on a bar graph, where your X axis represents each skill you have, and your Y axis represents your expertise in that skill.
For the critical skills mentioned above, you must attain a minimum mastery across all of these.
Additionally, to be a successful product manager, you need an unfair advantage - a particular skill on your chart that spikes strongly.
This skills chart should therefore look like an inverted T-shape. That is, you have a strong breadth across a variety of disciplines and skills, and a deep mastery of a particular skill that sets you apart from the rest of the crowd.
Therefore, to even begin to decide whether you should pursue an MBA or not, you should first begin by plotting out your skills chart. Brent Tworetzky, SVP of Product at InVision, published a fantastic skills inventory by seniority. I’ve personally used this inventory to map out my own skills.
Now you have a sense of your baseline skill sets. Let’s discuss what additional skill sets and resources an MBA can provide you - and what cost it will come at.
The Value Proposition of an MBA
We also previously wrote about the value that an MBA provides in the specific context of product management.
For this article, however, let’s take a step back and look at the value proposition of an MBA regardless of industry or role. The value of an MBA is composed of three parts:
- Frameworks and case studies
- Reflections on past experiences
- Networking opportunities
Let’s discuss each in detail.
First, every business program provides helpful business frameworks that can cleanly structure almost any given business scenario.
Given that product managers create their products in the context of their organization’s business, such frameworks are indeed invaluable.
For example, the concept of MECE (mutually exclusive, collectively exhaustive) is absolutely critical when you brainstorm ideas or run through test cases.
The concept of SWOT analyses (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats) enables you to craft product strategies that make sense in a competitive landscape.
Negotiation Strategy Is Key as You Work With Various Stakeholders
Additionally, you’ll have the opportunity to study various business cases, many of which provide insights that you may otherwise be unable to obtain.
You’ll learn from professors who have previous experiences as entrepreneurs, CEOs, and CFOs, and you’ll have centuries worth of collective business experience at your fingertips.
Therefore, business school can be a helpful one-stop-shop to obtain a reservoir of helpful frameworks and case studies.
Second, the vast majority of MBAs require that you have some previous business experience before applying. Why is that?
It’s to ensure that you actively reflect on your past experiences. Every experience that we’ve had can always be mined for more actionable insight - the question is whether we have the right tools to mine those insights. The MBA experience certainly provides powerful tools with which to mine insights.
However, it would be relatively pointless to give a gold miner a pickaxe if they had no access to a gold mine. Similarly, even if you’re equipped with analytical tools, you can’t use them on your own experiences if you don’t have many business experiences to begin with.
In business school, reflection comes in the form of class discussion and in the form of projects.
In class discussion, you learn from the experiences of your peers, and your peers provide their perspectives on your experiences.
Outside of class, you’ll tackle novel challenges in the context of projects, which will cause you to reflect on past experiences that will help you overcome these challenges.
And finally, MBAs are incredibly valuable hotspots for networking. Every person seeking an MBA is ambitious and has previous work experience. Therefore, by obtaining an MBA and actively participating in networking events, you’ll increase your exposure to industries and companies.
What is the Cost?
First, MBAs can be incredibly expensive from a financial cost perspective. This analysis conducted in 2016 found that the full monetary cost of an MBA can range from $100k - $200k.
Second, you must invest time into your MBA. If you go the full-time student route, you lose any income you might have earned over those years. If you go the part-time student route, you redirect much of your time outside of work towards obtaining your MBA, which can lead to stress or burnout.
Third, you pay an opportunity cost as you obtain your MBA. The time you spend could be used towards shipping your own side projects, joining product management communities, working at interesting organizations in interesting roles, etc.
PM MBA: Questions to Ask Yourself
So now we know what makes a good product manager and how our current skills line up against that template.
Additionally, we know about one potential way to strengthen our skills - go to business school to obtain an MBA - and its associated tradeoffs.
The last piece that you need is to identify what your other alternatives are.
Your time is not free. You have only so many years of life.
What are other viable ways that you could be spending that time? Would those different usages of time provide you an even stronger set of skills and resources, or provide you the same skills and resources at a lower cost?
If you identify a viable alternative that provides you more benefit or comes at a lower cost, then you should strongly consider taking that route over obtaining your MBA.
In many scenarios, however, obtaining an MBA is a fantastic decision with high ROI (return on investment) - it all depends on your situation.
Alternatively, you can opt for some product manager certifications if you're still deciding.
Pulling It All Together
I previously dove into how I became a product manager. Here’s the interesting part - because I already had an undergraduate business background, I opted not to get my MBA.
My rationale is that I could not have gotten as high of an ROI obtaining my MBA as I could have in the workforce. Let’s use our framework on my decision at the time.
First, I already had a strong breadth of skills since I had previous experience in management consulting, data analytics, and client services. I already had the ability to empathize, organize, prioritize, communicate, and generate insights.
Additionally, I had my reservoir of business frameworks and case studies, since I already had an undergraduate degree in business administration. We had already covered a similar curriculum to what our graduate counterparts would have covered.
I decided that what I needed wasn’t more tools for analyzing my experiences, but rather more experiences themselves. I didn’t feel that an additional two years of schooling and the cost of an MBA was worth the additional benefit I could gain.
Let’s look at how I assessed the 3 value components of the MBA:
- Frameworks and case studies - I already had these, and therefore the additional benefit wouldn’t be very high.
- Reflections on past experiences - I already had the habit of running weekly retrospectives on my life to apply new learnings to past experiences, and therefore I didn’t see the additional value.
- Networking opportunities - I’m not particularly good at socializing in group situations, though I do quite well in 1:1 networking. Given that business school networking events generally take place in groups instead of in 1:1 situations, I wouldn’t have been able to capture the majority of the networking value provided.
Using the framework above, I came to my own conclusion on whether I should pursue an MBA or not. Again, my conclusion applies only to myself.
Furthermore, this particular decision was made at a single point in time. Given this framework, I have the flexibility to revisit the decision on an ongoing basis, and I can shift priorities as needed based on how my personal situation evolves.
I hope you’ll use the framework provided to identify the best path available to you. Even better, I hope you’ll modify the framework and make it your own! For example, you may see other value components to an MBA that I haven’t yet identified.
As product managers, we seek not to copy what others do. Rather, we create our own hypotheses and frameworks, and test them against the real world.
Regardless of which path you ultimately decide on, all of us here at Product Manager HQ are cheering you on!
The following are interesting perspectives from fellow product managers. Some of them promote getting an MBA, and some of them discourage getting an MBA. We advise that you read at least one article from each group to understand both sides of the argument.
- Multiple PMs (Haas School of Business) - Do I Need an MBA to be a Product Manager?
- Jessica Qu - Transitioning to Product Management at Harvard Business School
Have thoughts that you'd like to contribute about business school and product management? Chat with other product managers around the world in our PMHQ Community!