What is the best way to learn what you need to make a big career change?

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Books This month’s issue of Get a Life covers the topic What is the best way to learn what you need to make a big career change? I received so many emails from folks that felt overwhelmed with what they needed to learn to start a business that I wanted to help you brainstorm easy ways to assimilate new information.

One of the topics discussed is weighing whether you need an advanced degree or not for your field of interest.  I always joke that my brother took care of all the higher education for the family – he has an undergraduate degree from Brown, a doctorate from UCLA and a post-doctorate from Cal Tech.  I think there is a limit on smart genes per family and we simply ran out by the time I came around.  (Good thing I am the social one.)

What do you think? 

Do you need an MBA or other advanced degree to be a successful entrepreneur?

Are advanced degrees just meaningless fluff and a big waste of your time and money?

I have my own opinions, but I really want to hear what you have to say.

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16 Responses to “What is the best way to learn what you need to make a big career change?”

  1. Murali says:

    If one want to get out the current cube and want a bigger cube, YES, MBA is a must. But if you want to get away from cube entirely, no one need an MBA. It doesn’t harm if you have one, though. One can read 1000 blogs or get degrees on how to drive a car and know in and out of the mechanics of an automobile. Or get a single driving class and start driving. You don’t need an MBA to figure out which one is better.

    To my knowledge, MBAs have produced abysmal number of inspiring entrepreneurs, despite 1000s of Business Plan competitions every year. They are sure to lead companies as Managers, CXOs. Not as entrepreneurs or business owners.

    Many often call self-employed people as entrepreneurs. I disagree. Rich Dad-Poor Dad offers a striking distinction between to understand it better. If you stop working now, do you make money from what you are doing? Having control of your job, self-employment does not make it a business. And doesn’t make an entreprenuer either. I believe so.

  2. Glenn Davies says:


    Two names…

    Steve Jobs
    Bill Gates

    Two words – NO degrees

  3. Pamela Slim says:

    Wow, what great and thoughtful comments everyone!

    I really appreciate the insights of those who have gone through an MBA program. As I have stumbled through challenges at various stages of my business, I can see that having the solid business foundation that an MBA provides could have saved me a lot of angst and frustration. I also do extremely well learning in “cohorts” or groups, so I know that the intensity of a class of fellow students would have been very gratifying.

    I struggle sometimes with what I know about learning theory and a “traditional” academic model. We retain the most knowledge when we get the information or skill right at the moment when we need it. That way our attention is at its peak, motivation is extremely high to learn and we can apply what we learn right away, greatly increasing our probability at retaining it. So it seems that for our busy lives we need some “in the moment” learning opportunities – classes that have the same quality and focus that you would find in an MBA program just in shorter bursts and not tied to an actual degree. I know there are some good “weekend intensive” kind of programs out there that address this. I think the market is big for this.

    Other comments are right on the money too. As Monica says, you really need to define your personal motives before embarking on a program. I find that some people fail to do that, and just get the degree because it is “the right thing to do.” That can land them in the hot financial waters that Seth describes.

    Since all of us have different motives, learning styles and personalities, maybe the basic answer to the “to MBA or not to MBA” is the classic consulting cop-out: It depends!

    I think all of your perspectives will really help those that are pondering the question themselves. Thanks for sharing your experience so generously.

  4. Whether or not to get a full blown degree would depend on what you need it for. Some professions require advanced degrees like doctors and lawyers, others nothing at all.

    My degree is in Comparative Literature not Graphic Design, yet I have been a product designer for twenty five years. Yes I’ve taken classes over the years but most of the info I’ve picked up on the job.

    So I would say taking classes in your field is always a good idea, as is wide reading and lots of practice.

    Best thoughts,


  5. I believe it all depends on what you’re trying to accomplish. Some companies absolutely require degrees. If you are a consultant, some clients will ask and some will not. If you are dealing with academia, you probably need it.

    First my background and successes. Way back in 1986, I was a secretary at a medical university. I had only a high school diploma and a few hours of college. I applied for, tested for and got a job as a computer programmer trainee. This was in the early days of computers, remember. I worked my way up at this large corporate insurance company and when I left five years later, I was the Lead Systems Analyst. Went to aerospace and after twelve years left as Department manager and Project Manager (managing $25 million per year projects, very large). during that time I got my BBA from the University of Houston (decidedly not ivy league). Next job was as a VP of Information Technology for a start-up. Continued as VP at several companies ending my career making quarter million a year. Still with a BBA. None of these companies cared one whit whether I went to Stanford or Harvard or had advanced degrees. I was never asked nor pushed to get an MBA.

    Now I am a life coach and trainer. I don’t make as much income yet, but made the change to that career because I’m passionate about it and because I already had a lot of the skills I needed. I take individual classes in areas where I need new knowledge and collaborate with other coaches to hone my skills.

    I am definitely an advocate of higher education, but because I got my undergraduate degree after I’d started work, it was pretty much a waste of my time from a learning point of view. I could have taught many of the classes and the others were pretty useless. If I had been 18 when I went to college, I would not feel the same way. However, I did get the degree and am quite proud of that. I think I could not have progressed to VP and possibly even the Project Manager jobs for NASA without some degree.

    As I get older, I feel I have less time to “waste”. If I thought getting an advanced degree would be a valuable way to spend my time, I’d do it. If not, I wouldn’t.

    As a coach, I would offer one more idea to consider that I have seen with my own clients. Sometimes the plan of getting a degree or additional training is just a way of postponing the fearful step of going out on your own. Before investing all that money and time and energy, look inside and do your homework. Study the industry you’re going into and ask lots of questions of successful people in the field. Don’t just take one person’s advice, ask many.


  6. Leah says:

    Hi Pam,
    It is amazing to me to read not only your post but the comments of others on both sides. I am currently attempting to finish an associates degree that I gave up on years ago to persue a career that at the time seemed to be the right fit! HA…how life changes after having a child. Now…my dream of being an entrepeneur is my highest asperation. Do I believe that an MBA is required to acheive that goal…no..but my plan for entrpeneurship is very different from others. Do I wish I had the time and money to have an MBA…definitely…but only for myself…for the satisfaction I would gain from the knowledge that I went the distance when it came to my education. I love to learn…and I have spent many years learning on the job in many jobs. My son has also taught me much about life and medicine that I never imagined I would ever need to know. Having the basics of business I believe is a very important step if you plan on being an entrepreneur…which is why I have gone back to school to get my associates and hopefully eventually my bachelors. My real life experiences and hands on training in my field of interest are MORE than enough to get me started in the venture I have planned for myself though. Now…that said…I have no desire to be an accountant or a doctor or a lawyer…much like you…I plan on surrounding myself with people who have expertise in those areas…and hopefully a very substantial degree to prove that expertise. I envy those with MBAs…but only because they…unlike myself…were able to put their nose to the stone and finish what they started…even if they weren’t really sure how they would use that degree. BUT…I am glad I won’t be living with their debt!

    Thanks again for this blog…and all the others…a true inspiration!

  7. Janet says:

    Hi Pam,
    I went to school at night to get my MBA because I wanted a business degree. My undergrad was Personnel Administration which was a liberal arts degree at the time. I will say that it probably helped me get some of my jobs. I think it helps you to have a business degree if you are an entrepreneur because you get an overview of accounting, marketing, law, etc…,which is helpful when you are running your own business. I wouldn’t say an MBA is necessary but it helps in some cases.

  8. Tim King says:

    Hi, Pam. You certainly don’t need an MBA to be a successful enterpreneur, regardless of how you define “success.”

    And an MBA may not be useless, but it also isn’t enough. There are many practical lessons one must learn before he can be a successful enterpreneur, lessons they don’t teach you in college.

    (Usually, I’d be a little more convincing than that, giving arguments or data. But I’m short on time, and you did ask for my opinion. 🙂 )


  9. Why a Business Degree Won’t Help you Start a Busin

    Pam brings up a great point on weather or not a business degree is of any use in starting your own business. I certainly have my own opinions.

  10. argos says:

    MBA or no, any entepreneur comes to the realization that starting and running a business today requires constant learning. So, in that respect, learning to learn is essential.

    I agree with Monica Powers, it hinges on your personal bent…I would advise no one to start a business without a love and passion for what you are attempting to do. Debt of no debt, the passion sees you through, although it does not guarantee success.

    Through reading so many business books the last five years, I feel as though I have an MBA, though mine came from the University of Downstairs.

    In addition to being an entepreneur, I am an artist with no formal art school training. Yes, It may have helped but no way could I get this far without constant learning, observation and study of both theory and the works of the great masters. Nothing though, nothing happens until you wag the brush. Entepreneurs are doers in the first.

  11. Eric says:

    An MBA can be one vehicle towards becoming truly business minded.

    You can read books on business and get essentially the same thing.

    You need to do an ROI on getting an MBA. Unfortunately most people do not know how to do an ROI until they invest in the MBA.

    I see this as a business decision. If you can get a good return on investment and have metrics to validate the return, then you know what to do.

  12. Seth R. says:

    I’ve never participated in an MBA, so I can’t comment on how worthwhile the program generally is.

    However, the amount of debt you’re racking up really does need to be considered. The cost of higher education in America has gone up almost 200% in the last decade or so according to some analysts. The college educated enter the workforce with a crushing debt load.

    It is hard enough to deal with massive debt when you’ve got a steady paycheck. It’s frankly, enough for a nervous breakdown to try a startup venture with these liabilities hanging over you.

    You’re operating without a safety net here. The debt burden incurred from getting that additional degree might end up forcing you to abandon plans of entrepeneurship. In this case, the degree actually sabotages your chances of success.

  13. Krypt says:

    Hey Pam,

    Been a regular follower of ur blog…an enjoyable read always.

    On this post, i couldn’t agree more with Jeff W. Being an MBA myself, although perhaps at my infancy in the corporate hierarchy…feel that mba is just like buying an first class air ticket, u might get all the fancy treatment by the flight attendants (teachers) who would bathe you with silky words (like strategy, competitive advantage, marginal utility etc) while flying, but, reality on the ground is much different, that’s when things like attitude, hard work, leadership, empathy etc sort of skills come into play, and they don’t teach you all that at b-school.

    Also worth noting is that we all love and perhaps have a weakness for ones who have defied the odds or have become what they have become even without having formal education, we glorify them and rightly so but one has to bear in mind that for every successful gates or jobs there are countless others who have dropped out and ruined their lives….

    But who cares…listen to this speech from steve jobs at Stanford commencement 2005, apologies if u guys have already heard it, but its worth listening to again.



  14. Ten years after graduating college, I went back to school full-time for my MBA. I did it not for the prestige or for adding a degree to my resume, but because I knew it would expand my realm of opportunities out in the real world. I had an entrepreneurial bent and wanted to develop solid business skills and analytical thinking to back up my ideas. That was my motive, and I’m glad I chose the MBA route because it has brought me decidedly closer to those goals.

    On the other hand, plenty of bright people in my class knew exactly what kind of corporate job they wanted, and they were convinced the MBA would make them much more hireworthy for these roles. I can’t say they were wrong for thinking this way — I only know my motives were different from theirs.

    I would advice anyone considering an advanced degree to define his or her personal motives. The degree is not an easy ticket to anywhere, and it’s certainly not cheap. But as far as personal development is concerned, I can’t think of a better route.

    It also helps to have been out in the real working world for several years before making this decision. With a bit of experience under your belt, you’re much more likely to understand your own passions, talents, and weaknesses.

  15. Jeff W says:


    Thanks for your great work on this blog – I enjoy reading it!

    I am speaking as one who has an MBA from what most would consider a fancy school.

    I recall a speaker I saw my first semester of my MBA program – a successful entrepreneur speaking on becoming an enterpreneur.

    His best advice to the very large audience was “if you really wanted to be an entrepreneur, you wouldn’t be sitting here listening to me or going through school – you’d be out doing something”

    MBAs and the like don’t teach how to be an entrepreneur. They don’t teach how to be a leader (though they do some leadership development). They can’t teach you to be more credible or a better speaker.

    They certainly can’t teach good judgement.

    What they can teach you is the fundamental skills of business – accounting, finance, marketing theory (and examples sometimes), etc.

    That’s important to success in corporate america and to running your own business.

    But consider these observations:

    1) The best entrepreneurs I know (and the best business executives I know also) surround themselves with experts in all sorts of fields to help them where they don’t know the answer themselves. Mostly, those experts are (and should be) MBAs. Do you want to be the leader or one of the advisors?

    2) I am now 20 (arrrghhh!) years past my MBA, and while having on my resume still occaisionally opens a door, rarely do I succeed in my business endeavors because of it. This is quite different from the first 5 years out of school where I not only got jobs, but often other opportunities solely because of the three letters.

    Don’t take that to mean that an MBA is worthless – it’s a very valuable tool. I still use the skills, knowledge and techniques I learned in school nearly every day in some way.

    I think my MBA was well worth the (very expensive) price.

    But I am also a realist – I know what it gets me, and I know what it doesn’t. And when I go to start my own business, I know that I’ll surround myself with experts who will have far more knowledge of the skills I (and they) learnen in business school than I ever will.

  16. Pam,

    I feel advanced degrees can provide classroom experience in fundamentals of business. Since most of us go from undergraduate-possibly MBA or other graduate degree either before or while working for corporate america I would say it can provide a nice pre-requisite in corporate america to give you possible advantage in being considered for corporate positions that can prepare you for running your own company. I have graduate degrees including an MBA and I would say that the finance and accounting piece I received in MBA program really assisted me in understanding how to finance and manage a business.
    I don’t however feel that an advanced degree is necessary to start your own company-just helpful.