Should consultants get an MBA? 8 scenarios to consider

One of the most common questions I discuss with aspiring consultants is whether they should go back to school to earn an MBA if they want to become successful in consulting. The blueprint that many people have in their minds as they think about consulting seem to fall into one of three paths for 2 specific career destinations.

Career destination 1: Make partner at a consulting firm

Path 1A: Complete undergraduate degree -> obtain 2-3 years industry experience -> get an MBA -> go into consulting

Path 1B: Intern at a consulting firm- >complete undergraduate degree -> spend 2-3 years at a consulting firm -> go back to school to obtain an MBA -> come back to said consulting firm

Career destination 2: Become a Fortune 500 c-suite executive

Complete undergraduate degree -> gain 2-3 years of consulting experience -> earn an MBA -> go work in industry

And while I have seen many people take this path, I have also seen many people have a successful consulting career without an MBA degree. There are also individuals in very high ranking roles in consulting without a master's degree.

My position on obtaining an MBA? It is all depends. Ask yourself what it is that you want to do with an MBA that you cannot get today? If one of the following scenarios applies to you, I would really reconsider whether it is worth the time and investment to obtain an MBA:

  • You already have a business undergraduate degrees such as finance, management, marketing
  • You have more than 5 years of strategy experience
  • You have more than 10 years of implementation consulting experience and plan on staying in this space
  • You already have a master's degree
  • You just want to say that you have an MBA for resume (or ego) building purposes

If you fall into one of these categories and are contemplating getting an MBA just to get into consulting – I recommend focusing on identifying firms you are interested in and nailing their interview processes. Landing a consulting role and Spending time gaining as much real world experience as possible is most likely a better ROI of your time, energy, and money.

Unless you have financial means and time to complete an MBA program, you may be a little disappointed if your newly minted MBA program doesn't yield breakthrough returns as you may have expected.

When is it worth obtaining an MBA?

  • You need to build your brand, business skills, and your professional network in order to make a career switch
  • You have a technical, engineering or liberal arts undergraduate degree and would like to take on management roles in the future
  • You have only been exposed to operations or implementation roles and would like to transition towards more strategy work

If you fall into one of these categories, it probably does make sense for you to invest the time, money, and energy into a reputable MBA program because the skills and your network will help leap frog your career to the next level.

Ultimately, the choice is yours.

You can see my ongoing Q&A here: Q&A: I grew up in Consulting and reinvented my brand 3 times

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Comments (43)

Best Response
Mar 8, 2017 - 2:18pm

Career destination 3:
Intern at a consulting firm- >complete undergraduate degree -> spend 2-3 years at a consulting firm -> get disillusioned with consulting and the low bonus -> go back to school to obtain an MBA -> join bulge bracket investment bank ->try to jump into PE/HF -> Become the next Steve Schwarzman and achieve greatness

Now to get serious:

Part I: People in Wall Street jobs in general, and not just consultants, should consider MBAs for a variety of reasons, most of which are pretty much the same:

  1. Network - You attended a non-target, did some really cool shit, but you feel that your current career does not provide you with solid connections in the industry you are working in/ wish to work in.

  2. Relocation - You attended school in UT Austin/Tsinghua, but want to work in New York. You worked in a BB Energy group in Houston/Hong Kong so you leverage that experience to get an east-coast MBA to move.

  3. Changing industry - Read above. Disillusioned with consulting/IB/PE/tech/industry/quantitative finance so you want to try out something else. I've met with many successful top-level executives across the above industries who were disillusioned and changed industries.

  4. Street Cred - You worked in consult/IB/pre-MBA PE, but decided that you hate working for your Partner/MD/CEO, so you decided to start up. You feel that an MBA would give you necessary credibility among VCs and investors (which isn't always the case).

  5. Consulting - Couldn't get into consulting before in undergrad and now you're somewhat old (read mid-late twenties), so decided to join an MBA program that is the equivalent of a consulting factory (I'm looking at you INSEAD). You feel that a few years in consulting will open up multiple doors for you elsewhere (which is true)

  6. Advancement - You have hit the ceiling and your employer either explicitly or implicitly told you that they're only going to promote you if you get an advanced degree such as an MBA/JD or a PhD (or gasp MD). Master's degrees in finance, economics, engineering don't count.

  7. Ego - I'll admit it, I'm one of those guys who gets a kick out of knowing that I graduated from a top school. While I try not to show it outwardly, it satisfies me - kind of like a bucket list.

Part II : Now, for reasons to not get an MBA:

  1. You are a BA in consulting who's targeting Partner and already got your DTA. From what I've seen, getting the DTA means the firm considers you already on the partner track and does not expect you to get one (although if you did, that would be much better for your chances). Ofc, the route to Partner is more complex since there are a lot of other factors at play. That being said, it IS possible to make Partner at MBB before 30 without an MBA - it's just hard though. Consulting as such is an industry that is biased towards people who have MBAs.

  2. You work in an EMEA finance job. Europe doesn't value MBAs as much as the US, almost equating them to MSFs from top universities. You can easily make Partner/MD in a PE firm/ investment bank with just a bachelors, even if you changed firms twice or thrice.

  3. You were one of the lucky ones who got into BX/KKR, etc or BB/EB IBD straight out of undergrad, and have decided that you're going to stick with the firm for life. You have been given hints that you're a top performer through rapid advancement. You don't really need an MBA in most offices of these MF PEs, although some offices/divisions require/prefer candidates and internal applicants who have one. Case in point, David Blitzer and Jas Khaira at BX.

  4. If you're working in industry, and if your firm isn't the kind of company which values names and degrees over years of experience, then hey, stick with the firm. But if you're not sure and want to have options at hand, or if you are thinking of changing companies, then yeah, an MBA might be considered.

  5. If you want to start up and receive funding from the kickass early-stage VC funds. From what I've seen (from personal experience), top early-stage VCs value design capabilties and overall team composition (how many techies vs how many biz folks, etc). Honestly, the good VC firms tend to prefer someone with proven product management and sales capability over someone who has an MBA from Stanford. Though maybe if you want to snag those PM roles at a top tech company, an MBA would help (but not necessary).

  6. You're experienced as f*** in your industry of choice. A guy with 10+ years of experience wouldn't have any need for an MBA. Unless he feels like making bitchpooks and presentations again.

Note: - While going for an MBA after a finance/econ/business major in undergrad is not generally looked down upon by employers, there certainly isn't going to much value-add either. The coursework content is almost the same, and you'll shell out a lot more for an expensive degree. But note that MBA programs tend to not prefer guys with business administration majors, so your chances getting into a top program are marginally reduced. That being said, if any of the reasons in Part I apply to you, I would suggest you go for the MBA.

So that's it. The decision for getting an MBA is not dependent on your background or your past experience per se, but rather on where you want to be in future.

GoldenCinderblock: "I keep spending all my money on exotic fish so my armor sucks. Is it possible to romance multiple females? I got with the blue chick so far but I am also interested in the electronic chick and the face mask chick."
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Mar 8, 2017 - 4:04am

Direct to associate. I think it's a McKinsey specific term, though the concept is the same everywhere. It means you're part of the roughly 10% or so of Business Analysts (McK) / Associates (BCG) / Associate Consultants (Bain) around the world who are promoted to the associate level without an MBA/further experience.

GoldenCinderblock: "I keep spending all my money on exotic fish so my armor sucks. Is it possible to romance multiple females? I got with the blue chick so far but I am also interested in the electronic chick and the face mask chick."
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Mar 8, 2017 - 9:54am

Frank Quattrone - thanks for the valuable comment. Very much appreciated given I am currently questioning whether I should pursue an MBA or not.

My experience from EMEA (Western EU specifically) is indeed that an MBA is much less valued, and that therefore it is much less common to do one. I use friends and colleagues at MBB as a reference, but note: low N.

From my experience in EU, almost everyone can get a DTA or becomes associate after a 'gap year'. In the latter case, you need to do something else for a year (e.g., externship or internal IP), after which you will return as associate. Would you say an MBA is worth it for current MBB?

Mar 8, 2017 - 11:30am

Thanks for adding the point regarding DTA in Europe. I was not aware of that - thought that the German offices of McKinsey imbibed most of the cultural requirements of the American offices, including the MBA requirement for advancement. That being said, I've met a shit ton of partners in MBB who were APD hires in Europe.

As for your question, I may not be the right person to answer that. I think one of the veteran EMs on WSO might be better positioned to answer this. For what it's worth, my opinion would be that while an MBA may not be 'worth' it if you're sticking to an EMEA office, you would most certainly need a masters in something worthwhile and preferably STEM/quant related in order to advance in consulting, and be considered for partner track. The DTA to partner track (with only a bachelor's degree) was more common in the American offices.

GoldenCinderblock: "I keep spending all my money on exotic fish so my armor sucks. Is it possible to romance multiple females? I got with the blue chick so far but I am also interested in the electronic chick and the face mask chick."
  • 3
Sep 22, 2017 - 7:48am

*I'll admit it, I'm one of those guys who gets a kick out of knowing that I graduated from a top school. * - Almost all of us are.
And relocation is the reason I personally pursued MBA.

Sep 22, 2017 - 7:49am

Big 4 Consultant - MBA Worth It? (Originally Posted: 10/03/2014)

A short background on me: I have a bachelors degree in finance from a small private school in Virginia. I have been employed at a Big 4 consulting house (in NYC) for 3 years and I have been mostly doing operations consulting. I am a foreigner and I am on a work Visa.

I have been contemplating for a very long time whether it would be worth to go to a top MBA program. At this point I am still not sure what I would like to do with my career in the future.

One option is to stay at my current firm and not do an MBA. Advancing to the director and partner levels in Big 4 Consulting does not require an advanced degree. The work would be decent (at this point I don't love it) and so would be the pay.

Another option would be to get my firm sponsor the MBA, which would not include living expenses. This would require probably about $40k for living expenses, taking off work for a year and a half, and sign an agreement with the firm that I will work there, upon graduation, for min 2/3 more years. I would come back to the firm at the same position as when I left the firm. I am not sure if I would get a huge salary bump.

The last option is to pay for the program on my on. Needless to say, this would be the most costly option, however, this would give me the most flexibility in terms of finding another job.

I think the caveat here is that I still don't know what I would like to do with my career. Would it be too risky and expensive to do an MBA just to figure out what I want? What if I never do? :)

I would greatly appreciate if you could provide some of your thoughts.

Sep 22, 2017 - 7:50am

HarvardBusinessingSchool:

A short background on me: I have a bachelors degree in finance from a small private school in Virginia. I have been employed at a Big 4 consulting house (in NYC) for 3 years and I have been mostly doing operations consulting. I am a foreigner and I am on a work Visa.

I have been contemplating for a very long time whether it would be worth to go to a top MBA program. At this point I am still not sure what I would like to do with my career in the future.

One option is to stay at my current firm and not do an MBA. Advancing to the director and partner levels in Big 4 Consulting does not require an advanced degree. The work would be decent (at this point I don't love it) and so would be the pay.

Another option would be to get my firm sponsor the MBA, which would not include living expenses. This would require probably about $40k for living expenses, taking off work for a year and a half, and sign an agreement with the firm that I will work there, upon graduation, for min 2/3 more years. I would come back to the firm at the same position as when I left the firm. I am not sure if I would get a huge salary bump.

The last option is to pay for the program on my on. Needless to say, this would be the most costly option, however, this would give me the most flexibility in terms of finding another job.

I think the caveat here is that I still don't know what I would like to do with my career. Would it be too risky and expensive to do an MBA just to figure out what I want? What if I never do? :)

I would greatly appreciate if you could provide some of your thoughts.

Do the sponsored route. You can always start off sponsored, and then take another job...plenty of people do this . Go to a top school, apply for MBB, if you get it, take it....if not, go back to your sponsored job at the post-mba salary ($145k base, 30-40k bonus).

Business school is ridiculously fun and will advance your career....going in sponsored literally removes all the possible downside - you either get a top job, or you go back to your old firm with almost no debt ($40k is laughable small) and 2 years of awesome experiences.

Sep 22, 2017 - 7:51am

HarvardBusinessingSchool:
Would it be too risky and expensive to do an MBA just to figure out what I want? What if I never do? :)

Yes. For many career tracks, intern recruiting starts 1-2 weeks after the first year of school does and is over 3 months later. There isn't really any time to figure it out from scratch. At best, it's very risky. Also, it's pretty tough to evaluate an ROI calc that includes the term ???/$350,000

Sep 22, 2017 - 7:52am

brj:

HarvardBusinessingSchool:

Would it be too risky and expensive to do an MBA just to figure out what I want? What if I never do? :)

Yes. For many career tracks, intern recruiting starts 1-2 weeks after the first year of school does and is over 3 months later. There isn't really any time to figure it out from scratch. At best, it's very risky. Also, it's pretty tough to evaluate an ROI calc that includes the term ???/$350,000

I will say, plenty of people do go to business school with only a very faint idea of what they want to do. I think somewhere around 50% of people end up in a different job than they wanted when they started...a majority of which change because they discovered a new passion (although certainly some because they strike out in their industry of choice).

Most schools give you 5-6 weeks before recruiting starts, so you do have a bit of time. Kellogg's orientation was Sep 2, and recruiters aren't allowed on campus until October 13th for example.

That said, you're probably better offer finding your passion during the summer before school starts, since business school is busy. I don't think you need to have it figured out before you apply though (although, you'll need to put something in the essays). Just about everyone from top schools gets a nice 6 figure job, so it's not like you'll end up unemployed if you don't know what you want to do.

Sep 22, 2017 - 7:57am
SirBankalot:
Why do you suck so much penis?

Was wondering the same, actually

"You stop being an asshole when it sucks to be you." -IlliniProgrammer "Your grammar made me wish I'd been aborted." -happypantsmcgee
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Sep 22, 2017 - 7:58am

You don't it's all about branding. If I can sell you off to a client at higher bill rate with an MBA, it's worth it. Makes the Consultant and company look good as well. If Company A only has Community College employees vs. Company B with HBS, which one will the company hire? Even if all things including intelligence and ability are kept as control and equal.

Consulting is fun for awhile. But after a few years it gets kind of tiring, always being on the "sell" and "outside". Been reflecting this very issue lately. Good starting point for career, but honestly don't know about long-term staying power. Not sure if will pursue Consulting after MBA. Learned a lot, tested myself in numerous settings, been on good and bad projects for over 2 years now. Looking to see what else is out there.

----------------------------------------------------------------- Hug It Out
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Sep 22, 2017 - 7:59am

Most of the management consulting firms I know folks working at right now are desperate for people. I have gotten a few "Do you know anyone who would be qualified/interested?" e-mails recently. If you have a pretty good resume you might just give a few of them a call and drop a resume.

Yes they all target recruiting at top MBA / PhD programs, but over the last 24 months they all skimmed on hiring and now they are hurting for bodies as business picks up and some of their staff starts to get poached by other opportunities.

You never know until you stick your neck out there. What do you have to loose. I would consider looking at some of their smaller offices. Think Philly, Washington, Atlanta, Dallas, and the like. These guys might be trying harder to grow their businesses and might be in more need of bodies.

More meat for the meat grinder!

Sep 22, 2017 - 8:03am

@ B-School Bound - I'd love to hear why Bain is second tier in the U.S. That goes against the general consensus at WSO that MBB are in the same level ... at least in the U.S. Some related threads:
//www.wallstreetoasis.com/forums/mck-vs-bain-vs-bcg
//www.wallstreetoasis.com/forums/bain-vs-bcg
//www.wallstreetoasis.com/forums/bain-vs-bcg-0
//www.wallstreetoasis.com/forums/mckinsey-private-equity-practice
//www.wallstreetoasis.com/forums/topbottom-consulting-firms

Sep 22, 2017 - 8:05am

[quote=bigmuffin]@ B-School Bound - I'd love to hear why Bain is second tier in the U.S. That goes against the general consensus at WSO that MBB are in the same level ... at least in the U.S. Some related threads:
//www.wallstreetoasis.com/forums/mck-vs-bain-vs-bcg
//www.wallstreetoasis.com/forums/bain-vs-bcg
//www.wallstreetoasis.com/forums/bain-vs-bcg-0
//www.wallstreetoasis.com/forums/mckinsey-private-equity-practice
//www.wallstreetoasis.com/forums/topbottom-consulting-firms[/quote]

My comment about Bain is related to how the firm is viewed on b-school campuses and during the recruiting process. In consulting recruiting the most desirable firms are BCG and McK, just as Morgan Stanley and GS are the top tier in banking recruiting. Are there other good firms out there, of course. Does Bain Capital set Bain apart from the others, yes to some extent. However, not every Bain consultant gets to go work in PE, just as not every GS or Morgan banker gets to work in M&A. Additionally, during the downturn, Bain took it in the face, their revenues dropped far more than any of the firm's it claims to be its peers, it cut recruiting heavily and laid off staff. Is Bain a great shop, absolutely, is it tops, well that is a matter of debate.

Consider the following ranking
1 - McK - BCG
2 - Bain
3 - Booze Parthenon
4 - the rest

Same in Banking
1 - Morgan Stanley - Goldman
2 - Credit Suisse - JPM
3 - BarCap UBS DB
4 - the rest

Sep 22, 2017 - 8:07am

The revenue argument could hold water. When PE takes a hit, so does Bain, and vice versa. 2010 wasn't a big year for PE. McKinsey and BCG are more diversified, or at least more exposed to other verticals.

That said, I'm not sure whether Bain's prestige took a hit at all.

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Sep 22, 2017 - 8:08am

@B-school Bound:

I agree and have spoken to several about the subject that support such a claim; despite what others say on this forum. One could argue that it is more like: MB(as in BCG) -- BB

Sep 22, 2017 - 8:09am

I actually sat in on a Bain recruiting pitch about a year ago. It was great, they had these awesome charts that showed their revenue growth, market share, and head count growth from 2000 - 2007, it went nowhere but up. But, it was really apparent to everyone in the room that they had left off the last three years. It was almost as if they thought that no one in the room was smart enough to wonder what they did during the downturn?

Hey guys! What happened to your market share in 2008, 2009 and 2010? . . . . Awkward . . . .

Sep 22, 2017 - 8:11am
B-School Bound:
I actually sat in on a Bain recruiting pitch about a year ago. It was great, they had these awesome charts that showed their revenue growth, market share, and head count growth from 2000 - 2007, it went nowhere but up. But, it was really apparent to everyone in the room that they had left off the last three years. It was almost as if they thought that no one in the room was smart enough to wonder what they did during the downturn?

Hey guys! What happened to your market share in 2008, 2009 and 2010? . . . . Awkward . . . .

I knew they were took a pretty big hit during this recession, but wow. Thanks for sharing. Interesting....

Wonder if this will affect their brand in the future. What do you think the perception is in business school and prospective employees? Do you think they'll bounce back and recover?

----------------------------------------------------------------- Hug It Out
  • 2
Sep 22, 2017 - 8:10am

Anyone willing to take my resume? I'd give my left arm to be an associate at BCG.

"We are lawyers! We sue people! Occasionally, we get aggressive and garnish wages, but WE DO NOT ABDUCT!" -Boston Legal-
Sep 22, 2017 - 8:12am

It is my understanding that Bain is regaining its share and "booming" as quoted by a partner that I spoke to. But it will be difficult for them to regain their previous position as a solid third after MB. It is my understanding that in the world of business (that is client perspective, something that seems widely ignored in this forum) it has been McK and BCG that has been able to establish themselves as the preeminent consulting firms. Also, Bain has developed a niche and thus specializes in middle-sized business or sub F500 companies which could explain their susceptibility to the market downfall.

Sep 22, 2017 - 8:13am

90% of whats said in this thread is absolute bunk. As someone who works at one of MBB, and who has bschool classmates at all three, take it from me when I say:

  • All of MBB are booming right now. At least 2 of the 3 recorded record revenue in 2010.
  • None of the firms conducted lay-offs during the recession (though all three increased the number of "outs" at the traditional up or out points)
  • Yield among cross offeree's is nearly identical for all three firms. Only Mck has a consistent edge when it comes to recruiting, and it is small.
  • All three have offer to acceptance yields at the post-MBA level of over 65%
  • The average market cap of clients across all three is also nearly identical.
  • The three consider each other, and only each other peer firms.
Sep 22, 2017 - 8:14am

Leaving aside the question of why exactly it matters "how the firms [are] viewed on b school campuses", let me just say, as a b school student who is going to one of the non-Bain MBB's, I do not think Bain is considered a tier below the other two. There are definite differences between the firms, but none is clearly better or worse than the others, and all hire a lot of great people, many of whom go on to do other great things.

Note also that if you look at something simple like alumni list, you have to factor in firm size and longevity.

Sep 22, 2017 - 8:15am

Sometimes with threads like this I wonder why I spend time on WSO at all.
If B School perception is that what counts, then coming from a top non US B School where all the three hire in droves (for their regional offices primarily and some for other hub offices), I can safely say that a number of TOP people have chosen Bain over Mck/BCG, Mck over BCG/Bain and BCG over Mck/Bain.
What does that prove?
I am sure Bain must have taken a hit during 2008/2009 just like all the firms irrespective of the industry/country did, and they did not want to show those bad numbers on campus - so what?

(no i have no remote connection with Bain)

Mar 12, 2017 - 12:18pm

Why would having an undergraduate business degree make you be hesitant to get an MBA? Do you believe that the purpose of the degree is to acquire knowledge? If so, lol.

Also, making partner seems unrealistic for most people so is getting an MBA to go to industry, when I worked in strategy consulting I had multiple headhunters reach out for industry roles with titles like senior corporate development analyst, strategy manager and even a junior executive development program. So track 1 and 2 both seem nuts to me, more common is consulting->sponsored MBA-> 2-3 years work (or until you complete the terms of your contract) -> exit to industry at a more senior level (director or senior manager) or just consulting->industry (pre-MBA).

Mar 12, 2017 - 1:02pm

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Christie LindorManagement Consultant | Author, The MECE Muse
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