The Right Time To Pursue an MBA

Olivia Motte

The decision to pursue an MBA is difficult at the best of times. As an MBA'21D at INSEAD, I am surrounded by a diverse range of extraordinary people who took a leap of faith amidst a global pandemic, in times of unprecedented uncertainty. Whether they are a young entrepreneur, rising star or experienced and skilled professional, most of my cohort will assure you they made the best decision and advise you to apply, so the real question you should be asking is “when?”. 

The best time to pursue an MBA will be extremely individual and depend on your aspirations and motivations, but I hope my story and personal reflections can assist your deliberations.

My Story

My MBA journey started years before I applied to INSEAD. Six years ago I walked into my boss’ office to turn down an incredible promotion opportunity. My explanation? I wanted to pursue an MBA to acquire the skills I would need for my longer-term career journey. Surprisingly, my boss and wider personal and professional networks were all incredibly supportive - so why did it take me another four years and a pandemic to apply? 

Working with start-ups, I found myself accidentally enrolled at the business school of life, wondering if a formal business school was worth it? I explored MBA programmes that would best support my entrepreneurial dreams, but I was also laying the groundwork to launch my own business without the cost of the MBA. My start-up experience left me with two vital takeaways: firstly, beyond the exciting buzz, how much work, grit and resilience it takes to successfully keep running a start-up, and secondly, how much more I still had to learn.

One of the successful start-ups I had the pleasure of working alongside, was run by two Harvard Business School alumni.

They helped me understand that, while I could launch my own business and learn on the go, an MBA could help me find co-founders, mentors, investors and customers and equip me with the skills and capabilities to succeed in the long run.

Above all, I was strongly advised that I might benefit more greatly from an MBA after a few more years of experience. I am glad I took this precious advice, but also conscious that, were it not for the COVID pandemic, I might have lost sight of my business school goals. The extra professional years were invaluable to my MBA journey, but they also came at a higher opportunity cost, personally and professionally, requiring an even greater leap of faith.

My Advice

The idea that the MBA is an echo chamber for your experiences really sums up my current journey here at INSEAD. While I greatly enjoy the theory and cutting-edge academics to help ground and explain what I have learnt over the years, their main value is to provide a framework within which I can reflect on my professional experiences and those of my cohort. Learning the organisational behaviour theory is helpful terminology to explain my change management experience, or why new ventures fail/succeed, but the real value lies in the direct comparison of specific differences and nuances across sectors and organizations and the lessons learnt by my peers and I along the way.

I am a great believer in opportunities being what you make of them.

When it comes to an MBA, I do not believe there is a wrong timing decision as long as you are clear on what you want out of it.

I used to see the MBA as a rocket/turbo boost start that can accelerate your career journey once, but at any time. I chose to wait and learn more on the job, to save my magic MBA trump card for the harder levels. By working a few extra years, I have been rewarded with a richer, deeper more reflective learning journey. Younger MBAs fear not – I have realised that the MBA is also only the beginning of a developmental journey, where one can keep reflecting on lessons learnt in new contexts and can keep learning from INSEAD alumni events and their networks long after graduation. If my recommended book list is any indication, I will not be done any time soon! I have realised it is not about how fast you are, but how far you can reach, and bring others with you.

The most surprising benefit of pursuing an MBA later in my career, is that it helped me regain the open mind I have prided myself on by challenging everything I took for granted.

The more I learnt to approach problems and people a certain way, the more set in my ways I accidentally became, inheriting industry biases and ways of working. Even with my relatively diverse work experience, I am continuously surprised to find that half the class have completely different viewpoints and I am so grateful to my peers for helping me understand the many shades of grey in each case we study and continuously challenging me in every way.