Dear Lucy

Last updated: February 4, 2014 3:33 pm

MBA v Mandarin

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I am trying to decide whether doing an MBA or learning Mandarin would be better for my career

I’m 30 and my career is at a crossroads. I am contemplating doing an MBA but horrified by the cost (£42,000 at one school) and no one has been able to explain exactly what it is you learn. The reason I would do one is for the connections I would make. Instead, I am contemplating learning Mandarin as it would look better on my CV. I think I could get to an advanced level of oral fluency within a year for £5,000. Which would be the better investment?

Property executive, male, 30

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Lucy’s answer

The short answer is do the MBA. It pains me to offer this advice, as no one has been able to explain to me exactly what it is you learn either. So to spend so much acquiring information that is neither obviously interesting nor useful might seem pretty silly.

You say the point would be the connections, but that’s only part of the story. The true point of an MBA is to ally yourself to a brand that will look pretty on your CV. The more exclusive (and expensive) the brand, the prettier.

Last month the FT published data showing that if you go to a top business school you are likely to double your salary within three years of graduation. So if you go to Harvard or Stanford – whose two-year MBAs cost almost twice as much as the £42,000 you quote – you stand to earn about $180,000 a year on average three years after leaving, which will repay your loans quickly.

By comparison, learning Mandarin is one of the worst investment ideas I’ve ever heard. It is hellishly difficult. Despite your flair for languages you won’t get anywhere near fluent in a year, and after three or four years you will still be struggling. The good news is that you already have the linguistic wherewithal to work in China: English remains the language of global business.

The only point of learning Mandarin would be out of general interest. If you plan to live somewhere, speaking the language means you have a richer time. There might also be the satisfaction that comes from mastering something really hard. What there would not be is a ticket to a better job.

You say your career is at a crossroads. It sounds as if it is in a cul-de-sac and you are casting about for anything to take you in a different direction. Before you decide, you might wonder if your restlessness could be solved by something easier and cheaper. Would a different job make the difference? If no ideas come to you, going to business school will provide a couple of years in which to meet thrusting people from different backgrounds, and may help you decide which industry and which country you’d most like to try to conquer next.

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