How Does an MBA Fit into your Product Management Career?

Kirsten Schierholt

Kirsten Schierholt
Marketing Operations Analyst at ProductPlan

If there’s one degree that is most beneficial to product management types, it’s likely a Masters in Business Administration. An MBA program, much like a product management job description, covers a broad swath of topics. Most people don’t go to school for product management—although there are a few graduate-level degrees and certificate programs popping up these days. Instead, product managers come from many walks of life, including engineering, marketing, project management, or something completely unrelated.

The product management role entails such a wide range of skills and expertise. There’s no way to prepare for it in an educational environment. Most product managers combine what they’ve learned during their formal education with their real-world experience.

Getting your MBA doesn’t make you an expert in finance or economics, or organizational behavior. It does give you enough information to at least know what those things are, understand how they impact a business and provides you with some fundamental skills to engage with those disciplines.

Let’s start with why you might want an MBA, then get into when and how to get one.

5 Reasons a Product Manager Should Get an MBA

While it won’t hurt your career prospects, an MBA program is a significant time and financial commitment. Other than another diploma on your wall, why would a product management professional want to pursue one?

1. Being “CEO of the product” means knowing what a CEO knows

Product managers are sometimes referred to as CEO of their product (usually by themselves of other product managers). That’s because they are responsible for so many different aspects of the product’s strategy and execution. But being a CEO, a mini-CEO, or merely thinking you’re a CEO means you’ve got a whole lot on your plate.

CEOs are responsible for strategy, finance, sales, marketing, growth, customer satisfaction, and more. Most of them didn’t spend time working in each of those disciplines, but they need to know enough to manage them and deal with situations as they arise.

While not all CEOs have an MBA, a lot of them do. That’s because an MBA rounds out a CEO’s knowledgebase, filling in those areas where they don’t have first-hand, on-the-job experience. It’s a sign that you’re knowledgeable about all the aspects of a business.

The same applies to a product manager. You may not have closed deals, crafted a marketing campaign, or created a profit and loss statement, but you at least know why it’s essential.

2. A Credential that speaks volumes

Completing your MBA doesn’t mean you’re suddenly a different person that’s now qualified to do something they couldn’t do before. Unlike passing the bar exam or the medical boards, you’re not instantly granted legal authority to perform tasks you previously could not.

Applying for a job with an MBA in your arsenal telegraphs that you’re knowledgeable about a broad spectrum of topics that might not otherwise be evident from your resume. It illustrates that you’re serious enough about your career that you were willing to spend the time and money to get that diploma.

Compared to a candidate that only boasts a Bachelor’s Degree or has a Masters in a technical field, an MBA shows that you mean business… literally. For some hiring managers, it’s a non-negotiable prerequisite for leadership positions. They want to know you have that scope of knowledge and expertise.

3. Changing how you’re perceived

Product management is rarely anyone’s first job. A product manager’s previous role can also define them. Whether they’re a former engineer or project manager or marketeer, that legacy can be hard to shake.

An MBA signifies that you’re serious about taking on a roll that’s more about business and less about technology or scheduling. It reframes your skillset and capabilities to some who might be skeptical or can’t view you in a new, more strategic role.

4. Supercharging your capacity for empathy

Product managers have many different types of stakeholders to deal with and satisfy. Understanding their jobs, responsibilities, and interests is crucial, forging stronger relationships and anticipating their needs and concerns.

With an MBA, you’ll understand the entire business, not just one piece of it. It makes it easier to relate to stakeholders’ mindsets in very different roles who have contrasting priorities.

5. Building a professional network

Equally important to the formal education you receive from an MBA program is the opportunity to connect with your classmates and program alumni. Each class, event, and casual interaction is a chance to get to know people who might eventually play a pivotal role in your career path.

Whether it’s finding a cofounder, a future boss, employee, or somebody who knows somebody, this component of the MBA experience cannot be undersold. Your network will grow via your classmates and your professors. Graduates can also tap an extensive alumni network for warm introductions to people and organizations you’d like to get to know better.

An MBA and Your Product Management Career Path

Unlike medical school, most MBA students don’t go straight from their undergraduate program into an MBA program. Most prestigious programs find it more desirable for applicants to have at least a few years of work experience under their belt, and it’s not unusual to see MBA students in their 30s, 40s, or 50s.

Types of MBA programs:

There are three main varieties of MBA programs:

1. Full-time MBA programs

These are usually one- or two-year programs attended by students that aren’t also holding down a full-time job.

2. Part-time MBA programs

Courses for these programs are held in the evening or on the weekends, and participants usually have a full-time job while they attend. Depending on how many classes they take per semester, it can take three-to-six years to complete a degree when attending part-time.

3. Executive MBA programs

These EMBA programs are usually reserved for more seasoned professionals. They combine intense in-person sessions with home-based work. Because they take work experience into account, they can often complete quicker than a typical part-time program.

Of course, higher education is undergoing a considerable transformation. The requirements to get into an EMBA program have changed from their original intent of appealing to senior executives. It’s not unusual for a full-time MBA student to be in the same class as part-time students.

Finding the Right Time

An MBA can help a product management professional at any point in their career, but different benefits depend on when you take the plunge.

Transitioning into product management

For someone with no related experience, an MBA can provide the gateway to moving into the field. It can reposition you and make you a more attractive candidate for a position. Your expanded network can also help get you an entry point into different organizations.

Moving up the ranks

For product managers with a few years of experience, getting an MBA can be the impetus to move into a more senior position or get into a larger company. The networking aspect of the experience can also be a powerful door opener for other firms.

Taking a leadership role

Transitioning from an individual contributor to an executive can be difficult if the current company may not see you in that light. Other organizations may be wary of taking a flyer on you in an expanded role. An MBA adds some legitimacy to your upward trajectory, and the connections you make can get you on the radar of other workplaces.

All-In or Nice and Slow?

You can take a year or two off work and become a full-time student or pursue a degree in a part-time or EMBA program. There are pros and cons to both options.

A full-time MBA program is an immersive experience. You will make more connections, be more engaged with your work, and receive your diploma much faster. You can spend time on start-up ideas, business plan competitions, and internships that are unavailable to a part-timer.

The downside to going full-time is that you’re not going to be working. Do you have the financial flexibility to skip a year or two of income while paying tuition and living expenses? Do you have the flexibility to move to another part of the country if that program isn’t in your current area?

Part-time programs allow you to keep your job while working on your degree. You can start applying what you’re learning to real-world scenarios that much faster. Plus, tuition reimbursement is sometimes part of a company’s benefits package.

However, you are still working, and so are many of your classmates. After a long day of work, you may not have the same motivation to go to class and network to maximize your MBA experience and ROI. Plus, if you have a job where business travel is a regular occurrence, it can be tough to squeeze in multiple classes per semester. You may be limited to programs near your office for logistical reasons (although some EMBA programs can work out even when you don’t live near campus).

It’s important to note that some prestigious MBA programs don’t offer a part-time option at all. Full-time may be your only way to get that particular degree.

Takeaways: Is an MBA Worth it in Product Management?

Completing an MBA program will inevitably improve your writing and communication skills. It will help round out general business expertise that can come in handy when writing MRDs and PRDs, calculating addressable target markets, and sorting through pricing options.

But an MBA isn’t an instant ticket to success. You mostly get out of it what you put into it beyond the actual degree. At a certain point, for senior management positions, is often expected.

If your career path wanders a bit into other domains or you have your eyes set on the corner office, the connections and gravitas that come with an MBA can prove invaluable.