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How old is too old for an MBA?

An MBA is a question of timing: get it wrong and you’ll find yourself spending 40k+ on two years out of the market when pay is peaking; even worse you may then find it impossible to get back in due to a glut of recently redundant experienced analysts.

Equally, however, if you’re determined to do an MBA and you put it off for too long waiting for optimal market conditions, you’ll find you’re passed it.

Age discrimination laws mean banks will never admit to turning their noses up at fresh MBAs aged 33+, but this is the reality. Hiring a recent MBA aged 40+ is totally unheard of.

“As a general rule, banks hire MBAs into their associate programmes when they are in their high 20s and low 30s,” says Julian Birkinshaw, deputy dean at the London Business School.

“There isn’t an age at which it’s too old to do an MBA, but there is a point at which big name recruiters will stop being very interested in you,” Birkinshaw adds. “They will never say this, but the reality is that organizations like banks are looking for people who will give them the best years of their lives and who have the potential to become managing directors before the age of 40.”

Banks’ MBA recruiters were unwilling to talk about the age profile of their MBA hires on the record. Off the record, however, one said they have some “pretty experienced” people applying to the associate programme and that they’d hire anyone (regardless of age) who can demonstrate the, “commitment and tenacity to work 24/7.”

Too old to sacrifice everything to an associate programme?

Herein lies the problem. By the time you reach 35+, the perception – rightly or wrongly – is that you’ve got better things to do than spending 20 hours a day in the office.

“If you have a family, it will be hard to demonstrate that you’re prepared to make the commitment,” added the head of MBA recruitment.

Equally, as you get older there will be doubts as to your willingness to be managed by a 25 year old.

“In terms of their ranking within the organisation, a first year associate is only three or four years in,” said another MBA recruiter. “Will a 35 year old really feel comfortable with that position?”

The alternatives

If you’re in your mid-30s and are only now thinking of doing an MBA, there are other options.

One is to apply to IMD in Switzerland, where the MBA class contains numerous 34 year olds (unlike Harvard, which now accepts people with only 2-3 years’ work experience and where only 1.2% of the class of 2010 is aged 31+.).

Another is to opt for a part time executive MBA of the kind favoured by most 30 year olds with established careers.

But while both these options will stand you in good stead for a career in industry or consulting, don’t expect either to do you any favours when it comes to getting ahead in investment banking.

Only 6% of IMD’s class of 2008 went into financial services careers, and pure investment banks like Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley are noticeably absent from their list of hirers.

Meanwhile Birkinshaw says banks aren’t overly interested in hiring executive MBA students at LBS who are trying to break in from another industry, or those who are using the course to move into a revenue generating position.

“The difficult message that we have to communicate to our EMBA students is that if they graduate in their mid-30s it will be difficult for them to get into investment banking,” he says. “It will also be difficult for them to transition from the middle to the front office.

“If you want to do that, you will really need to do it following a full time MBA in your late 20s.”

Comments (55)

Comments
  1. Another option Julian should have suggested is the full-time Sloan Fellowship at LBS (8-26 yrs experience). Average age 34.

  2. An MBA should ideally be done between the ages of 26-32. If you are older it smacks of desperation (i.e got made redundant/hassled out or need to cover up for some terrible mistake).

  3. Sarah, does this hold true for people who have some FO experience, but say have a PhD on their resume… Or are the banks already so biased against PhDs in the FO (the real FO) that having an older candidate with a PhD (+ some quant experience) that they would say that’s worse than just being a regular candidate in your mid thirties…

  4. If you joined a tier 1 institution after university as an analyst, completed 3yrs and then became an associate – would it till be worth doing an MBA, or would steady progression be more favourably looked upon?

  5. I’ve heard that it has becoming difficult to get into certain top schools in the US if you are above 26. Could just be a rumour. I have been considering an MBA for a while but didnt want to leave work and now am a little unsure.

  6. I’m considering doing an MBA when am 30 and have some more work experience and money. According to this article I’ll be an outsider for a school like Harvard. is it worth it? Or will amasters be of more benefit

  7. metcalf1704, if you make it from analyst to associate internally, and you like your role and your bank, then there is really no point whatsoever in doing an MBA. Sure, the social life is great, but MBAs are expensive and in that case you will never get your investment back. Why give up an associate role, spend 40-50k plus give up 12-24 months of salary, only for the hope of landing another associate role? Makes no sense, at least not in Europe. I understand it’s not unheard of in the US, but in Europe it would make no sense.

    If instead you’re trying to get into banking, or want a career change, etc, then the MBA makes more sense. In this case, you shouldn’t only think of the monetary value of the investment, but also of the non-monetary value of a career change you might probably not achieve without an MBA.

  8. Jon, I think the MBA is the only Master that gives you an actual edge for banking careers. If you don’t believe me, go to an information session of the Master’s in Finance at LBS, and ask the alumni how long it took them to land a job!

    The main points are:
    1) HR is a very inefficient and irrational world. The recognition of MBAs IS higher, even if not always deserved. For example, the finance courses at the Master in Finance at LBS are the very same as those of the MBA, yet MBAs tend to land better jobs
    2) summer internships are still key to securing a postgraduate finance role. Most non-MBA masters are too short for summer internships.

  9. @Invictus – the problem is that if you do an MBA, whether or not you have a PhD, you’ll be looking at coming in as an associate. If your PhD is quant based you might be better off trying to come in one of the PhD programmes. If it’s not, you could try and an MBA, but you’ll still come up against the perception that you’re older than the usual associate-level entrant and won’t necessarily be willing to submit to the demands of a 72 hour week.

    Sarah, Editor, eFinancialCareers Reply
     
  10. screw the banks, go to buy side instead

  11. MBA2009 Do you see it worthwhile to do an MBA at 30 or is that a bit late. I cant gurantee i’m doing it for banking after the course there may be other professions open to me. But no point in doing it if the age factor ecomes an issue as costs a lot of money

  12. Jon, of course it’s always a risk and there are no certainties whatsoever…

    Having said that, my very personal opinion is that I wouldn’t recommend starting an MBA if you’re older than 30. I think you should aim at being 28 to 33 max by the time you graduate. I also strongly believe that LBS and Insead are the only two places in Europe where it’s worth doing an MBA.

    Whether an MBA is worth the money in your case is one of those how-long-is-a-piece-of-string type of questions. It all depends on your current situation and your goals!

    What’s your job now and what do you want to do post-MBA? If you want to get into consulting, for instance, an MBA is a great choice. But the lifestyle of consultants is probably worse than that of many bankers, and for a lower salary. If you have no finance experience whatsoever getting into banking is not impossible but certainly harder. Industry roles tend to have the best work life balance, but also the lowest pay, plus they vary so much. I mean, consultancies and banks have structured programs for MBAs which the industry doesn’t, so in industry you may end up doing pretty much anything…

  13. I’m in front ofice looking to move into a more senior role and probably to buy side or Private Equity. I’m not in my thirties yet so would be 31/32 when I finish if I aply in a year or so. I would prefer a US school or LBS/Insead in europe and a top school in the US. If I dont get into those I ont see it worthwhile. Is 30+ too old for US schools like Harvard, Wharton etc. The other value of an MBA is the contacts and that little group you get into. As I think I can move in my career but the network will open doors in the future. Or am I making a big assumption

  14. Make sure you talk to your family/partner etc about. The course will get you an interview sure but you need a lot of lietime skill to really get on. Domestic happiness, a happy family life, good diet and positive attitude are things you can’t get from an MBA.

  15. Also thank for the advice MBA2009

  16. re Masters in Finance (MiF) programmes – I’d be very cautious. I went to LBS and did an MBA then went into a top tier IB. Investment Banks are pretty lukewarm on Busness School at all and particulalrly sceptical about MiF programmes. I am a big fan of LBS but I think they have been a bit cynical in the way they have marketed their MiF programme. If an IB needs you to know some theory, they’ll teach you themselves. They go to Business Schools to top up if they haven’t got what they needed from their analyst programmes and like to pick up people with drive, who are personable and who are vaguely numerate. If you want to be a quant – a VERY SMALL segment of the overall IB intake – you need a PhD – maths or possibly physics

  17. @Sarah,

    I ahve already worked as a quant at a bank (1 year) moved to a quant fund (been there a year, and am there currently) The PhD programmes only lead to quant work (which is crap if you ask me) and the hours are the same as the REAL FO – at this point I could either go through the experienced hire route back to quant (I think I’d rather castrate myself, well starve at least) or try bschool. But you answered my question, it’s game over at this point.

  18. @MBA2009-don’t agree with your only LBS and INEAD or worth doing an MBA at in Europe. IMD, IESE and IE are all good alternatives (and often cheaper)… IE even made made it to the top of the WSJ ranking last year- and has been consistently in the top 5-10 of all relevant ranking for many years now (FT, economist, Business week etc..)-something fe. INSEAD can’t say..so you might wanna think a little harder before you do all the lecturing & preaching online. Questions like: what do you wanna get out of it, where would you like to be based, what industries are you looking at, etc..

  19. @Invictus – that sounds a bit bleak. If you’re already in a fund, can’t you work on a trading strategy and try and get promoted internally – or try and shift into a sales role internally (assuming this is what you want). Do you really want to take on all the debt that goes with an MBA, with no certainty that it will get you where you want to go? It’s not game over – you just need to think laterally.

    Sarah, Editor, eFinancialCareers Reply
     
  20. I graduated with my MBA from a top U.S B school last August, I am a 32 year old female. One of the biggest issues on our course was concerning students under 25 with a distinct lack of experience, and therefore inabillity to bring constructive practical experience to the table during class discussion. For the learning experience this makes a huge difference – I would rather share the classroom with more mature students who can ‘add value’ to your growth and the class in general rather than younger students who are academic whizz-kids.

    I recommend enquiring as to the demographic make-up of your prospective intake group, make sure you push for truthful data also! They tend to look for high GMAT entrants ( namely very quant oriented Asians) who will push them up through B.school rankings.
    It’s to easy now for B schools to say they have made up their quota regards gender, ethnicity and disability – so enquire and even ask to exchange details with potential classmates.

    Regards post MBA prospects; again depends on the industry you wish to enter, but a large proportion of my classmates have actually switched to new ones. Consultancy is always a good option !

  21. This is not totally true. As one gets older, the knowledge and experience gained require taking more active roles in more fields and decision processes. And this requires more time commitment. Plus, people have better reasons to spend time out of the office when they are younger not when they are older and relatively more settled down.

  22. MBAs…. my feeling is that unless you really belong to the Aristocratic society you would end up hating them. Am 26, associate level in FO (not a M&A or trader though) and even thoughI know that having an MBA in my Cv would simplify my career I cant really see how I want to get a 25k loan to pay the fee + 40K required for 18 months of daily lifestyle… But what really worries me is ending up studying and living with many one-dimensioned geeks….
    I find it funny that Business schools talks about their wide students background when it is all pretty much the same people…

  23. Herein lies bare all the evils with our industry.. Why do banks discriminate on age? And why should a 26 year old be a better trader than a 40 year old. And why should there be so many restrictions on what a career path should look like. Why should MBAs not deserve a decent entry into banking.. they have shown committment of taking 2 years to learn finance and bring some real good skills to the table.
    All of these myriad little rules has brought all the grave problems we have today.
    The industry has learnt little.. it still smacks more of a frat house where you have to be of a certain age and criteria to land a job.. Whoever said banking was meritocracy was smoking ****.
    Its a real shame so many smart people are throwing themselves at an industry which lacks the basic decency…

  24. Too sad to hear but is it really true. I am 34 year old IT professional working as a product Manager (working from last 9 years) for one of investment banks IT Deptt. I am already master in technology but know wanted to stratigist role or some other better role in investment bank only. Considering to do MBA in 2010 but reading all this make my mind little puzzled. What are my chances to get better role in investment banking or in consulting world with same type of role and incentives as in investment banking.

  25. @Sarah,

    Also you mention work on a trading strategy and get promoted, promoted to what senior quant? I hope you don’t take thi sthe wrong way, but it is MUCH HAREDR to come up with what looks like a profitable quant trading strategy then fundamental, and for that matter you can’t get any kind of boost from good fortune either, at least not to the same extent… It is a little naive to say as much. I do appreciate your trying though.

  26. The MBA is the most overblown over-rated qualification and a complete waste of time. I know – I have one – rarely have I spent so much time in the company of so many talentless wannabies. Still, if working with talentless wannabies is what you want to do then go ahead…

  27. Andre, I was asked for an opinion and I gave mine. It goes without saying that different people will have different opinions, and that it’s always wise to compare as many opinions as possible.

    The top recruiters in Europe tend to recruit from LBS and INSEAD the most. IESE is not bad, but not comparable to these two, in my opinion, Plus, IESE costs ca. EUR 69k, vs the 49k of LBS and the EUR 51k of INSEAD. Other than the fact that living and partying in Spain is nicer than in London or Fonty, I don’t see what the pros of IESE can be.

    Also, the top Spanish business schools have ties to Opus Dei, the catholic organization (google it if you don’t know it). This may be irrelevant for some, but is a deal breaker for me.

    I think that looking at career reports is a good indicator, and the fact that LBS and INSEAD have the most detailed reports (in Europe) is a very good indicator, imho. I mean, if Goldman and McKinsey recruit a lot from school X, school X will want to brag about it. If it doesn’t, it’s probably because it has little to show off!

    It’s also very good to talk to alumni, who will tell you a more accurat story than what you will hear at formal information sessions.

  28. The article sounds like an MBA is only for going into ibanking. That is a mistake. The designation can be very much worth your while outside of banking.

    That said, there is an age limit to career shifting directly into investment banking. However, I have heard of a lot of cases of high ranking consultants joining ibanks at director levels. Why? The same reason an ivy league MBA is prized above other designations; these are people who tend to be great at developing busines.

    Sorry but both associates and analysts are working bees. Banks expect you to mostly burn-away and leave. Managing Directors do not leave the industry as much because they do not sell their labor, they sell their connections. If you develop the connections you can enter IBD any time.

    Also a little note. In my class some people with more experience oon your own actually joined the ibank at VP and even Associate Director levels. It is possible, but not easy. Most definitely will require you to network, because bank HR’s are programmed to follow script

  29. Sorry for the dble post, reposted and edited due to computer glitch

  30. Allan, unfortunately I agree with you.
    The point is that the irrationality of the job market makes an MBA necessary for certain job transitions, even thought the MBA itself teaches very little. It’s like paying a bribe in order to join a privileged circle…

  31. Jon,
    don’t know much about US schools.
    If I were you, I’d spend from 6 to 12 months trying to land your dream job while working at your current role, and only if that fails would I consider an MBA.
    Bear in mind that course start in August at LBS and January at Insead (the January intake is strongly recommended because it lets you do a summer internship). Check the websites for details on deadlines.

  32. I think i’ll apply in the next round as applications for this year must be closing and it requires a GMAT. I want to look into US schools too. I will look into the job I want to move into but I think for some reason they always want a MBA or other experience I feel a bit pigeon holed.

  33. Doing an MBA was one of the best moves I made in a long banking career – I did mine by Distance learning from Durham … at 40. You should never stop learning and I applied theory directly to my job with great results. Do it to improve yourself, never mind what recruiters think ….

  34. Less than 10% of the top 100 billionaires in the world have MBAs…

    1. What do you think Alan Sugar or Richard Branson would say about the necessity of an MBA?

    2. What are you going to learn in business school that is of any use… that markets are efficient ? Yeah, 2008 is a great example of how efficient markets were…

  35. I realize I’m only one datapoint, but I started one of those top European schools when I was older and graduated at 34. Banks and even consulting wouldn’t even look at my CV at that age. I’m glad because I’m happy now in industry….but I remember feeling VERY old at those recruitment functions.

    Age and b school seems to go in cycles. Ten years ago the schools wanted 5-6 years experience to make the teamwork more rewarding and now they seem to be full of people 1-3 years out of undergrad. I was told the bank and consulting recruiters demanded it because they wanted cheap people who would hand over their lives. Now, I hear there is a slight push for more experience again.

  36. @ Graeme,

    But you were already in an IB, the MBA had little transition value…

  37. @Graeme

    Very true although this is a finance careers website people should stop looking at an MBA as a tool to go from X->Y in ibanking. My feeling is that they’re far more worthwhile for experienced execs, to formalise and polish up skills learned on the job. What value they add to a 26 year old who spent two years previously photocopying I know not.

  38. @invictus

    Ironic that you should have a double post/technology glitch. I strongly suspect that your technology skills are the main reason why you have a job at the moment.

    If you hate your life so much why don’t you just leave the industry. Perhaps you should go and do an MBA if you prefer it. I think though you might be better off staying in academia full time as this is what you have been doing for the majority of your adult life.

    Be aware though that getting an MBA is not likely to get you into a fund manager / portfolio manager career route.

    The best advice I think anyone could give you though would be to stop moaning and and try and be succesful at what you are being employed to do today.

    Boss of Invictus Reply
     
  39. I have a Distinction MBA in Marketing in my late 40’s why on earth would I work for a Bank when they can’t even get the basics right.? A proper MBA graduate, starts his own business and does not feed from the crumbs from the masters table. An MBA, with determination and experience leaves all those useless and boring suits for dead!

  40. Forget about MBAs. I know so many examples of people in emerging economies like Brazil and China who made a fortune with only elementary school education. Get out of the box, think differently! An MBA is a waste of money.

  41. OK thanks! Probably saved me some time applying for IB jobs!!

  42. Folks.. Wait a sec.. Dont go bashing around MBAs.. I have an MBA. and from a top school that too.
    I think the MBA teaches a lot of useful things.. The only downside.. its way too expensive.. besides its a lot about what you want to take out of the course.. The whole brah-brah about networking and developing friends is rubbish in my opinion.. But yes no matter what you do, they do teach you the skills to evaluate new businesses, value companies, understand finance and think strategically..

    @ gerado..
    Your comment on EM entrepren is pretty useless I have to say.. So what if a helluva lot of people were successful without MBAs. An MBA is not a ticket to being a billionaire.. have you ever heard of the concept of survivorship bias.
    An MBA will however let you have the skills to develop a career. It will NOT be easy but it gives you a better chance. It would be better if there were less MBA colleges and the course was cheaper.. Right now there are way too many MBAs and all these folks are loaded with debt.. No wonder they are gunning for I-banking jobs..

  43. My age is 33 completed my MBA in Feb- 2010….was working with Investment Bank…and resigned to completed my full time MBA ……After reading this article really confused whether to continue in the same field or change my field???? please advice…

  44. For many, the intention of doing the MBA is not just to get into banks or the financial sector. You are never too old to do an MBA. I did my MBA recently from Henley Business School where the average age is about 37. Although most of us are struggling to get a good break but do not attribute this to the age. The market is tough, people have high expectations and companies are being very extra careful in choosing. In my humble opinion, MBA is a learning journey worth doing at any stage. The range of people and ideas you come across is simply unmatched.

  45. I’m agree with Gerardo….What I feel is….when you study too much based on some theories or cases taught in the MBA classes…you will start to lose your creativity and out of the box thinking…

  46. I have a top 1 MBA, few notes:

    > salary post MBA= 6x preMBA (yep it is absolutely true)
    > landed in PE
    > pre MBA: few average girls, post MBA: always surrounded by super-cute 20ish babes
    > preMBA: cheap wine, Post MBA: cristal, chateau lafite
    ……

    for someone, MBA has been the game changer

  47. @FatCat – what a little t***er you are…

  48. > salary post MBA= 6x preMBA (yep it is absolutely true)
    > landed in PE
    > pre MBA: few average girls, post MBA: always surrounded by super-cute 20ish babes
    > preMBA: cheap wine, Post MBA: cristal, chateau lafite

    You must be the dean of a college

  49. I have no MBA, work for a small CF house and still drink cristal, party worldwide and have girls barely in their 20s……

  50. @James

    ‘have girls barely in their 20s……’

    Sick!

  51. I started my MBA when I was 32 then continued with my Msc. I got both my post degree before reaching 35. A year has passed and now I am not happy. Seems like I do regret my decision as I am blaming my self to make a decision to go back to campus. Did I waste my time? I couldnt get any better job right now and landed to help my brother in the past 2 months to do clerical jobs as a bookkeeping for his business ! what a shame for me.
    I can see many of my friends landed a job as a investment banker, working in a team for private equity, asset mgmt, M&A because they are under 30s. Why the age is a big issue? what should I do?

  52. I run a corporate development (buy-side) unit in Asia for a global invenstment bank. My advice to you is:

    1. If you do an MBA, only consider global top 10 schools

    2. If you are hitting 30, forget about it

    3. If you can grow from where you are, do it

    4. If you are already an associate (or even a VP), forget about it

    5. Only do an EMBA if your company pays for it and there are no (material) strings attached – otherwise it’s not worth it

    TheHonestRecruiter Reply
     
  53. @TheHonestRecruiter by your advice and following The Economist ranking, we should all be applying to Darden rather than Wharton. Really? I suggest you sit tight at your “invenstment” (?!) banking job and not spew out made up generalisations.

  54. Thank you honestrecruiter. Your advice is the best I’ve read so far. I chose to give up doing an MBA some years ago even if I got admission to both H and W because I would have graduated at 35 (yep, I got both of them at 33, it is therefore possible but please note I have a very specific CV) and I finally realized that it would have been a waste of time. I don’t discard MBAs, they are good, but I think it is most beneficial for career-switchers, albeit truth is most people do them first and foremost because they think it will lead them to easy success. It is wrong. Success has to come from you. And it is never easy. And please, don’t believe guys like fatcat…

  55. I’m 29 and I just finished my MD.

    With about 3 years of work experience required I’ll be 33 before I can start a MBA.

    Right now I’m not too sure if I want to continue my professional life as a doctor (Europe) but maybe take a change of direction (management for example).

    I would be interested in your opinion on that topic.

    Best regards

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