Hundred Hours: Why an MBA Thesis is a Bad Idea

At my business school, students end their MBA curriculum with a Capstone class. This class is intended to “bring it all together” and hence its moniker. It is a special pedagogical experience for student and teacher and one that should not be bypassed. It’s always good to consolidate one’s knowledge and have the pieces fall in place.

Every now and then a student prefers to opt out of this end game experience, preferring the Thesis option that may be taken in lieu of their Capstone class. This is a mistake. Unless a student is highly motivated, knows exactly what he wants to do for a thesis, and has already undertaken at least a hundred hours of exploration of the subject matter of the thesis, it is a plain waste of time. And the opportunity cost is high, because the learning from the Capstone class is priceless. Yes, Capstone is a lot of work, and it is tempting at the end of the long haul towards a graduate degree to want to give oneself a break. But especially in this case, it’s a mistake. The trade-off is not even close, unless some really special conditions are pre-existent for the Thesis. Such as

  • The student knows exactly the question to ask in the thesis. The Question is the Thesis. When a student comes to me and requests I offer up suggestions for a topic, I let him/her know that I do not want ownership of the project, which is what happens if it’s my question. It has to be the student’s. Else it’s a no go. Much the learning comes from finding the question to ask in the thesis. Without that it’s literally half-baked. And a half-baked anything is not palatable.
  • A good question is simple, yet rigorously derived, unique, and poignant. As Helen Hunt noted – “The best movies have one sentence that they are exploring, a thesis, something people can argue about over dinner afterward.”
  • As noted above, at least a hundred hours of thinking and exploring should have gone into the Thesis idea already, some of it in formulating the question of course. Without that no one (student or professor) can be confident that the question is a good one. And a good answer to a bad question is even worse than no answer at all (or a bad answer to a good question). As a senior colleague once said to me – “if something is not worth doing, it’s not worth doing well.”
  • The student should be prepared to work on the Thesis over two quarters. Rushing it through in one quarter just leads to nonsense. If a student asks me to supervise a thesis I would like to see a two-quarter plan, else I decline.
  • The student should be prepared to sell the Thesis idea to the professor. For this you need passion, which comes from a hundred hours of immersion. Thesis supervision for a professor entails quite a few hours, with no additional compensation. It’s almost like keeping office hours for an extra course when not actually going to class to teach it. So the student needs to ask – “What’s in my idea for the Professor?” – there should be a possible follow-on research paper, or something new that the professor will learn from it. A good thesis will hit a symbiotic sweet spot.

Sounds harsh? Not really. And I’ve learnt this the hard way. Without these conditions, it’s a chore for both sides of the Thesis, student and professor. At the end of it one wishes to have taken the Capstone twice over! As Manfred Eigen said – “Sometimes a scream is better than a thesis.”


2 Responses to Hundred Hours: Why an MBA Thesis is a Bad Idea

  1. Lamiya says:

    Hi Sanju,

    I completely understand – devoted so much energy to a thesis which was extremely difficult (chronic back pain recurrence related to mental illness) – took almost 9 months to determine it wasn’t the right way to go. Good exercise but wished I had known this perspective then (ah student naivety!) Any case, settled for a master’s project which was just the right way to go – got done in a year and was able to get my master’s on time. Thanks for sharing all these articles – always insightful, wise and relevant.

    Best, Lamiya


  2. Sanjiv says:

    Thanks Lamiya, your responses are always so thoughtful. Students should only do a thesis if there is a burning desire to understand and learn about something new of deep interest.

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