Saturday, April 15, 2006

Paving The Career Path - Part 1


A reader asked me to discuss, in greater detail, how employers view the University of Phoenix. This is a good question, but as it happens the answer is a little complicated. This is because I don’t know enough about the writer’s situation, to fairly say how such a degree may help their resume. This, combined with another query about the reputation of online degrees, suggested to me that a broader discussion might be appropriate. As you know, I am returning to school to pursue my Masters in Business Administration. I will be starting Graduate School this fall at either the University of Texas at Dallas, Texas A&M - Commerce, or the University of Houston at Victoria. The reasons for choosing these schools for my application are important, but I will have to return to them. This is because I am writing this column in response to some mail I have recently received.

I fooled with the idea about discussing where different educational levels take a person, but it really comes down to this - when you apply for a position in a company, you will be considered according to the factors of your experience, your skills, and your education. Experience comes with time, and work skills develop the same way, but education is a bit more difficult. Partly because your school, as much as your degree, influences your opening image with a company. There is a real value to prestige, if you are applying for a position that is out of the ordinary; you will have to show something on your application or resume which stands out. I know that sounds mercenary, but it’s a hard fact of life; any desirable position will get a lot of competition, and you need to stand out to get a chance for it. So choosing your school can be a very important factor.

Every year, magazines like U.S. News and World Report, Business Week, and so on run lists of their “best” colleges and universities. I put that in quotes, because you need to know what your standards are in a school; what gets points from a magazine may not match what you need. In my case, I got a Bachelor’s degree from a medium-scale university, arguably the best Undergrad school in Texas but only “Top 50” on a national scale after the years passed. Also, my degree was a Liberal Arts degree, a common choice but it doesn’t work well in the business world. Also, my college grades were not impressive. So when my Senior year began, I had no interviews and no post-graduation prospects. First lesson from my mistakes; understand that your choices will have consequences, both good and bad. I got into a company at a low-level position and worked my way up. After two decades of work, I have held some medium-level management positions and earned a few honors. I have solid experience and skills collected from the four companies where I have worked. The problem for me now, is that to move into a real executive position I need educational credentials beyond my present degree. So that is what is sending me back to school at my age. With my experience, you may note that I do not necessarily want a top-tier school. That is for two reasons. First, my resume can get me considered for employment at a lot of companies, more than any school I go to. But also, my resume has shown limits of growth and development, so that there are companies which would not consider me, regardless of where I might claim an MBA. With that in mind, I wanted to choose a school which provided the best results for my effort and expense.

The first quality you want to find in a school, is which one will most improve your resume. If you are young and have not established a work history, then the higher-reputation schools are necessary to get you considered. They also establish a good foundation for a promising career. The downside to those schools, is that they are extremely difficult to enter, very expensive, and very demanding. If you can’t make it through those schools to the degree, you’re out a lot of stress and money for nothing. A better choice for many people is a regionally-respected school, one with name recognition and a long history. These can also be tough and pricey, but not so bad as the top-tier schools. As a comparison, if you wanted to go to Stanford, widely respected as the top MBA school overall, you’d have to be able to commit maybe three years of full-time work, and $180,000 for the tuition, books, fees and other expenses. In comparison, the University of Texas is well-known and widely respected, and offers MBA classes in several major Texas cities in a two-year plan which costs somewhere around $72,000. Still difficult, competitive, and pricey, but not nearly as hard a road as Stanford. Of course, if you make it through the Stanford course, you’d be likely to claim about $120,000 a year after getting your MBA, whereas the Texas grad would only pull about $100,000 on the strength of the degree, but bear in mind that if you want to be, say, the CEO of General Motors, the school you go to will get you into a good company, but your resume and accomplishments will still decide if you get the top chair.

So OK, you accept that your work experience will decide how far you go, but won’t a school act like a booster rocket to get you the chance to be seen? Yes, provided you get the right degree and the proper qualfications. In my case, I am happy not to be the CEO of a major corporation, because I don’t need a quarter-million dollars a year, if the expectations damaged my family or marriage. But I do want an executive position, meaning I might want to be a CEO of a smaller firm, or to be the go-to guy for the CEO of a significant company. In fact, I already know from my work experience, that I find it very satisfying to solve problems and find good answers which improve performance for the company and satisfaction for the employees. So, to get to the point, I want an MBA to open the door to a position where I can combine my experience and talents to make the company more efficient and the employees feel better respected. Oddly enough, I think my niche for doing that is through Sarbanes-Oxley compliance. I am not kidding. I believe that I can hel apply the law in such a way that not only is the company compliant, but also improves the working environment. So, there’s my tack. You see, to be heard by the executives of a company on something like policy and Sox, you have be one of them, and for that I need the MBA. However, it does not need to be a top-tier MBA, just so long as it’s accepted as bonafide.

This is where accreditation and reputation come in. There are, so far as Business schools are concerned, three general levels of accreditation, and four general levels of reputation. Some schools are not accredited by any of the standard regional accrediting boards, and should therefore be avoided. Most schools however, have regional accreditation and a standard for achieving a degree comparable to the most established schools. The distinction, in terms of an actual demonstrably higher standard of academic expectations, would be membership and accreditation in the AACSB, or the Association for the Advancement of Collegiate Schools of Business, an international associaiton with upwards of five hundred business schools as members. Anyone who receives an MBA from an AACBS-accredited school, then, has a legitimate right to claim the highest accepted standard for acedemic qualification.

But that brings us to reputation. I mentioned four general levels of reputation, and these are, well, rather subjective. The top tier would be schools which have automatic name recognition as a business school, such as Wharton, Harvard, or Stanford. Note that in some cases it is the specific Business school which matters, while in others it is the university which carries the shine. These top-level regards are generally created by an alumni from the school who has done well in the world, and his school does the work to make sure they are mentioned whenever the fair-haired hero is named. The second tier would be schools which names have recognition, though the person citing the school may be vaghue on just how he has heard the name. More than a few schools of middling academic standards, therefore, have made their alumni more prominent through success on a playing field. The third level would be schools which are essentially unknown, and the benefit of the doubt is granted or withheld by the interviewer. The lowest level, of course, would be the school which name is known, but not in a positive way. Again, whether the interviewer holds this against the applicant depends on his or her personal choice. There is no hard and fast rule on where a given school will fall, but it should be understood that such pools of repute exist, and a school will affect your initial impression.

[ to be continued ]

No comments: