Friday, May 07, 2010

Should You Pursue an MBA?

This article is part of a series discussing the selection of a school for earning an MBA degree online. Having discussed the value of online degrees and the importance of the AACSB as the chief accrediting body, I would like to step back at this point and discuss the reasons why you may want to earn an MBA – and why you may not want to chose that route.

The Master of Business Administration is a specialized degree, prized by most business professionals for its practical value. That is, there’s nothing wrong with a college degree, but some degrees are considered a requirement for certain fields. Engineers need engineering degrees, for example, and so it came about that corporations and business people came to value degrees in business. The MBA is generally recognized as the professional standard for managerial education, regardless of what concentration is chosen. As a result, many students earn an MBA in hopes of rising to high management positions with successful companies. The prominence of the school is also considered by many companies when hiring a student with little direct work experience.

So far, so good. But why would you need an MBA? Don’t companies promote employees to management without MBAs, and isn’t industry experience and your work record more important? Well, yes and no. Large companies pretty much always have a formal procedure for hiring and promotions, and for some positions an advanced degree is expected. Also, an MBA is almost never regarded as a liability, especially when combined with solid experience. The only times that an MBA would be viewed negatively, would be in cases where the experience is incompatible with the degree, or where the school issuing the degree is viewed in a negative light. Generally, therefore, earning an MBA is going to help your career, although it is no guarantee of success in and of itself.

On the other hand, however, many people who pursue the MBA do not have a specific career strategy in place. That is, they hope that getting an MBA will help them, although they do not know what they will do with the degree. This is a mistake on multiple levels. Not only is it a bad idea to assume that the degree will make your career happen for you, rather than earning your rewards through your work and initiative, it’s also impossible to make the degree work to your advantage if you don’t have a plan for it. Medical students are expected to select specialties and focus of study, and the same for law students. Business students, therefore, should also understand that they also need to earn a degree which suits their professional interests and skills. In the first place, MBA candidates need to focus on concentrations in Operations Management, Entrepreneurship, Accounting, Supply Chain, Real Estate, Finance, Marketing, Banking, Healthcare, Human Resources, Law, Medicine, Information Technology, Engineering, Hospitality, or Manufacturing. The schools which offer MBAs in the chosen concentrations, and the curriculum needed for that choice, are quite varied and careful choices must be made. As a general rule of thumb, if you do not know what concentration you would choose, you are not ready to apply to a graduate-level business school. Just going after an MBA is a waste of time and money without a solid plan.

There are essentially three kinds of MBA students. There are students who have just finished a Bachelor’s degree and who plan to earn an MBA prior to the start of their formal business career; there are people in the workforce who are returning to school to earn an MBA in order to pursue higher-order business positions; and there are successful professionals who continue to work and are pursuing an MBA with the sponsorship of their employer, as grooming for high-level executive positions (the Executive MBA in the true sense, not just as advertised). The value of the MBA, and the things the student should expect, are different for each type. The no-experience student will be relying heavily on the degree to open doors to interviews, and so the school name and GPA will be far more important than otherwise would be the case. Even so, the lack of experience will be a problem, so the student would be well-advised to consider courses which will have direct business applications, especially if the student has a target company in mind. For the student returning to school after years in the workforce, the MBA is more likely to be acquired as a tool meant to advance their career in the same industry, possibly the same company where they are working already. The most important aspect of the MBA for these students is whether they can demonstrate the expanded horizon which will open opportunities for them further up the company organization. That, and of course the documentation of their proficiency in their field at the graduate level. Where the young student seeks the degree in place of experience, the veteran employee seeks a degree which complements their experience. And third, the Executive MBA candidate is seeking the least versatile degree, but one which may open doors unavailable to anyone else or in any other way. There are a number of companies which expect a certain level of educational certification for their C-suite officers, and to that end they will sponsor candidates for the EMBA program at major universities.

The no-experience student will be tempted to enter a full-time program at the most prestigious traditional school where he or she is accepted. This leads to student loan debt of course and can be dangerous if the concentration and curriculum are not carefully planned in advance, but since so much rides on the school’s name for these students, many are willing to take that risk in hopes of getting considered for prominent positions once they graduate. Students may also pursue an MBA at an economically-advantageous school, in the calculation that a good job with little or no debt is smarter than gambling that they can claim a high-paying job right out of graduating from a prestigious but expensive school. Also, it should be noted that very few schools teach skills or material which is significantly different from other quality programs, so unless you have some reason to believe you will be put on the fast track at a Fortune 500 company right after graduation, you should consider the threshold for your career goals. Will it take a Harvard Business School or Stanford MBA to get you where you would like to go, or could you do it with an MBA from the Bauer School of Business at the University of Houston, or maybe you go middle-road, a solid regional school like Rice University or Texas.

For professionals with experience, you should know that your resume both helps and limits you. It helps, because you will be able to show real results in your history rather than just potential, and the MBA – if carefully designed – can extend your professional range and depth. It hurts, because every job in your history shows a career decision, and the aggregate message of your work history not only underscores your direction and growth, but by definition closes off the roads you did not take. Keep that in mind when you choose your path to the MBA, or in deciding whether the MBA will do for you what you want. The same caveat applies to EMBA candidates; if you leave your company after they sponsor you for an Executive MBA, it can make you look risky to future employers at key positions. And if you fail to do well in your studies, that embarrassment could also stain your career path. The point is not to add to the stress of the decision, but make sure you invest the time and consideration needed to make a solid cost-benefit analysis, because a lot of people find out later that a different course might have been better for them. The MBA can be a useful career enhancer, but it’s not a magic wand; there are graduates from even the best schools who can’t get work, or who find themselves far from the position they expected to land. And just about half the CEOs in America don’t have an MBA.

So before you go after an MBA, ask yourself these questions, and dig deep to find the answers that are right for you:

1. Do I need an MBA to get where I want to be?

2. How will an MBA get me to that place or position?

3. Will the school make a difference in the kind of job I am offered, really?

4. How much debt and stress and I willing to take on in the pursuit of my MBA?

5. Who have I talked to, in my chosen field, who can speak from experience about what an MBA can and cannot do for me?

Good luck.