Wednesday, February 25, 2009

To MBA or not MBA

I think this one will be short and straightforward. I must warn you, I thought the same thing about the previous entries... and you can see how well that worked out.

It is my sense of things that when anyone becomes dissatisfied in their job or fearful about the economy, they immediately believe that they need an MBA. Forget about the fact that 99.9999% of all people on the planet haven't a clue about what an MBA actually is or what it will do for someone. They have to have one. Now!

The issue with MBA's is that they only provide career enhancement for a small percentage of folks who have them. Before I started this post, I made a list of the first 10 people that I knew who hold an MBA. Four of them are in middle management with Fortune 500 companies, but it is my guess that they would, in fact, have their current positions without the degree. Three others are senior managers and would likely not be in their current positions without the degree. Three others are working in "senior professional" positions with no managerial responsibilities and two of them report to managers who attended college, but do not have bachelors degrees.

Before we go further, let me add that this was not a scientific survey and I think that I could have spent a bit more time and come up with a list of ten friends and acquaintances who owe some of their career advancement to an MBA. Following are a couple of thoughts
about pursuing an MBA.

Should I go directly from my undergrad program?
Generally, what I tell students is,
"Any program that will accept you immediately after undergraduate school is probably not worth attending."
There are a few exceptions to this, but by and large the top 20 or 30 programs do not entertain applications from freshly minted grads. (The exceptions would be non-traditional students with significant full time work and some supervision experience.) There, however, many "accredited" programs that are more than willing to take your money for a degree.

Think about it this way. A 23 year-old recent graduate with no experience who enters an MBA program becomes a 25 year-old recent graduate with no experience. Because employers value experience over education, the 25 year-old MBA will likely lose out on positions to 25 year-old bachelor's level candidates who were gaining expertise while the MBA was busy gaining an MBA.

Full-Time, Part-Time, Evening, or Executive?
I am not sure it really makes a lot of difference. There are advantages to each type. When I was completing my PhD at USC, I took a couple of courses from the Evening MBA program at Marshall School of Business. My classmates were all working professionals in their late twenties or early thirties. They were general first line managers or supervisors and obviously had no lives at all because they worked 40+ hours a week and spent another 10-15 hours attending or preparing for class. I developed some great relationships with people who were working in great companies and it was very interesting to watch the synergy that developed among them. I don't think anyone who completed that program felt cheated because they were not part of the "full-time" program. I will add that program reputation is somewhat important, but it is really more important that the program fit the needs of the prospective student.

Other post-baccalaureate options.
When someone asks me about a graduate degree that might be enhance one's career prospects soon after undergraduate studies, I generally have the same sort of response that I have about MBA programs, with a few caveats. For instance, masters' degrees that are reasonably focused may provide a boost. These would include degrees in Statistics, Economics, Accounting, Public Administration, Public Policy, etc. Certification programs also add value. These would be things like CFA's, Microsoft Certification, Human Resource Management, Risk Management, Database Administration, etc. Finally, taking any additional continuing education to enhance skills is helpful, even when it is not attached to a degree or certificate. Consider another language, software instruction, business writing, bookkeeping, etc.

Dang! I knew it would get out of hand, but there you are. All the stuff you needed to know about whether to pursue an MBA right after college.

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