Parifornia

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When Does an MBA Make Sense?

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I’ve often been approached by people interested in earning an MBA.  Should I get one?  Is the school important?  Will it make me a better leader or manager?

Truth be told, the answer is rarely a straight “yes” or “no.”  Many factors come into play and they should all be carefully evaluated before embarking on a long, demanding and increasingly expensive educational journey.

My personal MBA experience (at the Anderson School at UCLA) was immensely enjoyable and productive.  The timing was right – I was 26 at the time – and I had been working for over 5 years in IT consulting and medical sales.  I was looking to transition into a marketing role and my MBA was the springboard into both a new career and new industry (Consumer Products).  Above all, the school I chose was an excellent fit for me and the type of environment I was looking for.  UCLA has a very strong and collaborative team spirit.  Students are generally outgoing, lively and very supportive of each other.  This led me to an important conclusion about the MBA experience which is that probably more learning and growth comes from the interactions outside the classrooms than inside.  Few courses, professors or lectures had a lasting impression but many relations with my peers did.  So from my perspective, the choice of the school is very important.  Certainly for the academic rigor but especially for the quality of the student body.

Here are a few key considerations or factors which could help justify the time and financial investment in an MBA degree:

Age <40.  The younger the age at which you earn your degree the more return on your investment it can potentially bring and the more impactful it can be to your career.  Not to say that you should get an MBA straight out of university – far from it.  It is best to have had several years of work experience to be better able to relate (and contribute) to the overall experience.  5-15 years of post-university work experience seems about right.  Consider that a certain amount of personal and professional maturity are necessary to make the most of your MBA investment.

Branching into a new role or industry.  A number of MBA graduates – myself included – have successfully parlayed their degree into a ticket into a entirely new role or industry.  The classic example is the engineer who wants to break into a more commercial role in an organization.  For others, it is the ticket to break into a more senior role or to gain insights, which will facilitate faster career progression.

Full time.  While I have the utmost respect for people who undertake an MBA while working full or even part time, I wonder if they truly have the ability to enjoy and make the most of their experience.  My recommendation is that those who are serious about their MBA, should attempt to take the full time, two year option.  Obviously the cost (and lost income) is quite considerable, but the commitment and experience is that much richer as you are 100% invested in the program.

Good school.  Yes, the choice of the school is important.  Not all MBA programs are created equal nor will they all be a good fit for you or for your ambitions.  If you thrive in the company of brilliant people then pick a program that carefully screens its applicants.  Generally speaking, the more selective the school, the better the quality of the student body.  School selectivity is a signal of the caliber of the students just as much as it is a quality indicator of the academic program & faculty.

Appetite for learning.  Don’t bother with an MBA if you don’t enjoy learning or academic/classroom settings.  The key to a great MBA experience, no matter what the school, has to be the joy of personal growth and learning.  Same if you don’t enjoy working in groups.  MBAs are probably not advisable for the lone wolf or the deeply introverted.

Curriculum is more practical.  Quality schools typically ensure the curriculum is rich in practical applications of both proven and emerging business principles.  Those that are more academic, traditional or theoretical based may not be as effective.  Therefore, pick your program carefully and be sure to ask former students what they thought about the school’s curriculum.

Trying to develop new skills.  Looking for a first exposure to Finance or Marketing?  Strategy or Accounting?  Business schools are a great environment where you can safely get exposed to new fields that you would otherwise never get to experience.  Who knows, you might discover a talent or affinity for a type of profession/business you never expected.  That’s the beauty of the MBA degree.

The reverse can also be said.  Here are similar arguments for why an MBA may not be the right choice:

Age >40.  Don’t get me wrong.  Learning is a worthy and lifelong journey.  I would never discourage someone from continued education.  MBAs, however, are costly and there comes a point in a career after which getting one is not going to yield the best return.  Additionally, you will find that most of your classmates will often be 10-20 years your junior.

Keeping up with others.  There can sometimes be a stigma for not having an MBA when others around you do.  Getting a degree just to keep up or feel better is probably not the best reason for getting an advanced degree.

Vanity/Insecurity.  Similar to the point above, the main driver for getting an MBA should be a desire for growth and learning, not to satisfy your ego so that you can look down on others or to make you feel more comfortable in the company of colleagues.

At the expense of valuable practical experience.  If you have a choice between getting a degree or getting invaluable real-world experience, carefully consider the choice.  All things being equal, I personally would favor the candidate without an MBA but who has had exceptional, relevant work experience.

Part-time.  Again, working while getting an MBA is incredibly demanding and hard to do well.  But for the reasons mentioned above, I would advise against such programs.

Unknown school.  If you are going to spend 1-2 years of your life on an MBA, best you spend it at an establishment that has some clout and which carries some weight.  Remember that the academic institution’s reputation acts like a primary signal to employers about how good & serious you potentially are.

Online degree.  To be avoided if you can.  These are low-cost and highly flexible degrees, but you get what you pay for and the program’s lack of recognition may not help you professionally as much as you would like.

Very academic/abstract/theoretical curriculum.  Some programs are more “old school” than others.  Good MBA programs are typically dynamic, practical, interactive, highly current and even hands-on.  Lesser programs will often rely excessively on the tried (tired?) and true case study methods.  You simply cannot just read your way through an MBA.  You have to live it and experience it.

Introverted and not big on teams.  Face it, much of today’s MBA are highly team focused/driven.  If you simply hate working with others then an MBA is probably not an experience you will enjoy.

At the end of the day, almost any investment in your personal development is a worthy enterprise.  But with the costs of an MBA rising every year, your decision needs to be done for the right reasons.

Photo credit: EOI at Photopin

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5 comments on “When Does an MBA Make Sense?

  1. Doerthe
    March 15, 2013

    question is: do I really need an MBA to i.e. pursue a new career in a different role or might “normal” studies have the same impact – but without that big amount of cost to it?

    • Andrew Hyncik
      March 15, 2013

      Doerthe,

      Thanks for your comment. That’s a tough question to answer. But if you refer to my earlier post “What a disrupted college system means for business,” you will see that there are a number of tectonic shifts taking place which are challenging the traditional post-secondary educational system we have in place today. What I mean is that through technology and MOOCs, students are no longer tied to classical 1-2 year educational programs like they were before. The internet has democratized higher education and it is possible to learn from some of the greatest minds in the world today, not by signing up from a traditional 2 year MBA program, but by simply downloading free lectures on line. Today, you will find first-rate courses and lectures on-line or on YouTube from places like Stanford, Harvard and other leading institutions. The content of most MBA is probably already available out there for free or next to nothing. Obviously the experience will not be the same but the savings will be immense.
      Ultimately, the choice is yours. Depending on what you need, what you enjoy and what you can afford, there are now more options and alternatives to the classical MBA program. I still think that 1-2 year (live & face-to-face) MBA degrees (at top schools) are best if you can afford them, but the alternatives are getting better every day. If you are still unsure, I suggest you do as much on-line research as possible and ask colleagues & friends for their thoughts on their MBA experience. Above all, however, you need to ask yourself what exactly you are hoping to do and get out of your additional studies. Once you really know your “why” then the answer will come easier to you. Cheers.

      • Doerthe
        April 17, 2013

        thanks Andrew, much appreciated! Still not sure though 🙂 but time will probably tell

  2. Pingback: Has The MBA Become A Worthless Degree? | fred zimny's serve4impact

  3. Rush
    June 17, 2013

    Hi Andrew,

    I was recently accepted to the UCLA Fully Employed MBA program and I’ve been thinking non stop whether to accept the offer or let it go. Would it be possible to communicate with you through personal email?

    Thanks!

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Parifornia is the creation of Andrew Hyncik, an experienced International Marketing executive who's lived and worked for over 20 years in both Europe and North America.

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