Is an M.B.A Worth It?

A not infrequent question of my clients in their mid twenties to mid thirties is “Should I go back to school and get a graduate degree?” (most commonly an M.B.A.). There are a number of ways of looking at this question.

First, and most importantly, what is the reason you are contemplating going back to school for an M.B.A.? Three valid reasons:

1) You are on a promising career path at an organization and are told that an M.B.A. will be necessary to stay on the fast track. This might often be the case in investment banking or consulting.

2) You are at heart an entrepreneur, with a creative mind and not afraid to take risks, but basically clueless as to strategic issues and “best practices.”

3) You are wanting to acquire specific business-related knowledge and skills (for example understanding and being able to utilize the essential principles of finance or marketing).

Less valid reasons are the ones I most typically hear:

“All my peers have an M.B.A. or some kind of advanced degree.”

“The people who get ahead in my field have M.B.A.s”

“I want to learn more about business.”

“I’ll earn more money if I have an M.B.A.”

Note that, in my opinion (shared by many, many others), the greatest value of an M.B.A. lies in two realms:

a) Learning a way to think about problems and how to find solutions;

b) Acquiring a network of friends and peers whose success you can leverage to your benefit as you progress in your career – after all, influential connections are invaluable.

Those are what I got with my M.B.A. at Harvard, and it’s stood me in great stead ever since.

Weighing the value of those two somewhat amorphous benefits is very difficult. You need to balance the costs (in time, money, and the short-term missed opportunities that result) with the likely longer-term benefits. By all means don’t neglect to take into account the personal characteristics that will enable some people to benefit much more than others from the two key values noted above. If you are a good “shmoozer” you will gain a lot more from the networking opportunities at B School than will a dyed-in-the-wool introvert. And if you are someone who can take general knowledge and apply it to specific situations with reasonable ease you will benefit quite a bit more from the way of thinking taught by B Schools than will someone who tends to apply knowledge in a more literal way.

All M.B.A. degrees are not alike….at all. The very top schools (e.g. Harvard, Wharton, Stanford, and Chicago) carry a cachet, and a network, that can be invaluable. But attending a very good school not in the top tier will likely be quite a bit less valuable. For example, only 5% of the Harvard MBA graduating class of 2012 found themselves unemployed after three months, compared with 23% of USC’s (a very good school’s) class. Nonetheless, if your primary reason for getting an M.B.A. is one of the three listed at the beginning of this post, the reputation of the school is much less important than the quality of instruction, something that can and should be researched by a potential applicant.

For professionals approaching, or in, mid-career, an executive M.B.A. can make a lot of sense – it allows one’s career to continue uninterrupted (because classes are held on weekends or in a very concentrated period of time), thereby reducing the opportunity cost associated with dropping out of the work force for two years. Also, because a typical EMBA applicant has 14 years of work experience, and 8 1/2 years of management experience, the opportunities to create connections with successful individuals is very high.

Numerous studies consistently demonstrate that executive MBA graduates are extremely satisfied with their decision to enroll in the program. Over 95% of graduating EMBAs say the programs met or exceeded their expectations when it comes to impact on their careers and their organizations, according to a recent exit survey conducted by the Executive MBA Council. A third of the grads won promotions at work, while 44% received additional job responsibilities.

In closing, let me delineate one other reason that might make an MBA worth pursuing: you are simply enamored of business in general, and find it a fascinating field. If you have that kind of built-in passion, there is no telling what a graduate degree in business might lead to, but in the long term it is very likely that it will pay off.

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