How To Tell If You Should Get an MBA

Last Updated Oct 20, 2010 3:29 PM EDT

How on earth do you know if you should get an MBA? My BNET colleague, Jessica Stillman, got asked just that question and asked for my input. Here's the e-mail:

It seems lately like the new fad is to be as down on MBAs as possible. Everywhere I turn, bloggers are warning against pursuing an MBA, or arguing that once you get one, it doesn't do a heck of a lot for your career. I feel a little torn, and I was hoping you could give me some advice.
My company will pay up to 75% of my tuition cost, up to $2500 per year. Not enough for Harvard Business School, but enough to cover my local university. I'm taking my second class, and so far I'm really feeling underwhelmed with the amount of knowledge I'm getting out of it, and overwhelmed by the amount of work I need to put into it. Between working full time, transitioning to new job responsibilities (I work in sales and I'm moving from a sales rep position to an account executive position starting in January), reading and writing for this class, getting married in a month, keeping up with household duties, and trying to have a LIFE I'm feeling stressed.
Do I just need to get a grip and try to work through this? I'm 25 years old, and I don't want to look back and say "Why didn't I just get an MBA while I had the chance?"
What do you think?
It may come as a shock to some of you that I'm not anti-education, or even anti-MBA. No, in fact, I'm a fan of education. Knowledge is power and all that. What I'm not a fan of is people spending time and money on a degree that won't help and might even hinder their career. Just a few minutes ago, I got an e-mail from a woman asking if she should leave her bachelor's degree off her resume because she was applying for a job that only required a high school diploma. (Answer: It was an office type job and others applying will probably also have degrees, so leave it on.) You don't want to spend the time and money on the degree and then be writing me to ask if you should leave it off your resume.

An MBA is incredibly valuable if your career path requires an MBA. If it doesn't, then it may be helpful, it may be neutral, or it may even hinder you. Yes, an MBA expands your earning power, if your career path requires one. Yes, it makes you look more impressive, if the people who are doing the hiring are impressed by that. Yes, there is a big difference between a top 10 program and the local "if you can pay tuition you're in" program. But, how to decide? Here are some questions to ask yourself (and some questions you need to ask others):
  1. Where do you want to be in 5 years? What about 10 years? I know, it's the dreaded interview question. But, this time you're going to ask yourself. Where do you really want to go with your career? Yes, I know things can change, but take the time to think it out.
  2. What credentials do the people in your "future job" have? You figured out where you want to be, so find out who is there now. Do they have MBAs? Do they have different advanced degrees? What schools did they go to? (Yes, it matters.)
  3. Will the school that you are attending be worth the effort? I hate to sound snobbish, but the school you attend really matters at the MBA level. Really, really matters. If you want to be CEO of a Fortune 500 Company, getting your MBA at the local university is unlikely to help you. You'll need to go to a top MBA school for that. The good news is that Bloomberg BusinessWeek is reporting that some top MBA programs are easier to get into now. I know people with MBAs from some low prestige schools that have jobs they could have gotten without those degrees, and, in fact, their coworkers lack the MBA. The school you choose will open some doors for you and will close other doors to you.
  4. How much money will your MBA bring you? Okay, I don't have a crystal ball either. But, take a look at the school's information about the salaries of its alumni. An MBA from Arizona State University's Carey School of Business brings a median staring salary of $90,000, while one from Harvard brings in $114,400. Awesome! But, check out what Payscale.com is reporting for people with MBAs. A range of almost $50,000 to the mid $80,000s for University of Phoenix grads is substantially different. If you're making $75,000 right now, it doesn't make sense to get an MBA at a low tier school.
  5. How much will your MBA cost you? I'm not talking just tuition here. In your case, the company is paying 75%. Yippee! But, does that come with a clause that holds you hostage for 3 years after they make their last payment? How does your company treat newly minted MBAs? Is a promotion possible, or will it just be a cake? When you're released from your 3 year hold, new companies will see your salary as one you earned as someone with an MBA with 3 years of post-graduation experience. If you weren't rewarded financially at the old firm, your value to a new firm drops as well. Are you going to be willing to pay back what you would owe in order to leave? And if your company is not paying it, are you taking out student loans, paying as you go or relying on your trust fund? Because some MBA programs can be really expensive--over $100,000 kind of expensive. Sure, if it raises your earning potential by thousands and thousand's it's worth it. But, if it's going to only slightly raise your potential then the costs may outweigh the benefits.
For you, specifically, remember 25 is not old. You'll be able to get an MBA in the future. In fact, assuming that you finished your undergrad at 22, you've only been in the work force 3 years. I'd say you need two more years of experience before you start applying to MBA schools. If the work isn't challenging, but is time consuming, you may be in a school that is lower tier than what you're capable of.

But, if you've gone through the 5 questions above and determined that an MBA is the path for you, then go get it. The knowledge will be helpful, and the connections invaluable.
Photo by dkaz, Flickr cc 2.0

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