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To MBA, or Not to MBA?

Patrick Erwin, writer

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If you're thinking of getting an MBA, you're not alone. According to the MBA Association, more than 100,000 new MBAs enter the work force every year. 

A master's degree in business administration is considered a prerequisite in some fields, particularly for anyone who is on the executive track. But is it beneficial for everyone? Is it necessary to spend a significant chunk of time -- and a substantial financial investment -- to get an MBA? 

A wise investment
Over the last several years, the demand for MBAs has remained steady. In a 2007 survey by the Graduate Management Admissions Council, recruiters indicated they were competing to hire qualified MBA graduates.

The number of positions recruiters intended to fill with MBAs grew by 18 percent in both 2006 and 2007.  Those recruiters stated they were willing to pay 84 percent more to MBA degree holders than to an employee who held an undergraduate degree. 

"I think getting the MBA played a great role in my life and career and helped shape what I do now," declares Jeffrey Swedarsky, founder and director for DC Metro Food Tours, a Virginia-based company.

"I utilized my newfound knowledge to start my own business," Swedarsky says. He agrees, however, that not everyone's experience is the same. "I believe not all MBAs are created equal. Mine was from a top 20 school, and the name recognition and reputation put me a step ahead." 

Going to graduate school while working a full-time job might seem counterintuitive, but Kirk Imamura, president of recording facility Avatar Studios in New York, believes it can make it easier financially.

 "One way I made the investment less burdensome was to have my employer pay part of it," Imamura explains. "I did the program in two years with no breaks. This makes the experience more valuable because you can apply concepts immediately." 

Attending business school can also be a valuable way to network with new industry contacts. Today's classmate can be tomorrow's hiring manager, recruiter or valuable inside contact for an opportunity. 

Mark Phelan, assistant manager at Sodaro Estate Winery in Napa, Calif., is convinced his MBA made a difference between good and great. "The enthusiastic networking I did in that environment is what made the difference between having an expensive piece of paper and putting my knowledge and skills to good use." 

Not having an MBA can definitely be a liability. Just ask Troy McClain, who was a contestant on the first season of "The Apprentice." McClain remembers the moment where he and fellow contestant Kwame Jackson were under review by Donald Trump. "Looking at a man with a high school diploma, versus another with an MBA from Harvard, the choice was obvious," McClain recalls. "I was fired."  

Just say no
Although an MBA can clearly enhance a stellar résumé and educational background, there are concerns that it may not be a great return on investment for everyone. With new graduates saturating the job market -- and a volatile financial sector -- MBAs are no longer a guaranteed golden ticket to professional advancement. 

 "Aside from providing a fundamental understanding of accounting and finance, the courses were a waste of time," says Benjamin Atkinson, director of risk management at New Jersey-based PeopleLink LLC. "My own reading provided me with vastly more useful and timely information; my professors weren't even aware of some of the current writings on these subjects." Atkinson eventually abandoned his quest for an MBA. "I'd hire business experience over a business degree, every time," he declares.

Though pursuing the degree may not be a waste of time for everyone, some professionals have wondered if the investment of time and tuition makes the MBA a worthwhile goal. 

Dave Taylor, a Colorado-based new media and management consultant, isn't sure his MBA has a substantial impact. "I have to say that the knowledge I gained in terms of business fundamentals has been useful, but I don't believe that having an MBA has, per se, helped my career," he summarizes. "It seems more important to have experience with new media than to have a piece of paper or credential." 

Should you stay or should you go?
If you're on the fence about whether to pick the MBA career path, take a moment to ponder these points before you make the leap: 

Think it through. If you recently completed an undergraduate program, and are unsure about your next step, don't rush into an MBA program. Work in your industry for a few years. Get some practical experience and a professional perspective. 
Research your field. Don't get an MBA simply because it's icing on the cake. Make sure it acts as a springboard to advancement in your field.  There are a number of specialized MBA programs tailored for different industries, including human resources, information technology and property management
Talk to your employer. Many companies offer tuition reimbursement, or will pay for part or all of an MBA for their employees. Talk to your employer and see what costs they can cover. If it's not an existing part of your benefits package, see if you can negotiate it as a perk at your next performance evaluation. 

Patrick Erwin is a writer and blogger for He researches and writes about job search strategy, career management, hiring trends and workplace issues.

Last Updated: 21/10/2008 - 11:08 AM

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