Should You Head Back To Business School?

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Many young working professionals wonder whether or not it is worth going back to business school and getting their Master of Business Administration (MBA).While a strong economy leads many professionals to stick to their current roles, the prospect of pursuing more lucrative positions or facing economically stagnant periods leads many to head back to school for a graduate degree. While pursuing an MBA comes with its own set of challenges, an MBA can be a valuable asset on the path to a better career for young professionals with clear career goals and realistic expectations.

Assessing an MBA
Turning in the briefcase for a backpack provides a familiar sense of security for those just a few years removed from the regimented routines of school life, multiple choice exams and weekend "study sessions" at the local pub. However, this relief is temporary. When the schooling ends, the individual inevitably must return to the wage-earning world.

Spending two to three years back at school could allow a professional to rejoin the work force with advanced knowledge of business practices that may translate into significantly higher earnings. It is also possible that it will be an economically opportune time where businesses are expanding, companies are paying hiring bonuses and career advancement is a real possibility. However, these projected benefits of acquiring an MBA must be balanced with cost considerations such as loss of wages while in school, student loans and additional time spent in the classroom as opposed to practicing one's craft out in the field.

Those contemplating B-school should thoroughly assess whether the courses taken during the program align with their professional and personal interests, as well as anticipated career trajectory. Some important things to consider, include:

  • Professionally, what do I want to spend my time doing?
  • Does my field require this degree in order to be successful?
  • Are there other avenues for learning what I need to know?
Unfortunately, people may choose to get an MBA to enter a chosen field without having a distinct understanding of the day-to-day realities of the job - both good and bad. For example, a professional who has worked in the public or nonprofit sector may venture into the world of investment banking, only to find the hours unbearable, the culture too cutthroat and the work too demanding.

Broader Horizons
Business school represents the expansion of job options, providing for some career flexibility. Professionals who have worked in retail, insurance or field sales may wish to broaden their business exposure and experience. An MBA can mean the ability to pursue careers in management consulting, investment banking, operations, private equity and the public/non-profit sector.

Business school can be a great avenue to switch from one functionary role to another, such as from finance to strategy and planning or from sales to a management-training program. Yet others may want to transition into an entirely different industry, say from a teaching or writing career to joining a financial services company.

Most MBAs - nearly four out of five surveyed by the Graduate Management Admissions Council in 2007 - feel that they could not have obtained their first selected job after graduating from business school without their MBA degree. Other inspirations for jumping into an MBA program include the simple desire to make more money and/or achieve career advancement. In fact, for a vast majority of MBA alumni, financial outcomes determine their overall satisfaction with securing their degree.

How Will Business School Help Me?
MBA candidates generally take required courses such as accounting, finance, operations, management, marketing and business law classes. Upon completion of these, students take electives in various fields, such as entrepreneurship, strategy, economics and advanced topics in traditional business areas. Depending on the program, students may also participate in internships, co-op/part-time consulting and even international placements. The diversity and breadth of the academic content can enrich a students overall professional experience. The added contacts, alumni groups and interactions with professors also serve as wonderful tools to grow one's professional network.

An MBA can be a great tool for those who can use it to land the right role. The degree shows drive and raw intellect. Ascendancy in any career - in times when teamwork and cooperation are critical skills - also requires emotional intelligence, being in the right role in the right industry, and having the proper visibility and the right skills. But an MBA is not a substitute for pursuing one's passions. That requires a level of soul-searching that extends beyond routine considerations.

Finding a "Right Fit" Career
According to the 2007 edition of the Graduate Management Admission Council's MBA Alumni Perspectives Survey, about half of alumni take approximately seven years to recoup their financial investment in obtaining a graduate business degree. A mismatch in expectations can be costly, both financially and in time expended.

Many MBAs, upon obtaining their degrees, pursue jobs that might not align with their career goals due to the financial pressure of paying back loans. Fortunately, as MBA graduates evolve, mature and spend more time in the workforce, they are more likely to switch to a profession more closely aligned with their career orientation and nature. That is, as the years go by, MBAs are more inclined to pursue "right fit" careers.

Is an MBA the Only Way?
An MBA is only one avenue towards certain goals. For example, an experienced tax professional with a specialty in international tax law that wants to transition to a finance-type role at a hedge fund may consider getting a Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA) certification instead of an MBA.

However, other types of aspirations tend to be achieved only with an MBA. For example, an HR associate manager for an aerospace company who wishes to transition to a managerial role at a large government agency, will likely benefit from an MBA. Likewise a college graduate turned small business owner who wishes to better understand entrepreneurial finance or venture capital fundraising, may want to pursue an MBA.

The Bottom Line
It is important to weigh the pros and cons of attending business school, both professionally and personally. Some people decide to attend business school to escape the competitive workplace and the harsh realities of the real world for the ivory tower - mostly as a short-term means of figuring out where they want to head in life. For these individuals, business school can be a six-figure brainstorming session. But for those people who have clear direction and career goals, obtaining an MBA can increase their access to new roles, industries or professions. These additional opportunities, more often than not, lead to progressively higher levels of income and a sense of accomplishment that comes with finishing grad school. For these people, pursuing an MBA is an option well worth considering.

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