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April 30, 2013

Do You Really Need an MBA?

In this post, I offer some advice for those considering applying to MBA programs. In the second post in this series, I discuss the different types of MBA programs.

I am not in the business of telling anyone that they need an MBA, only in helping committed applicants get into MBA programs. Frankly, I think one of my strengths as an MBA admissions consultant is that I am neutral about this question. I don’t believe that an MBA or any particular graduate degree is always worthwhile or even necessarily the best option for everyone looking to make a positive change in their careers and/or life in general. 

If someone says to me, “Should I get an MBA?” my response usually goes like this: “I can’t answer that question for you, but here are some questions you need to ask yourself.”

If you obtained an MBA, how would it impact you both personally and professionally? This is a rather general question, but one you can expect to need to answer in your application essays and interviews, so even if you are certain you want an MBA, you need to answer this question.  If you can't explain what the impact of an MBA would be on your career, you clearly need to learn more about programs and the typical outcomes that can be expected from attending them. You then need to relate those outcomes to your own situation.  On a personal level, do you hope that attending an MBA will have a positive impact on things like your sense of self-confidence, your range of life opportunities, worldview, and personal network?

Why do your professional goals require an MBA? Not all careers benefit from an MBA. If you have clear professional goals, an MBA may be an almost absolute necessity or relatively useless. Talking with senior people in your field, headhunters in your industry, and even looking at job postings can help you better understand the value of an MBA. If you are fundamentally uncertain about what you want to do, you might want to consider talking with a career counselor or even a life coach.

Do you really want to spend one to two years back in school for a full-time MBA? If your answer is that you don't, an MBA might still be a good choice for you, just not a full-time residential program.  I  will discuss other forms of MBA delivery in my next post.

How will you pay for an MBA? The costs involved in doing an MBA can be huge, so the financing of a degree is something that you need to look into.  Consider how much savings you have, other potential sources of support (Your employer, your family), and scholarships.  After looking into the cost of programs, put together an actual plan for how you would pay for an MBA. If you can't imagine paying for an MBA, you should talk with admissions offices to determine whether an MBA is really out of reach for your or not.   It is easy for anyone to say that you should not let financial considerations undermine your opportunities, but in some cases an MBA is really not a viable option because of the costs involved.  In such situations, you need to find alternatives (I’ll discuss such alternatives in my next post).

Have you calculated the ROI?  Calculating the expected Return On Investment is one very economically rational way to determine whether you need an MBA.  Calculating the expected Return On Investment is one very economically rational way to determine whether you need an MBA.   Forbes has an MBA calculator on its site, which will help you for calculating ROI for US fulltime MBA programs: http://www.forbes.com/static_html/bschool/bschool_calc.shtml.  Another calculator, which can be used for measuring the ROI can be found at http://www.mba360.com/mba-salary.html.  A 2011 article in Poets & Quants looked closely at ROI, see http://poetsandquants.com/2011/01/07/is-an-elite-mba-degree-worth-the-cost/.  ROI is just one way of measuring whe ther an MBA is worth doing and it can be misleading. For example, it can't take career and/or geographic change into consideration. Also consider that the higher your present salary, the lower your ROI will appear if the calculation is based on average post-MBA salary at the school you are considering applying to.   Finally, be highly suspicious about reported post-MBA salary numbers, especially if they are based on student self-reported data or come from programs where pre-MBA salary is relatively low.  Finally, with any investment past average performance is merely that, what happens with the average candidate and based on what happened in the past.

Have you really thought about the opportunity cost involved, not only in money, but in time? The opportunity cost of an MBA is not just in money, but in time.  The application process itself can be very time-consuming. I know some applicants who struggle with test preparation for up to two years before they are even ready to apply, but I also know applicants who sit for the GMAT once and find the whole thing rather easy.  The same applies to making applications.  I work with many clients who only apply to 1-2 schools, many who apply to 3-6 schools, and some who apply to 8-12 schools.  The time involved in the application process is thus highly variable.  Then consider the time you will be doing the MBA as well. Is doing an MBA the best use of your time?

Are you ready to commit yourself to the application process? The MBA application process can be particularly grueling if you are applying to programs that even moderately difficult to enter. You should expect to use a great deal of your time outside of work for doing applications.  Many applicants find that they have to put some if not all of their hobbies and social life on hold while doing their applications. If you plan well and start early, this is likely to be a less of problem.

Are you sure this is the right degree for you?  For some people, it is obvious an MBA is the right degree, but for others not necessarily.  You might very well want to go back to school, but carefully what you want to study and what you want to do. In my next post I’ll discuss some graduate degree alternatives.

Have you thought about more specialized degrees or training?  Sometimes more specialized training, like CFA or CPA, simply makes more sense. Carefully consider whether professional certification will get you want.

How much do you know about MBA programs?
 Even if you are certain that you want an MBA, if you don't know much about programs, keep an open mind.  I would recommend that all applicants learn about programs by visiting schools, attending information sessions, reading websites/blogs, and talking with alumni and current students.  If you do a bit of investigation, you will be making a more informed choice. If you decide to apply, you need to take these investigatory steps anyway, so I highly recommend doing so as  early as possible in your admissions process.

You need to answer the questions above because doing so will help you assess whether you really need an MBA. Additionally, once you have answered them, you will have a good initial basis for handling MBA essays and interviews. If you are not satisfied with your own answers to these questions, you need to think more deeply and do more research. 

People who take the time to fully consider their options are more likely to make the right decision. If they decide to pursue an MBA, they do it from a position of strength, based on both knowledge of what an MBA can do for you and self-awareness that it is the right way for you to move forward.

In the next post in this series, I discuss the types of MBA programs because not everyone should or can attend a typical one to two year residential full-time MBA program.

-Adam Markus
I am a graduate admissions consultant who works with clients worldwide. If you would like to arrange an initial consultation, please complete my intake form. Please don't email me any essays, other admissions consultant's intake forms, your life story, or any long email asking for a written profile assessment. The only profiles I assess are those with people who I offer initial consultations to. Please note that initial consultations are not offered when I have reached full capacity or when I determine that I am not a good fit with an applicant.
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