I received a message this week from a millennial via LinkedIn on a subject that’s near and dear to me. He wanted my advice about a particular MBA program where I’d been a professor, Wake Forest University, and also suggestions on how to improve his chances for admission. After we spent about 45 minutes on the phone talking, I recommended that he indeed apply to Wake Forest as it would be a good fit for him and his career plans.
As my wife Karen and I have often been asked for our advice about whether and how to apply to MBA programs as well as other graduate and professional school programs, I thought it’s time to start putting our thoughts in print. Spending considerable time evaluating whether to pursue an advanced degree is critical because of the costs, both a) direct and b) opportunity (e.g., forgone income and opportunity to develop oneself in other ways), the significant risks (e.g., making the wrong decision as to which school to attend, or when to do so), and the potential rewards (e.g., additional earning potential, personal development, networking benefits).
Although there are a great many questions one should ask when evaluating whether to pursue an MBA (or other graduate/professional school), four basic questions everyone should ask are:
Why do I want to do this?
When is the right time to pursue such a degree?
Who can I ask for advice about this, and what do they say?
Where is the best place I can obtain the degree, and how do I determine this?
To help answer these questions, I emailed 100 individuals in my LinkedIn network with MBAs. The vast majority of those I surveyed were former MBA students of mine, but there also a few college classmates and friends. These people have attended several of the top business schools in the U.S.
In this article, I’m going to share some of their answers to the first two questions. In a subsequent article, I’ll address the last two questions.
Why should you pursue an MBA degree? Karen chose to earn an MBA, and I chose to earn a Ph.D. in business, both of us from the University of Michigan, for many reasons, including fostering our personal growth, developing exciting career opportunities, and increasing our earning capabilities. We even did it for the fun of it, because it’s fun for us to develop ourselves, meet new and interesting people, and be challenged by peers and experts. (That’s not the only way we have fun, but as professors, you had to expect us to really enjoy learning!)
Several people told us that they chose to earn an MBA to reinvent themselves, to move into a different industry or career. As Kevin Bocek told me, “I wanted to move from being a technologist in the field to building strategy at headquarters. I was also stuck in a foreign country with a work permit that made it tough to move to a new job without coming back to the U.S.” Another former student said, “I needed to bolster my financial confidence and balance my theological training with business training.”
Several others wrote that the MBA provided them with invaluable exposure to business concepts and development in functional areas such as finance, accounting, or marketing. Others pursued the MBA to offset relative youth or inexperience. As one of my former students wrote, “I had progressed quickly in my career, but was considered too young for certain positions/ opportunities in my organization. I felt like additional education would help me to overcome this issue.” Combining many of these reasons, one MBA graduate had this to say:
I considered the MBA as a "deep dive" opportunity to jumpstart some real world experience. I was young (22) when I started the MBA, and I saw it as a bridge from my liberal arts academic background toward something more practical. Ironically, I decided to pursue a more advanced degree afterwards, so the degree program provided some balance and different perspectives that subsequently proved valuable as an academic and as a boundary spanning professional.
Some even sought an MBA as a way to keep themselves busy! “It was recommended by the career coach the company hired, and my wife was going back to school so it gave me something to do while she was studying.”
Getting a graduate degree will not be a walk-in-the park, but you will develop your network, build new skills and you might even find a new direction and passion in life.
Aneil Mishra and Karen Mishra are business school professors and authors of Trust is Everything (2008) and Becoming a Trustworthy Leader (2012)