The lockdowns and shutdowns, the economic disruption and unemployment unleashed by the COVID-19 pandemic have left many of us deeply unsettled. Even those with jobs are worried. Employees aren’t the only ones. As corporations cope with the “new normal” while preparing for the future, many seem unsure about exactly what that will look like.
Many believe they need talented performers with “future-ready skills” –– including empathy, team management, and the ability to influence diverse stakeholders. That’s why earning a Masters in Business Administration (MBA) can seem like the best way to hedge your bets while waiting out the current uncertainty. But is that really the ideal approach? Is an MBA worth it?
Return on Investment
MBA programs are focused on teaching leadership skills and business principles while introducing students to a professional network that can influence their entire career. If you’re considering an expensive, advanced business education you need to get comfy with ROI. Before you examine a company’s accounting, take a close look at your own. Earning an MBA means devoting dozens of hours to case studies along with mastering a core curriculum in subjects like accounting, marketing, and finance. Is an MBA worth it?
It depends of course on how much the degree costs, how much you expect to get back in the form of increased income, and how quickly that will happen. Not only do more than half of all MBA students have loans but at many top schools graduates have six-figure debts. Searching for a job so you can service a massive student loan isn’t going to help your anxiety.
Of course there’s no “one size fits all” MBA program. There are a variety of options available from the standard two-year program to the shorter “Executive MBA” designed for working professionals. There are online courses and courses offered in foreign countries. There are specialized programs focused on luxury or hospitality.
Do they pay off? Well, Stanford has a return on investment exceeding one million dollars in increased salary over the first decade after graduation. Still when an article in the Harvard Business Review debating the value of an MBA devotes most of its space to the degree’s advantages, well it’s not a surprise is it? The thing to keep in mind is that high-performing students at top schools were usually high performers before they arrived. They’d likely achieve great things with or without the degree. People like to note that Mark Zuckerberg, like Bill Gates before him, dropped out of Harvard. But he got into Harvard. Before matriculating he had graduated from Phillips Exeter Academy and earned a perfect SAT score. If you think attending an off-brand MBA program will produce similar results, well you may be disappointed. Unless you are already a high performer.
Instead, sign up for a single course or series of courses that will hone the critical thinking and problem solving skills employers expect from MBA grads. Learn leadership by taking on more responsibility and managing a team at work. Real-world experience stands out on a resume. So if an online ad says an MBA is preferred, apply to the job anyway. Your interview skills and fit within the company culture matter more than a piece of paper. Instead of spending all that time applying to a program, put your energy toward polishing your resume.
One way people answer the question is an MBA worth it, is by mentioning the networking opportunities. The founder of coupon website PromotionCode.org, Mike Catania entered the executive MBA program at the University of California—Los Angeles Anderson School of Management because it gave him “access to brilliant classmates and faculty that I would never have encountered on my own. It’s difficult to ascribe a value to that, but I look at it as only temporarily intangible – the relationships forged over the next few years will positively affect my opportunities as an entrepreneur moving forward.”
He might be right. He might not be. The past decade has seen an explosion in networking opportunities, from online platforms to conferences and scheduled events. If your goal is to meet star performers who could change your life, you don’t need a six-figure program. If you’re struggling with networking, it’s possible an MBA program will shock you doing better at expanding your contacts. It’s just as likely that you’ll be stuck in a corner, nursing a bottom-shelf Merlot wondering what you’re doing. Before you commit to an MBA program, commit to yourself. Start networking now.
This is my favorite. That’s because no matter how successful you become, you can’t escape opportunity cost. Taking a private jet to Paris means you can’t enjoy your yacht in the Bahamas. Staying home and watching Netflix with your cat means you’re missing the management seminar you planned to attend. Earning an MBA means working very hard –– often while you still have a job and family commitments. The one or two years you devote to getting the degree is time you can’t get back. It’s time that could have been devoted to starting your own business or moving up the ladder at work.
So don’t pursue the degree if it’s an escape from your problems. Don’t do it because your parents are paying for it or a college chum is getting one. Do it because you believe it is the next, best move for you. Do it with your heart and head in the right place.
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