One of the most common questions I receive via email from my readership is whether they should go back to school and get another degree. The answer to such a question is very situational dependent. That being said today’s post will take you through how I decided to go back for my MBA years ago. A lot of the same questions I asked myself should help in your decision making process.
Setting the Stage for Educational My Decision
Before we get started allow me to set the stage. It is 2005. I am one year into my first job as a software engineer at my first company. I had a Bachelors in Computer Science and was working at non Computer related company. I.E. IT was not the companies core competency. Not only was it not their core competency, but around the same time I started my degree the company outsourced their entire IT department. Thankfully at the time I landed on my feet outside IT at the same company.
What is your Career Goal?
Which brings us to the first major question when deciding to go back to school, what is your career goal. I can’t undersell this one. I see it a lot with people I know, they get a degree. Shortly after they are trying to figure out what to do with it. That’s a path to nowhere. For example I know people who pursued Doctorate Engineering degrees and ultimately either never used them or quit before finishing. Why? Because they realized a doctorate engineering degree is really a path to research or academia. If you don’t want one of them then you don’t need the degree.
By the time of my move out of IT I knew Software Engineering was a dead end street. Continuing on that path unless I moved to a computer company would end in joblessness or low pay. At the time I had no intention of moving to Silicon Valley as I already understood programing was not my unique offering. Internal Software Development in large enterprises was being outsourced left and right. Instead I realized leveraging my technical skills on the business side made me stand out. You can’t outsource those that define the business requirements for those offshore. But how to develop that skill?
Will getting an MBA help you attain your goal?
The second question when deciding to go back to school is, will it help you attain your goal in my last paragraph? If you get an advanced degree in underwater basket weaving it won’t help you become the boss. How does that advanced degree advance you towards your career plans. Observe how the degree fits into the job you want 10 years down the line, is it a requirement? In my case an MBA helped me towards my goals, with some qualifications. I didn’t have any education or background outside computers except a Minor in Economics. Furthermore, many of the jobs which I was interested at the time, primarily process analyst and project management jobs, required an MBA just to get an interview. So all signs pointed to obtaining an MBA being a good idea. Obviously the same logic will help you choose which advanced degree to pursue.
MBA and Experience not Or Experience
So as I made process towards my career goals I took a job in sales analysis, which worked towards the non IT work background. The MBA was the icing on the cake that combined could potentially open doors. I do not believe my MBA would have been as effective without the work experience. Which leads us to a bit of a tip. Don’t assume just getting an advanced degree will open doors. Anyone can pay someone to get an advanced degree. For the degree to be truly helpful you need both the degree and the experience. One without the other probably won’t be that helpful as anyone can do that.
Part Time or Full Time MBA
Which really answers the next question, whether you should go part time of full time. If you have no experience you should be going part time as the full time is likely not going to open doors for you. There is a slim shot it might if you go to a top 5 school and do something like become a consultant, but anywhere else you are better off marrying the experience with the degree. Education gives you a leg up on your competition, but multiple years less experience demotes you. Shoot for both in my honest opinion.
Part Time Employer Paid
Another benefit of going part time is often you can convince an employer to chip in. My employer paid for my MBA. Now, some company’s education assistance comes with strings where you have to stay a few years. It’s still probably worth it if the above is all true and they pay. If you got a better offer or things went south the higher pay due to the degree later would probably still make up for the cost. Employer payment lowers the risk. That being said I do not believe employer payment should be the deciding factor on whether you pursue an advanced degree. After all your time also has value.
Don’t be Afraid to Ask your Employer to Pay for an MBA
A note, my employer had a fairly well defined tuition reimbursement program, so my path was clear. My wife meanwhile had her employer pay part way towards a Masters in Electrical Engineering. She never completed it, a story for another day. The important part is her employer did not have a well defined tuition reimbursement program. However, she asked and ultimately they still paid for some of it. It never hurts to ask for an employer to help cover an advanced degree.
Where should you get your MBA?
So the final question of course is where to get your advanced degree? We all dream of a top 5 school, but let’s be honest, for most of us it is not going to happen. Not the least of which is cost. An MBA from Wharton has a tuition of $109K. Also the whole point of a top school is to establish connections, so honestly a part time deal doesn’t work so well for one of these. However $109K in debt and a few more years out of the work force is a big price to pay. That’s not for everyone. I’d still have to think long and hard about it had I applied and been accepted. I did not apply for a top tier MBA school because I was still paying for my undergrad degree.
Online Versus Brick and Mortar MBA
You also should not apply for a non accredited or solely online schools. Quite frankly if it looks like you got your MBA from Tissue Paper Degree U in the twenty minutes of your lunch break people won’t take your degree seriously.
It’s fine to do your degree classes online, as many of my MBA classes were. The convenience of taking an MBA class in the comfort of your home after a long day at work can’t be under sold. Just don’t go to a school that is stigmatized as being online only and no one will know the difference. I would not recommend doing all your classes online since part of the advanced degree experience is networking. You miss out on that networking if you do everything online. Obviously your goal would influence how important that networking is to your future career.
The Middle of the Pack MBA Offers a Good Mix
For the level of school I recommend choosing a mid tier school. They tend to be way cheaper. I obtained my MBA from the University of Delaware. Their program was frankly middle ranked. Not unrespected, but this was not Harvard. It was enough to check the box of an MBA required which is what I needed along with work experience. Also in the area I live in they are respected beyond their rank as one of the local schools, another added bonus to look out for when choosing a school. My school costs were 0 after work reimbursement, the University charged roughly the same amount per year as what my work reimbursed. The amount of cost versus reimbursement is of course another consideration.
The Ramifications of My MBA
As I write this I’ve had my MBA for 11 years. These days it’s a footnote in my resume and I’d be surprised if anyone even notices the school next to the degree. That further illustrates my point about the school not mattering so much. But what about the impact of it on my career? Well, If you’ve been reading this blog long enough you might notice a similarity between this number and ones I’ve used in other posts.
That’s right, 11 years also happens to be how long I’ve been at my current employer. My first job here required an MBA. It got my foot in the door. Here we are 11 years and 6 jobs later my work experience has built on that to triple my salary. In my case the MBA notched a requirement. It didn’t necessarily teach me anything particularly eye opening I use at work. It didn’t open the flood gates of networking. Little of where I am today versus five years ago has anything to do with my advanced degree. But it got my foot in the door along with my existing experience, which was it’s purpose. In that respect it was worth every hour I spent on it (and every penny my employer reimbursed me for).
Your Mileage May Vary
Now all of the above are just rules of thumb of course. Perhaps you want to be an investment banker on wall street and you get into Wharton. Frankly the odds are higher of you getting that dream job going to Wharton for your MBA then University of Delaware.
I prefaced my comment up front about these questions being specific to an individuals situation. But… I’ve also observed over the years that my situation tends to be more the norm. IE. Someone who wants to better their existing career with a degree. In that case most of what I’ve recommended above would apply, regardless of degree. Identify your career goals, ensure the degree will help you towards that goal, find an inexpensive but accredited/respected local school, go part time, and try to get your employer to chip in.
Do you have an MBA or other advanced degree? What criteria did you use to decide on attending?
I gave up two years and got my MBA. I borrowed $160,000 for it too. At the time, it felt pretty nuts to be that levered…but it got me a good job and I was able to pay off the entire amount in a little over two years. The answer to this question is “it depends” … there really are a lot of variables to factor in.
160k, ouch! What did you end up doing with it to deliver a positive ROI?