How an MBA can help you get an edge in your career

Are you a technical geek looking to move into management? Or a new manager who wants to be more effective and move up the ladder? Would you like to transfer your industrial management experience into health care, or start your own business?

You could help your career by earning an MBA. A master’s of business administration differs from other graduate business degrees in that it is multidisciplinary.

You can expect to learn hard business skills, “like the fundamentals of finance and how it ties a business together,” said Peter von Loesecke, CEO and managing director of The MBA Tour, an independent organization that hosts  events around the world.

You’ll also learn about business strategy, ethics, the importance of developing human talent, sustainability and other important concepts that help organizations succeed.

MBA students  gain this knowledge through case studies, group projects, networking or real-world experiences in  corporations. These experiences help broaden their viewpoints and change their thinking.

“An MBA will teach you to think holistically when solving problems,” von Loesecke said. “In today’s business world, you have to learn how to look at the influences, work in groups under pressure, make decisions — even when the facts aren’t clear — and be flexible enough to change those decisions when needed.”

“The degree is designed to help you think more as a manager should — critically, strategically and globally,” said Scott Shrum, vice president of marketing and director of MBA admissions at Veritas Prep, a test preparation and graduate school admissions consulting firm. “But one of the best reasons to get an MBA is the exposure you will gain to people from all different backgrounds and walks of life. Your network will grow and you’ll learn a lot. That exposure has lasting business value.”

Changing business climate

Traditionally, an MBA has boosted careers with more job opportunities, faster promotions and higher earnings. But if you’re expecting it to usher you into an elite club, a corner office and a huge jump in salary in 2013 — you may be in for a disappointment.

We’re in a different world and a different economy. Lehman Brothers, once one of the biggest hirers of new MBA graduates, no longer exists. Jobs are less plentiful all around, and the most glamorous employment offers often  go to graduates from the nation’s top-ranked schools.

“Before 2001, companies would hire new MBA grads even without a defined slot for them. They’re more judicious about hiring now, and 'employability,’ [read work experience] plays a large part in getting into schools and getting hired afterward,” von Loesecke said.

While many positions require or prefer an MBA, employers have a wider field for selection. Schools in the United States granted 126,214 MBAs in 2010-11,  a 74 percent increase over 2000-01, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

“We’ve been seeing a trend of education inflation for some time,” Shrum said. “Two generations ago, a college degree was impressive. A generation ago, a graduate degree was impressive. Now everyone has a bachelor’s degree and many people have graduate degrees.”

New MBA grads got fewer offers and flatter salaries during the recession. So does the degree still hold value?

“Yes, it’s still a good career investment if you choose the right program, for the right reasons and have realistic expectations,” Shrum said.

He advises MBA candidates to get some work experience first.

“Future employers want to know what you have done and accomplished,” he said. “They’re looking for talent and results. If you go straight to grad school from college, you’ll lack real-world experience, yet still expect a higher MBA salary when you get out. That’s a mismatch in today’s job market.”

Do your homework

Research programs thoroughly. The decision to seek an MBA should begin with an inner focus.

“Ask yourself what you want to do in your career and your life. Assess what you know from your past experience and what you need to learn to move up or change careers. An MBA could help you fill that knowledge gap,” Shrum said.

But not every MBA. The degree now comes in many flavors to fit the needs of a complex global economy. There are degrees that focus on international business, finance, health care, sustainability or e-commerce.

“Every school has its strengths and weaknesses. You want to choose one that syncs with your needs and goals to get the best return on your investment,” von Loesecke said.

Do you need management fundamentals, access to a more global network, or the specialized knowledge that a dual MBA/MHA (master's in health administration) can give you?
A good way to judge the best fit is to ask about the outcomes of recent graduates.

“Applicants should always ask where alumni go to work and what companies and industries interview on campus. It’s much easier to have prospective employers come to you. Pounding the pavement on your own is a lot rougher,” Shrum said.

Look at all your options. “An MBA isn’t for everyone,” von Loesecke said.

Professional continuing education might help you gain leadership skills. A master’s in human resources might be a better fit for your career.

As with any career decision, you have to weigh the benefits with the costs, von Loesecke said. “But for the right individual and right reasons, an MBA can be a good investment.”