For many purposes, an M.B.A. is the fastest road between where you are now and where you want to go. Examine your goals -- and the suitability of an M.B.A. to attain them -- with as much critical detachment as you can.
Career Advancement or Career Change
You may want to gain a position of greater responsibility in your current field. Or you may want to switch from one area of business to another -- from marketing or sales to strategic planning or finance, for example.
You could be looking to change your career path altogether. Using an M.B.A. to switch career focus is a typical strategy. Many people seek a management position after acquiring expertise in a different field altogether -- such as nursing, teaching, performing arts, or engineering -- because they want to shift to a management position in their area. An M.B.A. can help you make a major break or leap in your career path -- with a concomitant leap in income.
You may aspire to an area that "requires" an M.B.A. as an entrée. An M.B.A. signals a prospective employer that you've got the knowledge and skills a demanding job requires, as well as persistence, energy, and even time-management skills to handle it.
Specific Management Training
Obtaining specific management training and expertise is another common reason for pursuing an M.B.A. Although the M.B.A. is a general management degree, most programs provide opportunities to study one or more areas in greater depth. Investment bankers typically concentrate on finance in their M.B.A.s, for instance. But if you have a very singular focus on a particular field, you may want to consider some alternatives such as a specialized master's program, course work as a nondegree student, or nonuniversity-based courses, seminars, and workshops.
If you need to learn something about a few specific topics, consider an executive education program. Typically conducted as workshops or seminars lasting from a few hours to several days, an executive education program may provide the training you need.
M.B.A.s generally have higher average salaries than workers with similar work experience who hold only a bachelor's degree. But the road to this higher salary has a cost. While you're working on your degree, you may need to leave your job, so say goodbye to your full-time paycheck for a couple of years! With the hefty amount of time you'll have to devote to classes, studying, and related activities, you won't have much time or energy left over for personal, family, or leisure activities.
Your M.B.A. is an investment in yourself, and as with any investment, you need to decide whether the potential return is worth the time and money spent. The M.B.A. degree does not guarantee a fabulous job at a fabulous salary. When you look at placement and salary reports from schools or in the media remember that half of the salaries fall below the average, and that salaries are influenced by local conditions.
Salaries tend to be higher in areas with high living costs and lower where it's cheaper to live. An M.B.A. grad's salary is also influenced by his or her salary profile prior to entering the program. Obviously, someone who earned $70,000 a year before pursuing an M.B.A. -- and had the kind of work experience to command this income -- is more likely to be offered $120,000 a year after graduating than someone who was earning $25,000 a year at the same point.
Look at the financial costs and benefits realistically. But your decision to get an M.B.A. may not depend on the bottom line. There are returns beyond financial ones. The degree may give you greater job mobility, access to positions that offer greatly enhanced job satisfaction, or other nonfinancial advantages.