Written by Ismail Abdur-Rahman, CEO
Let's go on a throwback journey for just a minute. Remember when an MBA was something? Sure you do. It wasn't that long ago. The scenario was familiar: so-and-so went to college and studied business, worked for a couple of years, then went to business school and got an MBA, is now a c-suite executive at big company.
I'll admit, it's a familiar refrain that my father sang incessantly while I was growing up. For a while, I was sure that his sole vision of my life entailed me earning an MBA from Harvard or Wharton and becoming somebody that he could be proud of. Yes, I know I'm dating myself with the Wharton reference, but the reality of growing up in the hood was such that financial security (to say nothing of financial freedom) was the ever-elusive purple unicorn. There were only two semi-plausible routes: live long and lucky enough to avoid significant jail time and a violent death while building a street drug empire, or somehow go to college and get an MBA.
However, a funny thing happened between then and now: the market demand for qualified MBAs grew steadily before skyrocketing between the mid 90's and roughly 2010. The law of supply and demand was tainted by Murphy's Law, and the glut of MBA holders available on the market began to outstrip the demand. MBA programs have changed over the years, attempting to cater to the demands of a changing marketplace and develop alumni who would eventually become difference makers in the global economy. Recent reports put the number of annual MBA graduates in America somewhere north of 100,000, at an average cost of $90,000. As these numbers would suggest, MBA pay is stagnating, and there are relatively few MBA graduates who go on to start their own businesses.
So, why are people still studying in MBA programs?
I'd say there are likely many reasons, but propaganda is likely right there at the top of the list. Undoubtedly, there are many MBA students who have dreams of climbing the corporate ladder or joining McKinsey or Goldman Sachs and getting large checks and paying off their student loans in a hurry. Unfortunately, these opportunities are much harder to come by if your MBA is from Western Connecticut State University's Ancell School of Business as opposed to Harvard, Stanford, Dartmouth, or Duke. Going to a business school that isn't elite isn't likely to bring the ROI and career progression one would hope for, especially with European and Asian business schools ranking among the world's elite programs. There is no shortage of MBA talent available for recruiters to cherry pick, so do yourself a favor and make an informed decision.
Define Career Goals
Before following the herd and going off to business school, you should figure out your why. If you don't have a very good reason for taking on an additional massive debt, don't. Do some research. Is it possible to reach these career goals without doing an MBA? Is there a combination of skills, experience, and short courses that could put you in position to reach the career progression you seek? MOOCs are widely available with lectures from top tier programs like MIT and Harvard. If it's possible to gain the knowledge you need for job performance for free, why saddle yourself with a debt that could take almost 10 years to repay?
Gain Experience First
There are lots of current and former MBA students who are disillusioned and disgruntled with the entire MBA institution because it's not what it was cracked up to be. Unfortunately, fresh graduates who jump right into an MBA program can seldom articulate their career goals and honestly don't have a vision for 10 years down the line. Taking a few years to gain real life experience will be great exposure to the realities of corporate life. This is a good way to better understand which skills are demanded in the marketplace and whether an MBA is likely to smooth the way. In fact, I know of quite a few people who, after gaining a few years of real world work experience, have decided against getting an MBA, focusing instead on leadership skills development and technical skills proficiency.
Find Your Niche
Business is a wide-cast net that encompasses so many aspects that no reasonable person could expect to grasp them all in a one- or two-year MBA program. An honest MBA holder will tell you that while having the MBA might have opened some doors of opportunity, learning continues until career-end. Having said that, today's MBA is a generalist degree, and it's not good risk management to get a generalist degree from an average (or worse) business school. You know that saying about being a Jack-of-all-trades, right? Finding a niche to specialize in - especially one that has an industry-recognized qualification behind it - is more prudent for hedging against an economic downturn or rapidly changing market demand. Project management, data analytics, quality management, and supply chain management, and finance are a few of the areas of specialization that are still heavily in demand and are supported by industry qualifications.
With the ever-changing market demands in business, being too locked into a specific discipline could spell career suicide. People who don't possess transferable skills and who are also weak in the soft skills area are going to struggle to remain employed. The constant shifts in market needs in response to changing socio-political and economic factors mean that employees are interchangeable commodities that can be replaced for lower cost or more efficient pieces at any time. In short, in business, you must adapt or die.
Be an Entrepreneur
I hear you snickering over there. C'mon. You didn't really think I was going to give career advice about business and leave out entrepreneurship, did you? OK, I'll spare you the minutiae, but suffice it to say that if you are not attending an elite MBA program, you are better off trying to start a business, as opposed to trying to work in someone else's company. Sadly, most of today's MBA programs simply train you to be a corporate employee, not an entrepreneur. However, entrepreneurship is gaining steam at top business schools, and since business schools are essentially businesses, there are a number of good schools you might want to check out if you are willing to pay the price tag. There's also another business school that seems to have a nice program for entrepreneurship, as it focuses on the practical application of business principles. Check out Acton School of Business in Texas.
At the end of the day, when plotting your career path, be sure to make an informed decision. Due diligence now could prevent you from finding yourself in this position later: