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May 26, 2015

Is an MBA still worth it?

Arguments for and against business school

By Brian Kreissl

It used to be that a master of business administration (MBA) degree was the ticket to a high-paying job in the corporate sector. MBAs could generally command six figure salaries just a few years out of business school — or sometimes even immediately upon graduation.

‎Having an MBA was viewed as one of the best ways to get on the fast track to an executive position — or to change industries or job functions. The MBA was also viewed as a de facto job requirement in certain fields like investment banking or management consulting.

‎However, there are signs the MBA may be losing its lustre to some extent, and many people are beginning to wonder whether going to business school is even worth the time, money and effort. While post-secondary education in general is increasing in price, tuition fees for MBA programs in particular are skyrocketing.

While I don’t personally have an MBA, I am at least considering one in the future as a way to further my own career. But given all of the negativity surrounding the MBA these days — and the sticker shock associated with such programs — I am also considering other options.

Because I have personally wrestled with the pros and cons of an MBA program, I am simply going to present the arguments for and against obtaining an MBA and allow readers to decide for themselves (although I don’t necessarily agree with all of the arguments presented below).

I have also included a brief discussion of how this debate impacts the human resources function and individual HR practitioners.

Arguments for an MBA

  • It is a great way to learn about business fundamentals and how to think about business strategically.
  • An MBA is still very much considered table stakes for certain jobs, functions and industry sectors.
  • ‎Completing it signals your ambition to potential employers and clients.
  • An MBA is a great way to complement practical business experience.
  • The best programs move beyond teaching quantitative and technical skills and include training related to leadership and interpersonal skills.
  • Going to business school is a great way to build your network of contacts.
  • An MBA helps liberal arts and technology graduates acquire business knowledge and expertise.
  • It helps specialists in specific functional areas of business acquire broad generalist business knowledge.

Arguments against an MBA

  • ‎It won't really teach you how to manage people and won’t necessarily teach you how to run your own business.
  • An MBA may not provide the career boost you thought – especially not these days.
  • T‎oo many people pursue an MBA these days, with the result that the impact of the degree is watered down.
  • MBAs are extremely expensive and aren’t always a good return on investment.
  • There are other ways to acquire business knowledge and obtain contacts that are faster and cheaper.
  • Some studies show that successful people with an MBA may have been just as successful without one.
  • If you have already achieved a certain amount of financial success in your career, an MBA might not provide that much of a “bump” in salary. Similarly, it might not be worth pursuing it after a certain age.
  • Starting your own business may provide a better business education than pursuing an MBA.
  • If you can't get into a top MBA program, study part-time while working full-time or have your employer pick up the tab, it might not be worth it.
  • An undergraduate business degree is broader in scope than an MBA. Business graduates may therefore be better off pursuing a more focused master’s degree after their BComm or BBA degree.
  • An MBA may make you overqualified for certain jobs while still leaving you underqualified for others.

Implications for HR

Understanding MBA programs, their content, structure and purpose is very important to HR practitioners in relation to recruitment and selection, training and development, job design, leadership development and succession planning. It helps to understand what the typical MBA program can and cannot teach in acquiring the right types of skills and competencies and addressing senior employees’ development needs – either through an MBA or in addition to one.

As I mentioned before, HR practitioners should also consider whether an MBA would boost their careers personally. But that depends on the individual practitioner’s experience, ambitions and prior academic background.

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