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Why Earn An MBA?

BusinesswomanStill sitting on the fence about whether you want to pursue that MBA degree? Not sure you want to spend the money, miss out on two years’ salary, or, more importantly, if a career in business meshes with your life plan? Well, get off the fence and start studying for that GMAT, because the fact is that there are very few investments in this world that pay off in more ways than an MBA.

Change and the MBA Changes With You

First, consider this: in the near future, there will be very few careers or career paths that we think of as “traditional” by today’s standards due to changing demographic and economic trends and technological advances. Considering that many such pathways have been ill suited to the general cycles of women’s lives, this is good news for us. In fact, these changes are all moving in a favorable direction for many professional women—particularly those who seek greater work/life balance and those planning to shrink and expand their work responsibilities as family demands peek and ebb.

A recent RAND Corporation analysis illuminates many of these trends that will affect how and where we work in the coming decades. In a report, titled The 21st Century at Work: Forces Shaping the Future Workforce and Workplace in the United States, RAND researchers say, “A variety of forces appear to be shifting the workforce away from more permanent or lifetime jobs toward less permanent, even non-standard employment relationships. Thus, the labor market will require a workforce adaptable throughout the life course to changing technology and product demand.”

RAND experts go on to suggest, “These issues are relevant from the perspective of current and future workers who wish to anticipate future trends and how they might respond in terms of investments in their human capital and other decisions throughout their working lives.” It turns out that the MBA degree is precisely the kind of education that will allow women to take advantage of the many forecasted changes in the workplace, given that the skills obtained are applicable to many different areas.

As traditional corporate ladders disappear, new possibilities for advancement will emerge, allowing women to tread less traveled paths to the top, or wherever they want to go. “The MBA confers an experience set and a credential that gives women a lot of power to manage their careers, even if they find themselves taking a break,” says Sherry Wallace, admissions director for the University of North Carolina’s Kenan-Flagler Business School. “It’s no secret that for many women, having children often leads to a sabbatical or a career redefinition,” she adds. “With an MBA—the knowledge, the network, the exposure—they are oftentimes able to craft very successful and compelling career options that may look very different from what they were doing before.”

Wallace is quick to point out that the MBA provides more than a credential—it’s not just a box to check. “When you have an MBA, people know you already have a minimum skill set. Above that, they know that you are probably someone who’s not afraid to lead or change.” She adds, importantly, “If you have an MBA you’ll do very well in an environment where things are going to be less defined, and you’ll have a better ability to sell yourself to an employer. There aren’t many things you won’t be prepared to address, and this will give you a lot of confidence.”

The After-Sales Service is Second to None

The MBA not only provides the tool kit for women to be able to readjust and adapt to a changing workplace, it also provides a life-long link to a rich career resource—the MBA program. This will become increasingly important because the very trends that will help women find a better balance between work and life will also operate to make jobs less stable.

Companies are already investing a lot less than they used to in their employees’ careers. “In the old days you owned your job,” says Dina Dommett, assistant dean of MBA admissions at NYU-Stern. “But now the company owns the job, or the job goes away in a certain time frame. You have to keep up with your own career, you have to be responsible for it and accountable for it, because no one else will be.” No one else but your alma mater, that is: top MBA programs are providing increasing levels of support for their alumni.

“Many schools are going way beyond traditional student-level career services,” points out Dommett. “Because companies no longer offer the professional development perks they once did, the need is being met by schools of business. You can see it happening in the career resources available to alumni, in the network, in the support groups.” Thus, obtaining the MBA degree becomes just the first encounter in a lifetime of career partnership.

It Puts a Hard Charge in Your Soft Skills

Another trend identified by the RAND study that bodes well for the enduring value of the MBA degree is an “increasing demand for the analytical, problem-solving, and communication skills of workers, managers, and other professionals.” It goes without saying that the MBA develops cognitive abilities in analysis and problem solving, but developing professional skills in negotiation, collaboration, and communication, while always a component of the degree, has become increasingly integral to the MBA experience.

Many business schools have designed unique programs—like the McCombs School of Business Texas MBA+ Leadership Program — that provide intensive training in these necessary soft skills. Very few other educational programs even recognize the importance of, let alone have the ability to develop and hone, such skills.

You Can Take it Anywhere

Even now, not everyone who gets the MBA degree finds herself following a typical career path. In fact, many degree earners already use the MBA to reach very different professional destinations. An MBA is very functional,” notes Tina Mabley, director of admissions for the McCombs MBA program at the University of Texas at Austin. “Its components, such as strategic thinking, project management, negotiations, financial responsibility, and management, can be applied to a myriad of careers.” That’s why it’s hailed as one of the most flexible degrees a person can obtain, and that’s why it’s always been a perfect option for women seeking career elasticity, inroads to the management tracks of nontraditional fields, or a launch pad to self-employment.

While business schools often don’t keep statistics on how many women are taking the degree and running off with it to new and exciting places, there are some data out there that can provide a peek. For one, the Center for Women’s Business Research indicates that women-owned businesses grew 28% in the seven years leading up to 2004 and that nearly 50% of all privately held companies are owned by women. Certainly not all of those women starting their own businesses have the MBA degree, but untold numbers of them do, and it undoubtedly provides for a much more solid base to launch an enterprise.

Anecdotally, Forté schools can provide lots of examples of women from diverse fields who obtained an MBA in order to advance within the field they’re passionate about—be it the arts, non-profit management, publishing, sports, fashion, or whatever. For instance, the fall/winter 2004 issue of Innovation Review, from the NYU Berkley Center for Entrepreneurial Studies, profiles a few of these women, all graduates of NYU Stern, and all who used the MBA as a springboard for their own businesses.

Julie Chaiken, a 1993 NYU Stern graduate, founded Chaiken Clothing after graduating. “Designing clothes is the sexy part,” she says. “But at the end of the day, it is still a business like any other, and I need to speak the same language as the banker, accountant, and marketing people in order to create forward momentum.” Liz Elting, a 1992 NYU Stern graduate recognizes that business school was her key to successfully launching her language services business, Transperfect Translations. “Upon starting my first company, having the credential of an MBA from Stern opened the door to a lot of opportunities that an early-stage entrepreneur would not typically have.”

It Helps You Do Good

More news of meaningful opportunities for those holding MBA degrees comes from a 2004 Blackbaud survey of the nonprofit industry, which finds that their top challenges include securing funding, ensuring growth, and driving board effectiveness—all areas in which MBA degree-holders can have tremendous impact.

In its survey of more than 1,300 nonprofit professionals, Blackbaud found that “Although some nonprofits are leading the way in establishing best practices…others don’t know where to begin or where they stand when compared to other organizations.” The four areas deemed vital to successful management of a nonprofit—human resources, funding, strategy, and technology—all fall within the domain of an MBA.

Wallace believes there are very few things one could aspire to do that don’t have some application to business. “When you think about it,” she says, “What isn’t business? Regardless of what you’re doing—even teaching or social services—it needs to be fiscally sound and well run or it won’t be effective.” She adds, “The training and exposure you get in an MBA program won’t be wasted in many careers.

“If your goal is that you’re always going to be an entry-level person, then no, you don’t need the managerial training,” admits Wallace. “But if you are like most people and you want to make a bigger difference to organizations that you care about, you are going to have to learn how to run a business, how to secure funding, how to motivate people, how to get people to share your vision.”

And whether you intend to embark on a corporate career, join a start-up, bring a strategic perspective to a nonprofit, or found your own company, MBA school is the place where everything gets put in perspective. “All the recent scandals have shaken peoples’ confidence in senior management,” says NYU’s Dommett. “People now look much more shrewdly at new ventures, and at the culture and values of a company they intend to work for.”

Dommett says she didn’t see students having that kind of interest 10 years ago. “Nowadays, students look to business school to explore the meaning of ethics, they look more carefully at how they define success—it’s the forum where that introspection and discussion takes place.”

Especially for those who earned undergraduate degrees in different fields, the MBA is an eye-opening experience. “The MBA is a window on the world,” insists Dommett. “Particularly for those with a liberal arts or public sector background, they can use it to get the context they lack.”

It Travels Well

Finally, the MBA degree provides for tremendous worldwide mobility. “Workers who increasingly interact in a global marketplace and participate in global work teams will require the skills needed to collaborate and interact in diverse cultural and linguistic settings,” say RAND researchers. And once again, the degree that does all that—builds teamworking competencies, introduces a global perspective, and provides diverse opportunities for travel abroad—is the MBA.

Dommett, who formerly worked for the London Business School, also points out that under existing visa programs, potential workers trying to immigrate will get more points for having an MBA degree than for having a lot of money. And the degree is a particularly powerful tool for women: in those cultures where women are still not respected as businesspeople, the MBA immediately confers esteem. “It’s a universal sign of achievement,” Dommett says, “And absolutely necessary if you plan on making global inroads.”

It’s a fairly myopic perspective to think only about the immediate costs of the MBA—the often-hefty price tag and forgone wages—believes McCombs’ Mabley. “An MBA is an investment that is made for long term value both professionally and personally,” she says. “And the return on that investment is priceless.”

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