Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Is now the best time to get an MBA? Yes, if you can get in.

There has been a significant uptick in the number of applications to business school over the past year. I'm sure Mommy, Esq. can quote similar statistics for law school. Over the past 20 years it has become a given that in bad economic times, people go back to school. Why? It's probably the best time to go back because career advancement and salary increases are less likely.

Adding to one's education and business credentials in a downturn can be a smart investment, particularly if the economy starts to right itself once you come out of the program. I've had the odd experience of being employed just before economic hardships. I came out of my post-graduate year at Carnegie Mellon in 2000 and immediately found a job, about 6 months before the Internet bubble burst. Similarly, I have come out of UVA's MBA program 12 months before the market tanked. I am hopeful that BigFinance will continue to do well and I won't have to worry about layoffs (at least at my level/division). I did survive 4 layoffs in SmallResearch, as did DH. DH is still there so we are both hoping his tenure of 7+ years will help him through any potential layoffs.

But while going back to school during bad times is a good idea, it's also an idea that thousands of other people have. On top of that, international recruitment for top MBA programs is way up. At Darden, more students are international than are women. So that means if you want to go to a top 30 school (and frankly it's not worth 100K in debt if you don't) you need to be assured that you are unique and offer something that the school can't turn down. Me? I had a couple of things: a liberal arts undergraduate major, 5 years work experience at the same company, being a women (yes, I'll use it to my advantage), significant career progression, and multiple activities. My test scores weren't that great.

I recommend an MBA program in particular if you are looking to switch careers. I didn't want to stay in Sales or Consulting and I wanted a bump in my salary. Going back to business school and having access to a great career center was a must. Working with a MBA career center is very different than an undergraduate one. CMU's was useless but UVA had more than a hundred big name companies solicit resumes and conduct interviews. That is why it is so critical to get into a top MBA program. A small college is not going to have the same exposure or resources. So why pay 40K a year in tuition? A couple of people have recently asked my advice about applying to business school. Here are few tips:

  1. You should have at least 4 years work experience with career progression. That means advancements or job changes. It is best if you can stick with one company but we are becoming a country of job hoppers so it's less of an issue.

  2. Take a GMAT course. I studies on my own but the money I spent on the Princeton Review was totally worth it. There were 5 people in my class so we got a lot of individual attention. It also forces you to study several hours a week. I'm sure Natalie and DH remember me spending hours at the kitchen table.

  3. Start volunteering. If you don't have activities you've been doing for a few years, it is never too late to start. But 6 months in a volunteer role won't impress. So if you have nothing but your job, consider waiting another year.

  4. Have a plan. Know what schools you are targeting and why. I applied to 6 schools (Harvard just for shits and giggles) and would have been happy at any of them. It is expensive and there is a lot of paperwork. Harvard was almost $400 when I applied 4 years ago! I decided to focus on schools with strong general management program (no specialization required) and utilization of the case study method.

  5. References are critical. I lined up my references 9 months before I started the application process. In order to make things easy for them I put together a packet of information on me. My resume (more detailed that you might use to apply for a position), list of all my activities and why I did them. Both were professional references so I also included several projects I worked on where I contributed significantly. I provided a detailed list of strengths and weaknesses. Why so much work? You must be consistent when you apply to a program. You will be asked to share your strengths and weaknesses and you want your answers to match theirs.

  6. Visit the school. Darden required me to visit for an interview and they probably did it because the campus is so beautiful. But a visit even when not required demonstrates a level of commitment.

  7. Be a minority. Sorry, guys, but it's going to only get harder for white men to get into school.

  8. Consider a part-time program. It can be more challenging to switch careers with a part-time program. Also, the career centers tend to not be as good as full time programs. But if your company will help defray costs and you don't mind it taking more than 3 years, it could be a good middle road.

Here's a couple of articles I've come across recently:
http://www.time.com/time/business/article/0,8599,1853093,00.html http://www.latimes.com/news/local/la-me-mba5-2008nov05,0,595378.story

Do others have advice about graduate programs?

1 comment:

Helen said...

Ahem, Helen also remembers the studying. And you have forgotten how my expertise at elementary math actually helped answer some of your more difficult problems!