Life sometimes surprises us in ways we don’t always expect. When I began my MBA education in 2012, I thought I was doing it to differentiate myself from other civil engineers so that I could show business proficiency and understanding on top of technical engineering and project management skills. The goal was to become a leader of an engineering company – not one in particular, and the position varied by the size. Today, I am still geared toward goals of organizational leadership, and the MBA changed my career for the better, while helping me find that the real estate industry was where I want to be.
I’ve been asked often about the value of an MBA, particularly by engineering students and alums of engineering programs. I always explain how it has to be a personal choice, but always explain what made my MBA experience valuable to my career to help provide the petitioner some context.
- I waited a few years after graduating. Had I gone to grad school of any kind straight from college, I would have gone for a technical engineering degree, despite my interest for the business world. I needed a few years to remove myself from homework and lectures and to just get experience and determine a direction. Had I entered a graduate engineering program right away, I may have never finished, or finished a degree unfulfilled and frustrated that I needed to make it work for me. Particularly beneficial for business school, I had at least four years of working in companies public and private, gigantic and small, to think about how real world businesses operated. This was valuable context to have as a background – without it, everything is just theory. Your work experience becomes case study for every case study you might undertake!
- I picked the format that was right for me. I was concerned about having the liquidity to pay the mortgage on my house if for some reason my renter didn’t or left, and I didn’t want to lose 2 years worth of engineering experience to go back to a similar role (that was before I realized what it was I truly wanted to do!) and simultaneously take on two years worth of tuition and living expenses debt, which would have been the case with a full time program. I seem to often impress people, and as a result get questions of why I didn’t go to Harvard Business School or MIT’s Sloan School of Management. All in one moment I am filled with regret and doubt that I could have gone to play at even bigger institutions, but I remind myself there was a lot more than prestige that went into my decision making. The part time, online program was the best thing for me at the time.
- I could afford to pay for it. My dad is a Boston College alum and last fall was my 31st season of BC football at 30 years old. When I had researched the program at the Carroll School of Management, I was enthused at the possibility of becoming a BC grad that I even put down a down payment after gaining admission. However, when I did the math out (which I should have done before the down payment), the cost of the program did not fit within what my employer was willing to pay and what I could afford. The Isenberg School of Management at the University of Massachusetts was a far more affordable program, and even highly ranked – currently #1 in the US for on online, part time program according to Financial Times and now in the top 12 by the US News & World Report. I couldn’t imagine having student loan payments for part time grad school that were almost as much as my Boston apartment rent – for the whole 2 bedroom apartment.
- Made me a more marketable candidate. “MBA preferred” was what I believe was listed on the job description for my current role when I was job searching. Jackpot! That was an absolute advantage that I had against potential others applying for the role. It also opened doors with some great people in my network who knew and liked me, and could now see that I had taken, at least educationally, the next step toward working my way up and being a bigger contributor.
- Gained knowledge I was hungry for. I am an insatiable learner. I enthusiastically consume non-fiction every day for a half hour, or more if I have the time. Reading a book that condensed an MBA into a few hundred pages was going to leave me with more questions than answers. I was fortunate to have professors in my program who were appreciative of my questions and digging deeper, as well as some group mates who were thoughtful about what we were trying to achieve. My eyes were opened to fields like marketing where I previously had no interest, and then learned about the power of what that field can do.
- I applied my knowledge everyday to gain context. The key to learning, for me, is applying what I’ve learned. Every month we had cost reports and project summaries and I could see the cause and effect of certain things not just on a project but the company as a whole. I didn’t have the think about “what ifs” because the business decisions were playing out in front of me, in both positive and negative ways. I could make educated assumptions on outcomes if the opposite decision had been made.
- My expectations were realistic. At the time, I wasn’t trying to change industries. I was focused on learning and adding to my set of skills to be a better professional. I wasn’t expecting a $250K job right away and I wasn’t expecting to hit the c-suite immediately. I knew it would help step me up, and that it was up to me to make an impact with my new knowledge and skills. It would be a waste to put the paper on the wall and not realize that effort every day is what keeps accelerating careers.
Would I recommend an MBA? While it opened doors and was an overall positive experience for me, in my advice to others I’ll always say it depends. I’ll be writing on the reasons why I don’t think the MBA was valuable in an upcoming post so you can see the other side of the coin. It really comes down to personal interest, if it works for your life situation and your goals, and your willingness to dedicate significant time and effort to focus and make it worthwhile. I have friends and colleagues who went full time and would never sacrifice their experience. Whenever someone asks for my thoughts, I dig deeper about their motivations.
What was your experience with graduate school decision making? Was your degree (or not getting a degree) worthwhile, and what if anything would you have changed?