MBAs – What Are They Good For?

This article examines the importance of assessing the benefits of a MBA relative to an individual's career.


There’s been a lot of discussion in Australia and around the world, recently, about the proliferation of MBAs. Many people believe that too many educational institutions are offering too many MBA programs, and too many ‘would be managers’ are lapping them up in an effort to get themselves on the ‘fast track’.

If everyone has an MBA, they ask, then what’s the point? The so called ‘fast track’ will simply become a main highway, clogged up with people going slow in the right hand lane. Others, noting the plethora of programs, question whether they’re all up to the mark. The Australian Graduate School of Management’s Dr John Toohey for example, has gone so far as to call for government intervention to control the MBA market. He wants to ensure that the ‘quality of the degree and the overall perception of it’ are not ‘undermined’.

So, are MBA students being ‘sold a pup’? Well, it depends on what they thought they were buying in the first place. Which begs the question: exactly why do large numbers of people – who appear otherwise to be quite sane – voluntarily give up large chunks of their hard earned, and even larger chunks of their lives, to get an MBA?

The short answer is that they want to have a better job, and get paid more money. All of the hundreds of different opinions and survey responses and beating around the bush won’t change that one truth.  MBA students are, by and large, people who want a better long term quality of life, and are prepared to make sacrifices now to get it.

Their premise is simple. Management is where the dollars are, and an MBA is the key to ‘getting into management’. But is it? And even if you manage to convince yourself that it is, you then face the agonising question: which MBA?

Is an MBA the key to ‘getting into management’

If management’s where you want to be, then you’re probably going to consider undertaking an MBA.

But the truth – hard as it is for many to face – is that having an MBA is not the key to getting into management.

Ask anyone who knows. Ask a corporate HR Director. Ask a senior line manager. Ask a CEO. Ask a headhunter. What they look for, first and foremost is experience. A track record. Performance.

An MBA does not guarantee you career success, because it does not guarantee you can perform. It may give you the potential to perform, but it says no more about you than that.

If you don’t believe it, consider the following. Two people are up for a senior management role. One has ten years experience at the required level, and can demonstrate a number of successful achievements along the way. She has no MBA. The other has just completed an MBA – let’s say from Harvard – but has no experience to speak of. Who would you choose?

The fact is that corporate life – and these days that includes the public as well as the private sector – is about performance. If you’re not performing, your qualifications won’t matter. If you don’t have experience – successful experience – then you won’t get the job.

Which MBA?

John Toohey may be right when he says there are too many MBAs in the market, but any first year MBA student will tell you that intervention from the regulator is usually not the best way to sort these things out.

Market forces should, as they say, be allowed to act to correct the oversupply. One of the best ways prospective MBA students can show they’ve got the right stuff is to be well informed, and to choose wisely. If they do, then the ‘bad MBAs’ should lose support, and ultimately, disappear.

So, what to look for? MBAs are no different to most products. They’re sold into a competitive marketplace, and a lot of what prospective students hear is ‘marketing’. The promises may not always match the reality – and after you’ve invested three years of you life and $30,000, that can be disappointing to say the least.

But it becomes easier if you think about what you want the outcome to be, and the common-sense, holistic approach to achieving that. If you want a better job, paying more money, then you have to develop your career on a number fronts.

So, some simple rules to follow are:

  • Don’t let your MBA disrupt your career, or your personal life – make it fit in. For this reason, ‘distance learning’ or ‘flexible learning’ options are the choice of a majority of MBA students – despite the fact that most universities and business schools promote ‘face-to-face’ programs as being ‘better’ to protect their vested interests.
  • Try to always put what you’re learning into practice. Go to work and implement what they’re teaching you – and go back and ask questions if it doesn’t work. MBAs are supposed to be vocational, not ‘academic’.
  • For reasons outlined in both points above, think very carefully before you give up work to do an MBA. Sure you’ll get your qualification quicker, but is that the point?
  • If you think you’ve made the wrong choice, change. It’s usually easy to change programs.
  • Don’t do an MBA if you have less than five years’ work experience. Not only will you be a less attractive employee than someone with experience, you won’t be able to place what you’re learning into any effective context.
  • Talk to the people in your organisation before choosing to do an MBA, and before choosing. Ask them what they see ahead for you, and if this will help. Do they see you as management material? Is there an MBA they value? Have your colleagues done an MBA? What did they like and dislike about it?
  • Remember to look at a program’s track record. For how long has it been offered? How many students does it have? How many people have graduated? What are those people doing now? Does the program have the support and approval of corporates? Do they have a strong alumni program?

While many in the MBA market choose to ignore it, where a management career is concerned, experience and performance make are the key ingredients and formal qualifications are icing on the cake. True, the cake is a better cake if it has icing, but the icing on it’s own isn’t much use.

What this means is simple. If you’re doing an MBA as a total solution to career development, think again.  If you think that an MBA is the secret to being a better manager, think again. If you think that an MBA alone will get you a better job, or change your career, think a third time.

If however your intention is to take a holistic approach – to develop a diversity of experiences, to network with a range of people, to accept new and challenging assignments, to set and achieve personal and corporate targets – and to complement all of this with a well-respected management qualification, then you may be in business.

*Andrew MacDonald is the head of APESMA Management Education, which offers Australia‘s largest MBA program – the APESMA/LaTrobe MBA. Various estimates place the size of the Australian MBA market at around 10,000 students, with 2,000 of these in the APESMA program. The APESMA program is delivered via ‘distance learning’ to students throughout Australia and the world, and has more than 10,000 graduates at various levels.  Andrew has an MBA from the University of Queensland. 

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