Business Administration

Which MBA Program Is Right for Me?

Which MBA Program Is Right for Me?
Many factors come into play as you determine whether and where to pursue an MBA. Image from Unsplash
Lucy Davies profile
Lucy Davies March 31, 2021

Is an on-campus or online MBA a better fit for you? Does location matter? What sort of return on investment can you expect from your MBA? This article looks into all these questions and many more.

MBA/Business Programs You Should Consider

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Why get an MBA?

Earning a Master of Business Administration (MBA) may seem like a slam dunk to anyone looking to elevate their career to the next level. After all, an MBA can fuel entrepreneurship, boost your managerial profile, and even open doors to the C-suite. Even so, there are some important considerations to explore before making the investment.

There are three stand-out reasons to pursue an MBA. First, it can increase your salary. Your calculation here should strongly consider both the opportunity in your field and your return on investment. Does your industry value an MBA enough to make your time and financial investment worth it? While you’ll likely earn more than a non-MBA grad, a higher salary is not a guarantee in every industry. Careful analysis is crucial.

The second reason to explore a graduate-level business education is that it may open doors either with your current employer or in other industries, greatly enhancing your hireability. Depending on the concentration you choose, you may gain more flexibility to move up within your field or the opportunity to navigate to another. New opportunities in management, finance, information systems, and other specialization areas may become available. An MBA graduate from a great b-school may also have the upper hand breaking into the most competitive industries, such as tech or finance.

The third reason to consider business school (and it’s a big one) is access to a school’s alumni network. A strong network can be invaluable, providing a powerful resource for professionals to tap into for contacts, advice, support, and unique opportunities, including recruitment. Sometimes who you know can be as important as what you know. Access to an active, lifelong connection to a strong alumni network can really pay off.

So what should you consider when contemplating an MBA program? There is a lot to unpack. In this article, we’ll cover:

  • Feasibility
  • Location
  • Cost
  • Full-time or part-time?
  • On-campus or online?
  • Specializations/concentrations
  • Alumni network
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Feasibility

Harvard University launched the world’s first MBA program in 1908, graduating eight students in 1910. More than 100 years on, MBA students have over a thousand program options. While it’s important to include one or two “reach” schools on your list, make sure you are applying to programs that best suit your career goals and focus with realistic options for acceptance. You can start by searching acceptance and yield rates for top business schools to make sure you are providing yourself a healthy range of choices.

At any business school, MBA admissions directors look at several factors beyond your GPA, GRE, and GMAT scores, including experience and evidence of career progression. Years of work experience carry weight and can be the most positive indicators for an attractive MBA candidate.

Many business schools feature programs for recent college graduates moving directly into an MBA program after completing a bachelor’s. Those MBA applications will focus more on standardized tests, letters of recommendation, essays, academic transcripts, and even in-person interviews.

It’s essential to move into the application process with your career path in mind and a solid list of schools that can meet your specific needs. Finding a good match will benefit both you as an MBA student and your chosen school.

Location

After feasibility—and just before affordability—sits location. How mobile are you willing to be when it comes to where to attend business school? Do you need to stay where you are, or are you able to move to a city or region that best reflects your career goals?

If you want a career in investment banking or international business, cities like New York, Miami, or Washington, DC—homes to prominent financial service companies—are likely best for you. However, if you are in the energy business, it may be better to head to Texas. While some industries, like healthcare or real estate may be represented more broadly in business schools across the US, some may require more location-specific consideration. Careers in IT project management, information security, and telecommunications, for example, have a strong presence in Boston, Seattle, Austin, and San Francisco, where tech is king.

Choosing the right business school in the right location will help you determine your longer-term goals about where you see yourself in your life and career and may open up valuable discussions about your post-MBA plans.

Cost

Considering the cost of a master’s is as important as the calculations you made in choosing your undergraduate degree. Is cost a consideration for you in pursuing a Master of Business Administration? What can you afford, and over what period? Are you comfortable taking out loans to pay for business school?

Cost can be the biggest drawback for people looking to pursue an MBA. Tuition can be staggeringly high—a complete MBA program at Wharton can run upwards of $225,000. Add to that loss of income during a two-year course of study and the interest paid in student loans over the years after graduation, and you have a considerable bill pending.

As always, discussing affordability and financial aid is a crucial step in your early planning stages. Students may benefit from a range of options. Federal and private loans will need to be repaid after graduation, but you may be able to tap into scholarships, grants, fellowships, or even employer tuition reimbursement programs.

You should consider not just what is affordable at the time of study, but also what your payoff will be for your future earnings. It is helpful to research graduation outcomes data to help determine whether you can actualize your future earnings post-graduation.

Full-time or part-time?

Time is our most valuable asset and is a critical factor in choosing the type of programs you can and should consider. Are you willing to take two years off work to pursue your MBA? Can you afford to? Or would you prefer to continue working so you can apply what you learn in real-time?

Answering questions like these can help you decide between working toward a traditional full-time MBA or exploring a part-time MBA program, either on-campus or online.

If you are a mid-career professional, you may have a third option: an executive MBA. This program allows experienced businesspeople to focus less on basics and more on the nuances and intricacies of business management, with the flexibility of meeting monthly or weekly for compressed periods. Working professionals can participate in high levels of discussion in a more concentrated format with an executive MBA program that accommodates demanding work schedules and allows degree candidates to apply theory to practice almost immediately. Typically these programs last 18 to 24 months.

Ambitious young professionals just launching their careers may choose the more typical MBA experience by enrolling in a two-year, full-time MBA program. This allows for a more traditional campus-based experience with the benefits that type of pacing and contact provides. A longer, part-time program may be a better choice for professionals who are unable or unwilling to leave a current position to pursue a degree exclusively. And for others, a one-year accelerated program can offer a fast track to an MBA at a lower cost—but this shortened time frame will require students to carry a heavy workload.

As time is such a critical factor in deciding on a path to the right MBA program, you may consider it as much as the financial cost. Both professional and personal commitments will need to be carefully considered in your decision, as the added workload will prove to be a significant undertaking.

On-campus or online?

More and more, students are exploring online options for higher education. After years of development, many prestigious MBA programs have joined the lineup. Flexibility is the biggest attraction for online MBA programs, as they provide customizable schedules and negate the need for relocating or commuting to campus. This allows students to participate from anywhere, including internationally.

Students considering online options have more choices than ever. Legendary HBCU Howard University offers both a traditional MBA and an accelerated executive MBA program online. SMU’s online MBA, offered through the Cox School of Business, features a faculty ranked among the world’s top ten by The Economist. Looking to build your network in the Southwest? The online MBA at University of Tulsa boasts a high-ranking job placement rating as well as small class sizes.

Clearly many online options are as rigorous and interactive as an in-person format, but they can’t provide the day-to-day networking and extracurriculars of the on-campus experience. Face-to-face interaction with other students and faculty, job fairs, interviews, and on-campus speaking engagements remain a strength for on-campus programs. To compensate, many schools provide online students additional support to fulfill experiential learning requirements and allow for networking and immersion events.

Specializations/concentrations

A Master of Business Administration delivers generalized expertise in business and management principles. An MBA with a specialization adds a field of expertise.

Specialization allows for in-depth concentration in a particular field, industry, or discipline within the broader business sector. Building on the more general overview of a core curriculum, specialization allows for a drilling down through a selection of elective courses in a particular area of expertise. You’ll need to keep your career goals in mind, though, as a concentration can also narrow your opportunities if it has too sharp a point. While specialization can bolster the focused professional, the flexibility of a generalized MBA course may be a safer choice for students still unsure of their core career paths.

Northwestern University offers a highly regarded marketing specialization and the University of Tulsa has one in consumer behavior, while the Wharton School is known for its strong finance program as well as operations. Beyond the more popular concentrations like leadership, business administration, and marketing, you may want to check prospective schools carefully for specialization in your intended field before finalizing your list and applying. Some of the best business schools might offer up more of a range in specializations than you’d expect. You may want to look further into their lesser-known degree concentrations.

Alumni network

So what about networking? One significant consideration in exploring MBA programs is the alumni network a business school can provide. Depending on your industry, this can be as important as a school’s academic offerings.

Finding robust networks takes research: not all are created equal, nor can they all provide the same leg up to fellow alum. A quick search of donations by MBA graduates to their alma mater can act as a good vitals check. Graduates donating on top of a sizable business school tuition indicates a worthwhile investment and an active and engaged alumni network.

But alum can give back other ways as well, returning to school to give lectures and participate in conferences or helping individual students outline their career goals. Beyond the prospect of being offered your dream job, these interactions can result in internships and mentoring opportunities, provide access to recruiting events, and develop into long-term business contacts and relationships in a lifelong learning community.

These personal connections are testament to both the positive impact of faculty members and the alumni community’s efforts to invest in the same ways as those who came before them. There is no doubt that the right school and the right alumni network can result in a personalized assist in a competitive business world, particularly at the start of your career.

Conclusion

Ultimately, your decision to pursue a master of business administration should be based on your own calculus. Is the financial, time, and energy investment going to pay off in the end?

Your motivations and personal goals should be your primary filter for deciding when and where to continue your education. After that, explore the impact a master’s will have on your career. Sometimes the full impact of your degree may take years to materialize, so you should consider the long-term ramifications of your investment.

If you decide on further study, compiling a simple set of criteria should help you narrow your list of the best business schools for you. Remember to include the length (traditional two-year, accelerated one-year, or EMBA), cost (including return on investment), and location (including online options for study) at the top of your list of considerations. Then decide how essential status, prestige, and brand recognition are to you and others in your industry. Do you need to pay top dollar for your degree? Remember to consider the opportunities for specialization and for networking with classmates, faculty, and alumni. The focus and relationship-building might be the critical piece of your calculation.

Getting an MBA is not a golden ticket to a higher-paying job, but most business school graduates self-report high value and positive results from the investment. The key is finding a program that speaks directly to your current budget and responsibilities and future plans.

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Tom Meltzer spent over 20 years writing and teaching for The Princeton Review, where he was lead author of the company's popular guide to colleges, before joining Noodle.

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