Should You Get An MBA? When?

Jennifer Merritt, author of “The Wall Street Journal Guide To Building Your Career”

For many of her years in journalism, Jennifer Merritt has examined what makes people successful in their careers. She spent five years as an editor and writer at BusinessWeek, overseeing the magazine’s management education coverage and MBA rankings.

Until March of last year, she had been the careers editor for The Wall Street Journal where she managed the newspaper’s business school rankings projects and, among other things, developed the Journal’s “Second Acts” feature—a column focused on the challenges and outcomes of people’s career changes.

Earlier this month, Crown Business published her new book, “The Wall Street Journal: Guide to Building Your Career.” It is not her first book. In fact, Merritt was the co-author of three editions of “BusinessWeek’s Guide to the Best Business Schools.”

We caught up with Merritt, 36, at the New York offices of Thomson Reuters where she is currently an editor supervising coverage of wealth management.

Jennifer, you’ve been a long-time watcher of the MBA business and of MBAs. So let’s start with the most obvious question that many have: Should you get an MBA in the first place?

There’s a point where many ambitious professionals wonder whether they should go back to school instead of looking for their next job. In some fields, particularly banking and consulting, and to a lesser extent product management, getting an MBA is often a must. Some companies essentially design their post-college job track to be one that is three or four years—and out.

You might get promoted in that time and it’s not an absolute requirement that you return to school for an MBA, but your options may be more limited or simply narrowed. That said, some of these firms have gradually carved paths for talented young professions to skip the extra schooling and instead encourage earning a CFA designation. It’s particularly as time-consuming, without the benefit of two years off to study for it.

For some engineers, a career can grind to a halt without a master’s degree. And engineers who want to become managers often return to school to earn an MBA to round out their technical knowledge with management and leadership know-how.

What if you’re not in consulting, banking or product manager? What if you’re not an engineer? What advice do you have for those folks?

I’d tell them to step back and take note of whether the people whose positions they want to be in one day have an MBA or another advanced degree. If some do and some don’t, try to figure out why and whether those who got the degree really got a leg up in their career. Ask them how useful they found the degree to be and find out the details about how and when they obtained it.

Did they go to school full-time? Did they take evening courses or attend a weekend executive program? Were they at similar experience levels as you’ve reached now or was it after five or six years in the field or once they reached an even more senior level? How did they make the decision to get an MBA or not?

Once you’ve completed your fact finding, figure out where your aspirations fit in the various profiles of people you admire. Then talk to senior colleagues and mentors about what might be right for you. If you’ve got a good relationship with your boss, breach the subject with him, too.

Maybe you want to go part-time if you want to stay in the same industry or company. If you don’t want to change careers, an MBA may not always be the best thing for you to do. Sometimes, people are too quick to jump to the MBA because that’s what everyone does. It might not always fit correctly to their situation.

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