In terms of career prospects, the data is compelling: Whether it’s landing that first great job, climbing the corporate ladder, or pivoting to a new field, graduate business degrees can propel professionals forward throughout their careers. A 2022 survey by the Graduate Management Admission Council found that 9 in 10 MBA or business master’s graduates experienced strong career advancement and financial gains within 10 years of earning their degrees.
But not all degrees — or even less-formalized skill builders — are built for everyone, everywhere, all at once. When considering whether to pursue an MBA, or when and where to apply, candidates should first drill down on their specific goals and purpose, says Andrew Knight, vice dean for education and globalization and professor of organizational behavior at Olin Business School at Washington University in St. Louis.
“I think one of the key factors that comes into play is what the person is looking for,” Knight tells Poets&Quants. “Someone who’s looking to broaden their generalist skill set, and who has aspirations of really being a leader of people in the long term in their careers, is probably better suited for an MBA.”
“Versus someone who really has a hunger to deepen their technical skill set and become the equivalent of the functional or technical guru in a given area. That’s the most basic differentiation where you would see people funneling into those different paths.”
AN EXPLOSION OF CHOICE IN BUSINESS EDUCATION
The scope and potential ROI of the different degrees, certificates, and skill bootcamps available today in graduate business education are vast and seemingly growing by the quarter. In business schools, students can choose from a traditional MBA, a growing number of online MBAs, or a host of certification and specialized master degrees. Villanova Business School offers a Master of Science in Church Management, for example, Duke Fuqua has an MS in Quantitative Financial Economics, and many top business schools are diving into data analytics in one form or another.
Business education platforms and skill builders are also exploding outside of the traditional business school. For example, see our conversation with Scott Galloway about his online platform, Section 4, that seeks to make elite business education more accessible to the vast majority of people who either could never afford it or who, for a variety of reasons, could never get in. Or, just do a search on YouTube for any number of technical skills for free, readily applicable tutorials.
While the MBA is still considered king of graduate business degrees, the wide variety of programs and platforms available today begs the question: When is an MBA worth the time, effort, and rising expense?
Knight leads Olin Business School’s 19 different degree programs, from undergraduate, to master’s, to executive education, to doctoral programs. Poets&Quants spoke with him this week about when an MBA makes the most sense, what the degree still does really well, and when to consider other paths for business education. Our conversation is below, edited for length and clarity.
When does an MBA program make the most sense?
There are several ingredients that come into play to make an MBA program a really good fit for someone. The first is very much about learning orientation. We attract many students that have a real love of learning and are curious and adventurous, which I think comes into play especially for our full-time MBA program. Now, of course, for a program that costs money, an intrinsic love of learning is not in and of itself a good reason to enroll in an MBA. There are certainly many options available now for people to pursue courses of study that they just are intrinsically invested in. For example, YouTube is a wonderful place for learning and growth.
So while I think an intrinsic love of learning is a necessary component for someone to be interested in pursuing a top tier MBA program, I think it’s usually not sufficient.
The secondary piece, I think, is having a desire for professional growth and advancement; A bit of the extrinsic motivation that comes into play for people for whom an MBA program is especially relevant and attractive. These are folks who are either looking to change their careers–classically the career switchers–as well as those who are looking to dramatically accelerate their careers within their current profession or current field of study.
As the MBA is a broader business education, what kinds of questions or considerations should people make when thinking about a more specialized program?
Some of that happens, certainly, within the admissions and recruitment cycle. As part of that pipeline, there are so many options of graduate degree programs for students to consider—whether those are dual degree programs, or the decision to go with an MBA versus, let’s say, a specialized Master’s that’s focused on finance.
A secondary characteristic that I think is also important to consider is the level of experience that you have under your belt already. I think you’re likely to get more of a return on investment–not always, of course, but on average–for an MBA program when you have a few years of full-time work experience. That enables you to come into some of those really people-centric courses and make the most out of them through the challenges and successes you might have had in your prior work experience. On the technical degrees, it also is of course valuable, but I think it is probably less a success factor for growth and learning compared to the generalist MBA program.
What are some of the circumstances where a person should perhaps think twice before pursuing an MBA?
I think the first thing that should give someone a pause about whether it’s worth the investment is if you do not have a clear purpose in mind. If you have not thought about the fact that you’re about to spend, let’s say, $100,000 or more on a degree, and if you don’t have a clear picture of the value you’re looking to get out of that program, I don’t think it’s time to submit that application. That is very much step zero because that thought process feeds not just into the decision of whether to get the degree, but also in making a selection of which particular program might be the best one to give you the value. So, I think clarity of purpose is absolutely number one.
The second characteristic that is important to highlight, one that may be an off-ramp for someone, is the question of return on investment or value proposition. If you’re thinking that you really want to get an MBA to deepen your technical skill set in a particular area, you might back away from the MBA and the full price tag that comes with it. You might instead want to choose one of the more technical routes for a degree. Or, frankly, if it is an area of study you think you can adequately learn on your own, if you’re a great independent learner, and if you’re not as interested in building your professional network, you might actually go to YouTube or some of the online course offerings available and pursue ramping up your skills in, say, data analytics through that path.
It’s interesting that you mentioned that. I recently had a conversation with Scott Galloway, founder of Section 4, and we talked a bit about that disrupter space in online platforms. How big of a disruptor are these online spaces, in your opinion?
I think the dramatic growth in high-production-value online, professional courses is a disruptor, but it’s also an accelerant for innovation in business schools. Currently, every single business school that aspires to continue to offer degree programs into the future, will have to innovate in this space.
I think about my kids who have just gone through, in some cases, two years of virtual schooling, they have different thoughts about what is possible for learning. I think those high production value kinds of platforms are a wonderful prod for business schools to do things in different ways, to innovate, to leverage some of the unique assets that we do have, and to learn some of those new skill sets that are required to deliver education in a really slick, really engaging, and really entertaining way. I think there is a massive opportunity there, but it certainly requires us to disrupt ourselves lest we become disrupted and made obsolete.
What do you think the traditional MBA still does really well, and where does it need to make some changes?
The first thing that traditional full-time, residential MBA programs do well–and much better than those online platforms–is relationship building and growth of professional networks. I can build my arm’s-length contacts through LinkedIn by participating in a cohort online program, but I’m going to really struggle to build those deep and meaningful relationships that are forged through late night study sessions, being all together in person, or, in the case of our program at Olin, traveling the world together. That is the way to rapidly develop lifelong relationships that are not just meaningful for professional reasons, but they’re also extremely fulfilling personally. That is far and away something that full-time residential programs excel at, and a place where I think online programs are going to continue to struggle even when we are engaging with one another in the Metaverse.
Where business schools in general need to get better, or maybe where we’re not quite as skilled, is in the speed of innovation. Academia is an aircraft carrier. Given the rhythms of the academic cycles in the academic year, turning an academic institution is quite challenging. Something that I get frustrated with, and our entrepreneurship faculty and leads get frustrated with, is we might have a great idea for a new course that we know we should be offering today. And when I was in a startup company before coming to academia, I could do it. I could work overnight and push something out. Whereas in academia, it’s a much larger system and a slower moving system. I think that’s one thing at which some of these newer online platforms can excel: rapid generation of content that is immediately appealing and seemingly relevant in the moment. It’s just going to take academia a bit longer to roll out formal degree courses that are accredited by accreditation bodies.
NEXT PAGE: Advice for aspiring MBAs + Value of the degree