A very difficult decision we often face as professionals is whether or not to pursue a MBA, PhD, or some other terminal degree. I hear from professionals each week that are wading through this important choice. One of the things that makes this decision tough is that many graduate programs prefer that you have work experience. That means that by the time you’re thinking of going to graduate school, you might have a good paying job, a spouse, a mortgage, and kids.
I want to share a little with you today about how I decided to go to graduate school. My hope is that the thought process may help you to sort through your own complex decision making process.
For starters, I suspected in undergraduate school that I wanted to pursue a MBA. The thing is, my major in college was computer and systems engineering, with a concentration in manufacturing. My degree was like a combination of computer programming, electrical engineering, and mechanical engineering.
The problem was, I started to think I might want to pursue a career in another field, like marketing. This was especially tough because hiring managers rarely thought of me for anything outside of technology back then. I remember being invited to interview for an engineering management role with Motorola. I agreed to the interview, if they would also allow me to interview with the marketing managers. But, my interest in marketing alone really wasn’t enough. I needed more credentials.
I considered the idea of going to business school right after college. But, I did a little research. When I spoke to other professionals, I learned that having business experience under my belt would give me a better foundation for my MBA studies. It would give me experience to pull from during class discussions. And honestly, it would give me a few years to confirm that business school was the right route for me (before investing time and money into it).
So, then what? Well, I needed to decide where to go – and what kind of program I was interested in.
When it comes to the type of program, there are a few options. Some programs allow you to study online while others allow you to go in person. When it comes to business school, a big part of the value you gain is through the real life connections you make. And, at least for me, in person learning is typically better than online. So, I knew I wanted to be in an in person program.
Then, I had to decide if I wanted to study part-time, or go back to school full-time. Going back full-time typically requires you to quit your job to focus on school. For me, this was the best option. I wanted to focus completely on my studies. And, I wanted to finish my program in a reasonable amount of time. Studying full-time allowed me to complete my MBA in 15-months. If I had been a part-time student, this may have taken years.
Next, I decided what sort of concentration I wanted to have. I decided that I wanted a concentration in entrepreneurial management. I also wanted a program that was heavy in marketing options. And, I wanted a program that values giving back to the community. On top of these requirements, I was interested to go to a school that was near where technology related things were happening – in California. I was going through this process around 2003, so this list quickly narrowed my choices down. Entrepreneurial management in particular was hard to come by back then because it was still a new discipline for business schools.
Once I had my list of schools ready, I started to look up data on their programs. It’s almost like looking up reliability statistics on a car before you buy it. Long story short, not every MBA is worth the same amount of money. I looked at the rankings in US News & World Report. I looked up a report that’s called the ‘post-graduation report.’ Most schools publish these reports on their career site. They share how much money their graduates are making.
Then, I did an ROI calculation. Yes, you heard me right. A return on investment calculation. Business school is an investment. I compared the amount of salary I would give up (by quitting my job), along with the cost of school and living expenses – to the amount I would make after completing business school (or at least a decent estimate). I was only willing to pay a high tuition if I would end up making a high paycheck after graduation.
Alright, so that really narrowed down the schools. I ended up selecting Pepperdine University in Malibu, California.
Well, the last piece is this. How was I going to pay for the program? This was a tall order. I was in my early 20s and the thought of dropping over fifty thousand dollars on an additional degree was a big decision.
I worked for three years before going to graduate school. I lived cheaply, and was able to save around $1,000 per month for school. I stashed the money in a savings account. By the time I quit my job to go to school, I had saved over $30,000. To make up the extra money I needed for tuition and rent, I did two things. I asked the school for a scholarship, and I took out student loans.
Student loans are a hot topic these days. I won’t dive into all the pros and cons here. But, in my case, with a lot of research, they worked for me. They were low interest, and they allowed me to put myself through school.
So, what happened? Well, I graduated with my MBA in 15 months. Companies started to consider me for jobs outside of computer programming (like marketing). And, I was able to land job offers that were twice what I was making before graduate school.
For me, the decision to get my MBA was a good one. But, as I mentioned before… not every degree is created equal. The only way to make the right decision for you is to do lots of research. Calculate the return on investment. Talk to people. And, time it right. Don’t go too soon, or too late.
I know — it’s a lot to think about. But, it’s a big decision. Best of luck as you make yours. 🙂