If the business world were an exclusive club, an MBA degree would be
the golden key to enter.
“The MBA becomes a multiplier in the career of the student,” says Sandeep Krishnamurthy, associate director, Graduate Programs, Business Administration Program for UW Bothell. “It adds gravitas and credibility. Your voice counts for more and you gain more credibility with coworkers, friends and family. This is especially important for women MBAs seeking to advance their careers.”
The nature of MBA programs has changed dramatically since they were first offered in the United States in the early 1900s. Historically, they were full-time courses where students attended school every day. While most schools still teach the fundamental business principles: accounting, economics, finance, human resources, marketing, operations, policy and quantitative methods and statistics, many MBA programs have evolved over the years into courses of study with various specialized curricula.
Some schools, including Duke University, Columbia Business School and UCLA, are using unconventional approaches — improvisation exercises, gourmet cooking lessons and NASCAR-style pit crew challenges — as part of their executive MBA curriculum. Other schools, including San Francisco’s Presidio School of Management and the Bainbridge Graduate Institute on Bainbridge Island, Wash., offer “green” MBAs that focus on sustainability — incorporating social-justice and environmental values into business.
The popularity of MBAs has created an array of choices and opportunities that allow you to tailor your advanced degree to fit your lifestyle, career ambitions, professional workload and financial position. Today, managers, engineers, secretaries and professionals are seeking advanced business degrees with an emphasis on everything from marketing to technology to social entrepreneurship in full-time, part-time, executive and distance learning programs. Many schools, such as the Seattle offices of the University of Phoenix, Cornell and Argosy University, offer online courses you can take in the comfort of your own home.
While programs in global social entrepreneurship, environmentally safe and renewable manufacturing processes, and sustainable real estate development have become increasingly popular, they have not displaced finance and marketing as the most common areas of study, says Dan Poston, assistant dean for master’s programs at the University of Washington’s Michael G. Foster School of Business in Seattle.
WOMEN ARE TAKING NOTICE
Women, who once accounted for a small percentage of MBA students, now make up 30 percent of MBA graduates nationwide. In Washington that average has been about 25 to 35 percent, says Don Whitney, manager of Admissions and Student Services for UW Bothell, which offers an MBA program catering to full-time working professionals.
“We are meeting the needs of the public,” says Vicki Tolbert, MBA
recruiting specialist at UW Bothell. “People want to keep their
jobs rather than sacrifice them while pursuing the MBA.”
Poston, the assistant dean at the UW, says 36 percent of this year’s incoming full-time MBA class are women — up from last year’s 34 percent. He says that in the past two years the number of women attending the university’s MBA information sessions has soared. “The perception of the MBA degree itself is changing, with many more people seeking the degree to advance in areas with very strong appeal for women,” Poston says.
Women MBA candidates tell him they are not satisfied with just working for firms. They want to move up to top leadership positions and be running the corporation. They believe an MBA will give them those skills. “That aspiration is driving a lot of the interest among women.”
Seattle University also has seen a rise in women MBA candidates. About 40 percent of the MBA students are women and 51 percent of the Leadership Executive MBA program students are women, says Mary Carpenter, director of graduate programs for the Albers School of Business and Economics at Seattle University.
Because Seattle University’s part-time MBA program permits students to start any quarter and select the number of classes that fit their schedules, and offers the flexibility to take off a quarter if needed, it is “perfect for a student who may be trying to balance work, family and school,” Carpenter says. “Maintaining a good life balance is important to many, and they have found that they do not need to completely drop out of a program if they decide to start a family while taking classes.”
THE MBA ADVANTAGE
To be in the running for highly sought-after management jobs, it’s no longer enough to have a bachelor’s degree. That’s why most people earn advanced business degrees: to give them a boost in climbing the corporate ladder. The extra “boost” of business, communication, strategic and managerial skills usually opens the door to better paying jobs.
The average salary for MBA grads is estimated to be $10,000 to $30,000 more per year than for those with a bachelor’s degree. A 2008 Graduate Management Admissions Council survey showed that earnings on the job increase as the amount of time since graduation increases. On average, the most recent graduate business school alumni earn $92,360 per year. Alumni who graduated in 2000 earn, on average, 78 percent more than that — $164,628 per year.
“In the olden days, you had cowboy attitudes about business: you could go and work really hard and push, push, push and things would happen. But we have to realize that managing a big company today is something that calls for specific skills. You really have to speak a certain language when you manage in today’s business,” says Krishnamurthy, of the UW Bothell. “An MBA gives you these special ingredients for success.”
Poston, the UW’s assistant dean for master’s programs, says an MBA gives students valuable business knowledge that you can’t learn on the job. “Recruiters expect MBA graduates to possess exceptional leadership, team skills, interpersonal skills to ensure a great job at graduation.”
For Tara Beatie, 44, a corporate financial consultant in Seattle, her jobs in finance changed dramatically after she received her MBA in 1993 from the University of Washington. She had an undergrad degree in social science from UC Berkeley, and after moving to Seattle she took finance jobs that called for lots of budgeting and basic accounting. But after receiving her MBA, she was given much more unstructured work like “reviewing the annual statements to develop a corporate risk map quantifying/comparing the challenges to the company.”
She also was given the added task of reviewing balance sheets to develop plans for financing capital assets and then managing the financings. In addition, she was tapped to present numerous reports to the executive board. “It was a completely different set of expectations and I had little specific experience in any of these areas,” Beatie says. This is where the confidence and educational experience of an MBA made all the difference. I would walk off with project in hand, completely straight-faced and composed, thinking to myself, ‘how did I get into this?’ and ‘isn’t this the greatest’ at exactly the same time.”
Beyaz, the UW Bothell MBA graduate, says her program focused on the challenges of high-tech companies and helped her understand business principles and practices. That, in turn, helped build her confidence in both her professional and personal life. “It broadened my perspective on business,” she says. “I recognize patterns now that I would have been oblivious to before. I learned techniques for avoiding ‘blind spots’ and for looking at things in new ways.”
With a rich repertoire of tools — for assessing risk, managing innovation, or anticipating market behavior — Beyaz says she’s gained the courage to take on new challenges. Since she received her advanced business degree, she has led product, process and solution development teams, mentored inventors and served in senior marketing and business strategy roles.
Like Beyaz, Amy Burton, recruiting manager, global health program for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, says her MBA from Seattle University has helped her both personally and professionally. “The MBA helped build my business acumen and understanding of the variables that make up the bigger picture. It really refined my thinking, providing a framework to view, assess, make and communicate decisions around opportunities and challenges.”
Burton says she’s always been analytical but her advanced business degree “built and rounded out my skill set.” She uses those skills in her everyday life as she considers schools and programs for her children, finances and at work.
HOW TO GET AN MBA
The first step in obtaining an MBA is to ask yourself: What do I want to achieve with an advanced degree? What type of program do I want? How long do I want to study? Will I be able to juggle work, family and school?
Beatie, who received her MBA from the UW while working full-time, knows the juggling act well. “It was crazy. I worked or studied all the time — literally kept reading/studying even while I was getting my hair cut,” she recalls. Unlike many of her classmates, she was married and had a mortgage at the time. “The pressure on a marriage and the financial pressure is much harder to bear than for a single 30-year-old who is attending school full-time, living in a campus apartment. I do not know how women with children do it.”
During orientation, Beatie was warned that 50 percent of the married people would be divorced by the end of the program and that several of those divorced people would end up married to someone else in the program. Both scenarios ended up to be true, she says, adding: “It is a commitment and a personal challenge that should not be underestimated.”
Beatie, who now has two young children, managed to survive grad school and has carved out a flexible work schedule — part-time, consultant, brief full-time stints — all to accommodate being home with her family. “I believe that the flexibility I have been able to secure has been primarily because of my skills/experience resultant from my MBA. Some really great employers helped too.”
Beyaz also is a veteran of the MBA shuffle. She jokes that you know you’re in grad school when you send an e-mail to a classmate at two in the morning and get an instant response. Or when your dining room table becomes your horizontal filing system, or when you eat more meals in your car than at home.
Most MBA programs last 18 months to two years, but there are some that last one year and others that take five years (part-time programs) to complete.
After deciding to pursue an advanced degree, the next step is to take the Graduate Management Admissions Test. The GMAT score is probably the most important factor in determining whether you will be admitted to a highly regarded business school. GMAT scores should be in the mid to high 600s to get into a top-notch program.
Other factors that will help you gain admission to a top business school are age and experience. The average age of students applying for the MBA is about 26 to 30 years old. But Whitney of the UW Bothell, says: “You are never too old to get an MBA.”
Most schools require their applicants to have four to five years of prior work experience before joining an MBA course. “Most MBA programs do not want ‘greenbeans’ because they want students to have a practical business base to build upon,” says Beatie, who worked for five years after graduating from UC Berkeley in 1986 before embarking on her MBA studies.
Prospective students consider five key criteria when selecting schools, according to the 2008 Graduate Management Admission Council survey: quality and prestige, convenience and location, costs and financial considerations, the classroom experience and accreditation and curriculum.
Those were the traits Burton considered during her research of university programs. She eventually chose Seattle University for its academic reputation, flexibility and evening program. Because she was working full-time, she needed a program that offered a part-time program and the right type of courses focusing on finance and management.
She had earned a Bachelor of Science degree in criminal justice from Northeastern University in Boston but, after moving to Seattle, decided to pursue an MBA instead of going to law school. Most of her electives were in finance and management.
She was working in human resources for a division of an international pharmaceutical firm, Alpharma Inc., and wanted to gain more expertise in the area of finance. Burton, 39, took nine months off during her studies to devote more time to her full-time job but then re-enrolled in the Seattle University program and eventually received her MBA in 2003. Her husband, a senior financial analyst for Swedish Medical Center, received an executive MBA from the University of Washington two years ago.
For Burton, who has two young children, timing was key. She finished her MBA during the first trimester of her first pregnancy. “I had a supportive spouse who beared the late-night dinners, limited free time and being with someone who was usually sleep deprived.”
HOW MUCH DOES IT COST?
Getting an MBA can cost between $15,000 to $100,000 depending on the type of program and the university.
The full-time MBA program at the University of Washington, for example, costs about $38,600 for residents and $40,530 for non-residents for the full two years, according to Poston of the UW. The university’s evening MBA program costs between $46,264 and $52,000 for both resident and non-resident. And the Executive MBA program costs $71,500.
Tuition and fees for the state-supported UW Bothell, which currently has about 80 students enrolled in its 22-month evening program, is about $45,000 for residents and $58,000 for non-residents.
Its MBA Programs, which now include a new Leadership MBA in Bellevue, were developed in collaboration with representatives from leading regional businesses operating in the software, telecommunications, biotechnology, and high-tech manufacturing sectors. It provides advanced training in the critical management functions, such as leadership, marketing, finance, accounting, e-commerce, and operations management, with an emphasis on the opportunities and challenges faced by high-tech companies.
IS IT WORTH THE INVESTMENT?
There is debate over whether an MBA is worth the investment both in time and cost. While some MBA graduates question the importance placed on the advanced business degree, others swear by it.
But in exit surveys both at the UW and nationally, MBA graduates consistently answer a resounding “yes” when asked whether the investment was worth it, according to Poston.
Burton, who graduated from Seattle U, says getting her MBA was time well spent, even though it came with the challenges of juggling school, work and family. “Time was always a challenge,” she says. “It was important to be disciplined. Coffee helped.”
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