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by Deborah Adeyanju | March 10, 2009

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Are you stagnating in your career, envious of the big bucks your friends are making now that they've won the right to add those coveted three letters to their resumes, or simply looking to make a change? The decision to go to business school can be prompted by many different reasons. Not all of them are worth giving up two years of salary, putting a career on hold, and assuming substantial debt, not to mention the personal sacrifices an MBA program requires. Yet many people make the plunge before fully considering the implications and risks of their decision. So if you're contemplating getting an MBA, ask yourself some questions before you enroll.

It is critically important to have a clear idea of what you hope to accomplish in getting an MBA. Is your decision driven by a need to compete on a level playing field with your colleagues, advance to the next level in your career, expand the range of available career options and maximize your earnings potential, or do you simply hope to "change your life"? Your answers to these questions should help you to decide whether an MBA is for you and if so, what type of program makes the most sense (i.e., full time, part time, or executive). Alternatively, maybe your needs could be met with individual courses or a certificate program through the continuing education departments many universities maintain.

The answers to these questions impact not only the decision of whether or not to attend school, but also what school you ultimately select. For example, if you need to boost your quantitative skills, you'll want to focus your efforts on schools with strong and well-regarded finance and accounting programs. If you want to advance in your career with the same firm you currently work for, consider which schools your company recruits from. If your company mainly recruits employees from local MBA programs, it may be possible to pursue a part-time degree while still holding down your job. An added benefit to part-time programs is that many companies will reimburse employees for a portion of the educational costs incurred while they remain full-time employees. If you're considering a radically different career path, talk to people currently in the field to find out whether an MBA degree is really necessary. Can your goals be accomplished by an internship, or a certificate program? If you are interested in working for specific companies, find out how and where they conduct their recruiting efforts.

~Another important consideration is what stage you are at in your current career. A few years ago, the typical MBA candidate had two years of work experience prior to beginning graduate school. Today, most MBA candidates at top programs have on average four years of professional experience. In general, students who can relate their professional experiences to the cases, lectures, and projects they perform at school, have more to gain from, as well as contribute to, an MBA program. Also, be sure to speak to as many MBAs as you can before deciding whether or not to take the plunge. Don't be swayed by glossy promotional brochures and marketing materials put out by the schools. Since the quality of life and educational caliber of MBA programs can vary widely by school, and changes over time, it is critical to talk to alumni, both recent and from several years ago, as well as current students of the specific schools that you are interested in, to see how the degree is enabling them to achieve their goals.

Financial considerations should play a part, though not necessarily a pivotal role in your decision process. Potential MBA candidates should conduct a "cost-benefit" analysis before deciding whether to embark on the degree. Though not all of the costs and benefits of getting the degree are quantifiable, many of them can be determined. Even non-quantifiable "psychic" costs and benefits can be weighed against each other. For full-time programs, the analysis should incorporate the benefits of enhanced confidence, new and/or expanded career options, and higher earnings potential to be gained from earning the degree. Specifically, what expanded career paths will be available to you as a result of obtaining an MBA? What are the average starting salaries and total compensation for graduates from the schools you are considering enrolling in? What is the starting compensation for graduates in your expected career path?

~Some of the major costs involved in getting an MBA include foregoing two years of salary, expenses associated with moving if the chosen program is not local, and opportunity costs of devoting two years to academic pursuits rather than to the job scene. Don't forget mental and emotional costs, particularly for those moving to an unfamiliar locale and/or juggling family and work responsibilities. Look for ways to offset some of these costs. First, what assets do you currently have to defray the costs of an MBA? Next, consider which schools offer fellowships or scholarships for MBA candidates. Then, check out which private organizations offer grants or scholarships for MBA candidates. Employers can also be a source of funding. Consider whether your program will afford time to hold a part-time job. Lastly, loans are an important, and often the main, source of funding for graduate programs.

Rankings can not be ignored, as they can influence the difficulty or ease of the career search. However, where a school ranks in published lists is less important than its standing in your chosen specialty. For instance, a school considered only average in overall rankings may get high marks in specialties such as international business or marketing. Geographic issues can also impact the importance one places on published rankings. If the school you are considering attending has an excellent reputation only within its geographic region, consider where your post MBA career interests lie. Are you sure you would like to stay in the region, or are you interested in a career with companies who value candidates from nationally recognized programs? While companies in some industries hire strictly based on a school's standing in the rankings, many are willing to look beyond just the ranking to consider factors such as the program's strength in a particular discipline, and of course, the job candidates' prior work experience.

At some point, once you've researched the schools, talked to as many people as possible, visited campuses, and spoken to recruiters, you will need to reach a conclusion. In the end, the only way to make your decision will be by using a combination of rational conclusions and your own gut instincts.

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