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Returning to School: 11 Common Questions Answered

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Question: What is the reception in the business world concerning online graduate programs? Is there a stigma attached to this type of degree?
–Keith, Philadelphia

Keith:  It’s not so much that there’s a stigma attached as there is a lack of total acceptance due in part to the relative newness of it all. Distance learning is a growing movement that is legitimizing online programs, and there’s no shortage of testimonials from satisfied graduates.

If you do decide to go with an online graduate program, you’ll have to sell its virtues to potential employers. Choose carefully. A more important factor related to employers’ receptivity to an online graduate degree is the quality of the program. Be sure it’s accredited and carries a strong reputation.


Question: I’m 41 years old with an M.B.A. from a highly rated, but relatively unknown, international business program. Since graduation, I’ve moved up the sales ladder of a Fortune 50 energy-integrated oil company in the U.S. After eight years, I’m looking to change companies — and possibly even industries — to something more growth oriented, such as financial services. The business world has changed dramatically with technology, business models and e-commerce. Are there rewards in getting a second M.B.A. from a well-known program?
— Michael, Houston

Michael: An M.B.A. can and should provide educational rewards and possibly help open the door to another industry. If you have unlimited time and financial resources, go for it. If not, look at the alternatives. Given your existing credentials and experience, there are other routes to consider. Weigh the benefits of each option before investing in a second M.B.A.

If prestige is the carrot you’d like to dangle, you already have it through your highly ranked M.B.A. and your experience in a Fortune 50 company. You may have to educate employers to the ranking of your degree program by including that ranking parenthetically in the education section of your resume. As for the learning itself, selected course work may be all that’s required from an institutional setting. If your goal is to catch up on technology and e-commerce, changes in these areas are occurring faster than M.B.A. programs can keep up with. Trust in the foundation you’ve built over the past eight years, and turn to the laboratory of life and on-the-job training for your continuing education.

If you’re serious about financial services, don’t make any decisions until you talk with professionals who are doing what you think you’d like to be doing. They’ll have insights as to how to best capitalize on your degree and your background in making a transition to financial services. These conversations will also help you assess if the financial industry is likely to provide the environment and experience you’re seeking.


QuestionI’m a 29 year-old engineer in the telecommunications industry with a master’s degree from a top school. Although I’m successful in my career, I’m not happy with my career choice and would like to move to a business-oriented position, possibly in securities or high-tech marketing. To avoid the stigma of being labeled a techie, I’ve enrolled in a top-tier MBA program. I’ve been hearing of people who’ve made it in the type of jobs I’m interested in without an MBA and I’m not sure the program will really help me achieve my goal. Is the MBA worth it?
— Joe, Brooklyn, N.Y.

Joe: In the long run over the course of your career, the MBA may well prove its value. However, if you’re convinced you can secure the job of your dreams with your current education, you could start your search now. But don’t settle for any employer. Go after companies with continuous learning cultures that will support your professional development. After securing the position, recommit to part-time study — one class at a time — while employed. Negotiate with your new company to pick up the tab. Finally, don’t underestimate the value of your technical know-how. In the age of technology, there are worse labels than “techie.” Continue to leverage your technical skills as you seek to broaden your business base.


Question: I have 15 years of IS experience, and I’m currently working as a network consultant. I want to eventually move into a director’s position, but to do this I must first complete my undergraduate degree, then earn an MBA. My question is what type of college do employers usually consider as better to attend if my goal is moving up the ladder? I can get my first degree in two years from a major university, or in one year if I attend a small college. Which is the best way to go?
— Curtis, Battle Creek, Mich.

Curtis: If you’re certain that graduate school will follow after you earn your BS, the one-year program makes more sense from a time and cost perspective. But you should contact directors of the admissions departments at the business schools where you plan to apply for their opinion. What they consider to be the best route is more important to your plan than what prospective employers may think.


Question: I’m 39, and I just graduated summa cum laude with an undergraduate degree in business administration. My background is entrepreneurial. I owned and operated a real-estate office in rural Iowa for 10 years, then helped to start and manage a small plastic-molding company, growing it to 100 employees. I recently sold my interest in the company and would like to earn an MBA at a top business school. I hope to work in the field of mergers and acquisitions after that. What are my chances of getting into a top business school?
— Chris, Bloomfield Hills, Michigan

Chris: Your chances are excellent, assuming you score well on your GMAT entrance exams. MBA admissions folks at several top programs say that having a strong business background is a real benefit for attracting their interest, and you certainly fit that bill. Your only worry is that b-schools often favor applicants in their late 20s and early 30s, only because they want to make sure you’ll have many years to apply what you learn in the business world. That may be short-sighted on their part, and they definitely don’t admit that they discriminate based on age, but a review of admissions practices shows an average age of new MBA grads to be between 28 and 32 years old.


Question: I’m 42 with an MBA, and I’ve worked the past three years at a small, well-endowed college as an investment accountant. I’m about to earn a promotion and will likely stay here another year or two. A local community college is offering a certificate program in computer information systems which consists of several computer-language courses: Pascal, Cobol I, Cobol II, C+++ and Visual Basic. Would taking this brief course of study make me more marketable in the job market? Would it enhance my experience and lead to more lucrative opportunities? Or is the value of this academic training too limited and not a good mix with my financial background? I’m not looking for a complete career change.
— Rob, Springfield, Mass.

Rob: It’s hard to knock additional education of any kind, and this training will give you a better understanding of the technical side of your business. But don’t be mistaken: several computer courses at a community college won’t do much to change your value in the job market.


Editor’s Note: These next three questions are published together.

Question: I’m 36 and was recently passed over for a promotion at one of the nation’s top food-sales companies. I was told that, “All things being equal, if candidate b has a college degree and I don’t, candidate b will always get the job.” I’ve spent three years at this company and enjoy my job, and my boss has offered to pay for my college education. Should I return to school, or should I take my sales/marketing/management skills to another company?
— Kenny, Huntsville, Ala.

Question: I’m 39 and a supervisor at a vinyl-extrusion plant, where I’ve worked for 12 years. I like my company but the hours are atrocious, and it seems that other local companies that pay decently only hire managers with college degrees (I only have a high-school diploma). Is this really true and, if so, what should I do?
— Michael, Pittsburgh

Question: I’m the 34-year-old general manager of one of my company’s five manufacturing locations. I also function as the engineering director at the corporate level. My problem is that I never finished college. Even though I’ve done well in my career, I’d like to move to the next level. But recruiters say despite my 12 years of experience and excellent work record, they won’t take me seriously without a degree. I’m considering enrolling in a professional-education program at a local college that would allow me to earn a BA in business or management in about 24 months. Is this a good idea?
— Tom, Atlanta

Gentlemen: The key issue you all must consider is whether you want to continue to be mid-level employees, constantly concerned about your future career options, or climb higher and achieve greater security. Without a college degree, all of you may be able to land better positions at smaller companies or start-up ventures. But true or not, the widespread perception among recruiters and hiring managers is that you can’t be considered for a corner office without a college degree (unless you own the company — just ask Michael Dell).

While you all may be able to find other jobs in this strong hiring market, you’ll have to overcome a big disadvantage if the economy turns sour. I’ve seen too many smart, experienced 50-something job hunters who are unable to land new positions because they never advanced beyond high school. My advice is to earn the degree on your company’s nickel if possible—even if the degree is from a less-than-stellar institution—then decide whether to move to another employer with this new laurel on your resume.


Question: I’m a 35-year-old financial manager at a large company. I have an MBA and BA in Finance, but I’m now interested in becoming more involved in the technical sector. I’ve seen many companies invest millions of dollars toward developing new computer systems, only to see them fail and get outsourced. I see an opportunity to develop an expertise in helping companies see computers as a strategic tool, rather than as a cost center. My long-term goal is to combine 11 years of business experience with some technical knowledge to become a CIO. I have a lot of academic programming experience, and I’ve done system analysis of financial systems, for which I have an aptitude. My plan is to enhance my education so I can find a job as a project manager to gain practical experience. My question is, what type of education should I seek: an MS in information systems, or just programming classes at a community college?
— Peter, Norwalk, Conn.

Peter: Finance and systems often make a very good marriage. But programming is too much of a niche for you to pursue at this point if your goal is technical management. Instead, you need technical leadership training and experience. One good route is to become certified as a project manager. This will open up job opportunities much faster than classes in programming. Becoming certified typically takes about 12 to 18 months of weekend and evening classes (with lots of computer-based training), so you don’t have to quit your job until you have new prospects lined up. Another hot area you might consider once you’re certified is ERP (enterprise, resource and planning systems), which has become very hot, especially at Fortune 500 companies.


Question: I’ve been working as a technical analyst for a major IT consulting firm for a year and a half, and I was recently offered a project-management role at a small internet firm. I started at my current employer directly out of college, and my career plan includes pursuing an MBA at a top program in two to three years. My question is whether I’ll be more attractive to major employers if I stay with my current employer, or if I go to the smaller firm, before I go back to school? My current employer has a lot of name recognition and prestige, but the new position offers greater responsibility.
— Mike, San Francisco

Mike: Since you’re planning to enter business school in a few years anyway, get as much responsibility and varied experience now as you can. Employers will respect the quality of the consulting firm where you’ve been working, but they’ll also be impressed that you reached out to broaden your skills. The only catch is whether you’re counting on your current employer to fund your graduate education. If not, or if the small Internet firm also offers tuition reimbursement, then make the move. A few years from now when you’ve completed your MBA, you’ll be glad you have the additional experience from the second employer on your resume.


These two questioners ask about the real value of an M.B.A.

Question: I’m in a position that many people say they envy: advertising manager for a prominent technology firm’s Internet-commerce software. My five-year career goal is to achieve a senior-management position with a small ad agency or high-tech firm, including an equity stake. But my dilemma echoes that of several colleagues. Since I’m at the epicenter of the Internet revolution, interrupting my progression to secure an M.B.A. might appear short-sighted. Professionally, I’m concerned about the demands that will be placed on me to apply classic business disciplines to developing opportunities and growth, especially in Internet commerce. But personally, it’ll be extremely difficult for me to pursue an M.B.A. part time, and the chance of earning an Executive M.B.A. paid for by my company appears remote. Is pursuing an M.B.A. counterproductive to my career aspirations when weighed against the experience and knowledge I’ll gain over the next two years?
— Larry, Alexandria, Va.

Question: I’m a corporate manager considering a couple of M.B.A. programs at local universities. Does the school where I earn my M.B.A. matter, especially if I plan to make a career change?
— Rob, Denver, Colo.

Larry & Rob: The M.B.A. debate rages on. From my perspective, after watching and writing about the careers of hundreds of managers and executives, rarely has the lack of an M.B.A. stifled their advancement, especially in such creative functions as advertising and marketing. Conversely, many careers have been boosted by the addition of an M.B.A., but not because of the education those people received. Instead, the degree must offer value beyond what you’re taught. The connections with professors and fellow alumns, and the perceived value of the degree among recruiters, typically outweigh the value of the knowledge you’ll gain. Thus, there’s a direct correlation between the name recognition of the M.B.A. program you attend and its value. For career changers, an M.B.A. can help launch you into a new career (be sure to use the school’s placement office to its fullest), but the same standards apply. A degree from a college that garners little respect in the marketplace may not be worth the investment. And don’t forget to compare the cost of the program and your likely income after graduation to the income you’ll lose while in school. This will help you determine how many years you’ll need to break even. For additional insights, please see two columns written on the subject by Hal Lancaster in the Managing Your Career Center of the Career Columnists area.


Question: I recently decided to leave a high-tech communications firm to complete my degree program at Harvard. While I think this may be unusual in a broad sense, I haven’t found much information on others who’ve taken time out midway in their careers to develop their skills further. Can you recommend information on this?
— Harry, Andover, Mass.

Harry: Your approach of leaving a job to return to college full time is less common than earning a degree part time while working, but it’s happening more often among baby boomers, according to studies by the National Center for Education Statistics. Of course, having the advantage of attending Harvard mitigates many of the concerns employers might have about your motivation.


Returning to School: 11 Common Questions Answered by
Authored by: Harrison Barnes