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Who Should Get an MBA--and Who Shouldn't

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An MBA can be expensive; this year's Stanford tuition, for example, is more than $57,000. And getting an MBA will consume two years of your life, if you're in a full-time program.

Obviously, then, before spending your time and money applying to school, you should decide if you really want and need an MBA.

Who Should Get an MBA: People with a Plan

Business school isn't for the clueless; it isn't meant to be a two-year placeholder in your middle or late 20s. Business schools look for people with a career plan that includes a legitimate need for an MBA-so even though it's okay to go to B-school without being sure what you want to do with your life, you should think about possible career goals, and whether attainment of them would be made easier with an MBA, before applying.

You won't be doing yourself any favors by going to B-school without direction or focus. If you haven't narrowed your focus at all, you'll probably be too swamped to do justice to career-direction decisions once school starts.

Who Should Get an MBA: People with Experience
Business schools focus on enrolling students with at least some real-world experience; the average student at a top business school is in his or her middle or late 20s. Why? For one thing, schools feel that if you have some experience, you'll have a better idea of how business works and what you'd like to do with your life than if you're fresh out of college.

In addition, if you have experience in industry you'll have more to contribute to your peers. One of the drawing cards of business school is the opportunity to learn from your peers-but of course that's only possible when you and your peers have something to teach each other.

If you're a college student who's dead-set on going straight to business school, you shouldn't necessarily fret. But you need to know that, to get into a top school, you'll need significant business-related coursework, a compelling reason for getting your MBA now rather than later and impressive internship or temporary work experience.

Who Should Get an MBA: Leaders and Would-Be Leaders
The MBA is not essential for a leadership role in business—plenty of top executives got where they are by moving up through the ranks—but business school can be a great way station on the road to a leadership-oriented career.

By the time you graduate, you'll have spent thousands of hours in class or on group projects reading about, thinking about, and talking about a wide variety of businesses. As a result, you'll be better equipped than ever to make high-level business decisions.

And you'll probably spend some time studying "softer," people-focused coursework and projects, which will give you tools that will help you manage people in the pursuit of business goals.

Who Should Get an MBA: Career Changers
In business school, you'll get a chance to think through a wide range of business problems in a wide range of industries. You'll gain the skills needed to perform a variety of specific job functions. Having an MBA can make you attractive to a range of employers no matter what industry you worked in before B-school.

Who Should Get an MBA: People in Industries that Require the MBA for Advancement
In some industries and job functions very few people hired as college grads are promoted to more advanced positions.

On Wall Street, for example, people in sales and trading often can advance without a graduate education, but at most firms an MBA is necessary for advancing in a banking career. And the need for an MBA may be even greater in consulting.

Who Shouldn’t Get an MBA: People Who Want More Academic Focus than an MBA Offers
Whatever unique MBA program you might attend, the MBA is still a general business-management degree, designed to train people in a variety of topics to help them run a business. Some people are more interested in learning deeply about a single business-related subject, such as accounting or economics. If you’re one of these people, you should seek out a specialized graduate-degree program in your subject of interest.

Who Shouldn’t Get an MBA: Some Entrepreneurs
For some entrepreneurial types, the opportunity cost of going to B-school can be too great to justify taking two years away from work. Those with a great idea might blow the chance to be first to market with that idea; those already in entrepreneurial work situations can lose the opportunity to grow a business in the real world.

On the other hand, there are some good reasons for entrepreneurs to consider business school. You’ll get exposure to a wide range of business issues that should make you more equipped to run a business. You’ll learn about better ways of managing people. And if you’ve got a great idea but no capital with which to make your entrepreneurial dream a reality, business school can plug you into a network that can help you find funding.

Who Shouldn’t Get an MBA: Those without a Deep Desire for a Business Career
Artists, writers, craftspeople, scientists—these and others like them rarely have reason to get an MBA. Of course, there are exceptions: for instance, the crafts person who wants to start a business, the scientist who wants to work in management for a biotech company, the business journalist, and so on.
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