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Should you do a pre-experience business masters degree?

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Once upon a time, a high school diploma (or similar non-higher education qualification) was a sufficient credential/qualification to get a good executive job. Then, as more and more people went to university, a high school diploma was no longer enough to land an executive position. A university degree sufficed for a time, but as more and more people get masters degrees, even a university degree no longer suffices in most instances.

This ‘degree creep’ has been matched by the recognition that new employees (let alone managers) now have far more demands placed upon them than in the past. It is no longer enough just to show up willing to work hard or to be trained. Instead, it is necessary from day one to show some substantial business or technical skill along with general skills, such as the ability to communicate and work with a wide variety of colleagues, manage projects, and so on.

As a result, many people about to graduate from university, or having just graduated, face the decision of whether or not to pursue a business masters degree immediately. Some will opt to do so; others will pursue an MBA later on, instead.

Growing popularity of pre-experience business masters degrees

Given the obvious value of a business masters degree, it is unsurprising that more masters programs continue to be developed. In past decades, the number of MBA programs greatly increased. In recent years, the growth has been in pre-experience business masters programs. 

The employer's perspective

The employer demand for business masters graduates is easily explained. Organisations are reluctant to hire those without substantial training because:
• The flattening of companies and other organisations has meant that there are fewer mid-level supervisors available to oversee new employees’ work, thereby requiring that these employees be able to handle their jobs right from the start.
• The growth of knowledge organisations, and the growth of knowledge jobs within all sorts or organisations, places a premium upon having skilled performers capable of doing sophisticated work.
• Greater performance pressure on organisations of all types means that they are reluctant to devote the time necessary to develop an inexperienced, untutored performer.
• They recognise that youngsters tend to hop jobs quickly, so training them is likely to benefit some other organisation instead.
• Those with training have already signalled their interest in the field, and are less likely to change jobs on a whim.

Thus, there is a greater need for knowledgeable performers. People with a second degree (especially from a different institution than they attended for their first degree) are recognisably more mature and better able to fit into a business environment than those with only a bachelors degree.

The candidate’s perspective

Prospective business masters students may have any of a number of reasons for pursuing a degree right after finishing their bachelors studies:    
• A business masters degree offers a way to convert a liberal arts degree into a commercially viable future. Some people, for instance, don’t figure out they will be unemployable until after they have finished their sociology bachelors degree. Similarly, some people don’t know what career they want to pursue when they are at university, but figure they’d better plough ahead and get some sort of degree rather than leaving university.
• Some who did a generalist business degree at university may have discovered along the way what field they want to specialise in – and a masters degree gives them the opportunity to do so.
• Others, who specialised in one business field, might want to switch to another.
• Some people use a generalist business masters degree (especially in management) as a means to explore their future (further).
• For some, this is a way to upgrade their credentials/qualifications, if their first degree was not first rate, by attending a more famous university.
• Others use it as way to gain entrée to a new country (by learning the language and making useful connections there).

Pre-experience business masters degree versus MBA

So getting a business masters degree is likely to make sense for a lot of people. The question remains, though, whether a pre-experience degree – done more or less immediately after a bachelors degree – is a better option than an MBA. You might say, why not get the best of both worlds by doing an MBA right after your bachelors degree? In fact, it is difficult to get into an MBA course straight from university. Many MBA programs require at least several years of experience (and the Association of MBAs, one of the main international accrediting organisations, will not accredit an MBA program that accepts candidates without experience). In some locations, including the US, the best programs will accept only a relative handful of young graduates. Those that are accepted must demonstrate strong undergraduate performance, high GMAT scores , good internships and/or work experience, and the personal confidence to allow them to perform well in a classroom filled with experienced people (with disdain for inexperienced youngsters). It is usually the lesser MBA programs that are open to those without real experience.

Thus, for most graduates the choice is between a pre-experience business masters now and an MBA in several years (or more).

Factors arguing for doing a pre-experience business masters

• You cannot get a good job with your current credentials/qualifications.
• You can, however, identify the subject you’d like to study (marketing rather than general management, for instance).• You have the financial wherewithal to tackle a suitable degree now (or can qualify for financial aid).
• The field you intend to enter won’t require substantial additional education later. (In some fields, and for some employers, nothing substitutes for an MBA.)• You can get into an appropriate quality degree program now – one that provides entrée to the field and position you seek.
• You are ready to make the most of a degree course now. For instance, you have the prerequisite coursework (and internship or part-time work experience) to benefit maximally. Without this, you may want to delay entry slightly – rather than wait to do an MBA – and undertake the coursework or internship.
• Your personal situation is better suited to doing a degree now rather than later. For instance, your husband/wife/fiancé is going to do their military service for a year in a location that has a fine university, with an appropriate pre-experience business masters degree, but limited employment opportunities for you.
• The economy is currently depressed, so you’d prefer to be trying the job market a year or two from now.
• In some fields, such as securities trading, youth is so highly valued that you might be better off getting into it as soon as possible.
• You have an idea for a business you’d like to start, but you need the additional skills you can gain from a pre-experience masters program to do so.
• You may do a PhD or DBA later on. Exploring the academic side of the field is probably best done sooner rather than later.

Factors arguing for waiting and doing an MBA later

• You can get a good job now without a masters degree. (For ‘good job’, read one in which you will be able to work in your chosen field, learn a lot, work for a good boss, and enjoy the experience.)
• Your work experience in the next few years will position you either to do without an MBA or to gain admission to a good MBA program later.
• In the next few years, you will be able to explore various positions and/or fields to determine which ones fit you best.
• Your employer is likely to subsidise your pursuit of an MBA later on.
• You will work in a location where you could readily do a part-time MBA degree (while continuing to work).
• You want to explore one field without committing to it yet. (You could change fields via an MBA later on.)
• You have a chance to make money or gain experience now that may disappear soon. For instance, a would-be commercial real estate broker/estate agent during the early to mid-2000s may have had an opportunity to cash in on the real estate/property boom, but would have faced a much less attractive market several years later.

Employment results of pre-experience business masters programs

Getting a business masters degree represents a substantial investment of money, as well as time and effort. The tuition fees for a one-year program may be £20,000 or even considerably more; with living expenses, books, travel, and other costs added in, the total may approach £40,000. A two-year program may nearly double this.

Is a masters degree worth this large sum? Although not everyone will be substantially wealthier as a result of completing such a degree, those attending the better programs are highly likely to be much better off financially. In fact, few who attend a top program end up regretting the experience.

The payoff is partly a matter of increased earnings. (As a rough rule of thumb, figure that a solid masters program will net graduates salaries at least 25–50% higher than those with bachelors degrees in the same field.) It is also a matter of increased career options, increased confidence that one can do a given job well, increased security (relatively few masters graduates face unemployment), and increased status. In addition, most people feel they lived life more intensely in their business program, met very interesting people, and formed close friendships there. It is therefore probably a mistake to view the decision to get a business masters degree on a purely financial basis, despite the sums involved.

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