With the financial crisis still shaking out, it's no surprise that applications to M.B.A. programs are up. For Fall 2009 admissions, nearly 220,000 hopefuls took the Graduate Management Admissions Test, according to the Graduate Admissions Council (GMAC) and applications for the thousands of the programs in the U.S. and abroad have surged about 10% -- and upwards of 30% or more at some schools.
So, when is the right time to step away from the daily grind -- and a paycheck -- to earn an M.B.A.?
Generally, you'll want to have a few years of work experience under your belt -- although increasingly recent undergraduates who can actively contribute to an M.B.A. cohort are encouraged to apply; you should have a sincere desire to broaden your thinking and your perspective about business and how it operates; and you should have some clear goals in mind for what you want from the degree, even if you don't yet know exactly what you want to do in your career in the long-term.
The Importance of Timing
In some fields, the timing of an M.B.A. is something of an unwritten rule. Christian Robinson, who attends University of North Carolina Kenan-Flagler Business School's M.B.A. program spent the last five years in the financial industry, first in fixed income trading and more recently in the sales side of investment management. Like many professionals in the field, Robinson started off as an analyst and after a few years, was promoted to associate level.
Somewhere between year four and six, it's time either to head to business school or commit yourself to a specialty for the remainder of your career, says Robinson. "If you continue to go forward, you get put on the track toward VP and SVP in that specialty, and once you reach that, you get to the point of no return," says Robinson, who hopes to return to banking in a different role. "You're either in it for long haul or you take a step back and try to think about what you want to do for the next 10 to 15 years."
"A lot of industries have this natural inflection point," says Rosemaria Martinelli, associate dean of student recruitment and admissions at University of Chicago's Booth School of Business.
Early in a career, Martinelli says you're more likely to "learn to be an expert in a narrow functional band." But when you find yourself looking to learn more and wanting to branch out into other areas -- as Robinson did -- it's a good time to go for the M.B.A. "The M.B.A. is about beginning to expand that (functional knowledge) and learn how to lead a group or organization," says Martinelli.
Martinelli recommends reflecting on what you've learned in your field, what your role is now and how continuing in it will help or hinder you when it comes to getting where you want to be. "When you see a flattening out of your learning curve...and begin to get hungry and excited about having more impact in your career" without a real way to do it where you are, it's a good time to pursue an M.B.A., says Martinelli.
Expanding Your Skill Set
Other factors contribute to the "right" time to pursue an M.B.A., says J.J. Cutler, admissions director at University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School. First off, he says, you may begin to realize that your skill set is limited and that you want to do more, but can't without further training or broadening of your skills. "You might be asked to take on things (at work) that require more skill than you have, or you might start managing or leading people."
As you do these things, Cutler says, it may become obvious that you need to add to your toolbox. "When you feel like you have hit a point in your career where it makes sense to make an investment in yourself to get to the next level" you've hit a reflection period where an M.B.A. makes sense, Cutler says.
Of course, the desire to change careers is also a big driving factor for most people to pursue an M.B.A. "For many people, that is part of the decision," says Cutler. "But, it's ok if you don't know what you want to do with your M.B.A." Admissions directors will ask what your short- and long-term goals are, he says, "but we aren't going to hold you to that."
For Daniel Wise, a first-year M.B.A. at Chicago, the right time to go for an M.B.A. became clear when he realized he wanted a change. He saw himself becoming a specialist in his job at Ernst & Young. Wise, now 27, had worked for two years in the firm's audit department before moving to a team that conducted financial due diligence for clients considering mergers or acquisitions. "I felt like I had a good solid base of knowledge, but I was getting to the point where I was going to have to start specializing if I wanted to move forward," says Wise.
While he loved the work he did and enjoyed working with his team, he began to reflect on what he wanted long-term. "I realized that I wanted something else." Wise looked around and saw that people in fields he wanted to be in -- like private equity -- had all gone for an M.B.A.
Of course, there are also signs that it's the wrong time to pursue an M.B.A. "It may be too early if you don't think you can contribute in the classroom in meaningful way," says Cutler. The same is true if you're not yet in the mindset of working closely with a team or in a cohort.
Cutler also says it might be too soon for business school if you're still learning in your job and simply need to sharpen one skill set. That need lends itself better to a one-off class or executive education program, he says. What's more, career experts say if you want to drill down in one specialty or skill set, but aren't necessarily interested in broader training or leadership development, an M.B.A. might be the wrong route.
-- Jennifer Merritt
-- How to Tap into Your B-School's Alumni Network
-- How to Increase Your Value When You're Unemployed
-- How to Decide Whether to Pursue Certifications