Tuesday, April 22, 2014

How will I know when is the right time to go for my MBA?

This is among the most vexing questions that trouble many a candidate when they are contemplating about the right time to apply for MBA admissions. I will address this question in some detail here. And while trying to answer this question, I want to address a few related questions as well –

  • Is it a bad idea to join an MBA program directly after undergrad?

  • When does it become too late to go for an MBA program?
The root of all these questions lies in the fact that there is no single universal answer to “when is the right time to join an MBA program?”. The answer to this question would unfortunately be different for different people. Most experts would perhaps agree that the right time to go for it would be when you feel you are ready for it. And so we come to the main topic of this post - “how would you know when you are ready?”

To quote some of the more common answers, you will know you are ready if -

1.       You have articulated a clearly defined career goal which is better achieved with an MBA degree under your belt.

2.       You feel you are close to stagnation in your current job and could breakthrough to the next level with an MBA degree.

3.       You want to change the Industry or the functional area you are working in and the MBA can help you make that change.

4.       After 4-5 years into your career you have decided this is not the career you want for life, but are still unsure what alternative Industry or Work Function would be best for you and you want to use the wide exposure that the MBA program would give you, to help you make the choice.

Take answer 1 above. For most people, part of the answer to “how would I know when..?” would come from your introspection on why you want to pursue an MBA program at all. In fact it is very likely that if you are clearly able to articulate why you want an MBA, you might already have an idea of “when”. But for some people, this might happen at a very early stage in their career – in fact some might be clear about their goals while still at Undergrad. And that brings up the related question – is it a bad idea to go for MBA straight after UG?

This question has already been discussed in some detail in one of my earlier Blogposts at http://getyourmbaworld.blogspot.in/2013/08/what-are-options-for-zero-work-ex-fresh.html so I will not repeat the same arguments again. Suffice to summarize that even though most people (including me) hold the view that you would benefit more from the MBA program after having worked for a few years, there is not sufficient empirical evidence to support that MBA grads with prior workex are indeed better at managing businesses as compared to those who joined the MBA programs directly after UG. The IIM’s in India have a large contingent of fresh grads in their classrooms, MIT Sloan is encouraging undergrads to apply and almost 20% of their class is being filled with fresh grads. And these early career MBA grads have as good a track record of managing business enterprises, whether  in India or in other countries, small  business or large corporations, as the MBA graduates of the same or any other business school who had worked longer before entering the MBA programs. And to add another dimension, the Indian Administrative Services (IAS) takes in large numbers of fresh grads as well and with just a one year curriculum (the IAS training program) they get some of the toughest leadership jobs in their early careers – as head of a district in some remote part of the country, and they later go on to head major public sector enterprises in so many different industries.

Coming to the other end of the spectrum, is it ever too late to go for an MBA program? Well actually, NO. One example of later career aspirants is the significant number of people from various defense services who, after 12 or 15 even 20 years on the force go for such programs. In India for example, an Army Officer can take voluntary retirement with full pension benefits after 20 years’ service. So, many of them take up an MBA or some other educational program to help them get into some civilian career at that stage. Yes, there might be other issues to consider. For example can you afford to go without a monthly salary at that stage when you probably have a family and other financial commitments? So, you might choose a part time program, a one year program rather than a two year program, an executive MBA program or whatever suits you. But the point is that the MBA program and the benefits it gives could still be relevant for mid-career professionals. In fact if a mid-fifties senior finance executive had a brilliant idea for an online portal based business, would it be too farfetched an idea for him to join some MBA program to learn how to monetize his idea, how to manage such a business, the latest techniques of marketing such a portal etc.?

So, whenever you have a clear career goal, and you can see how an MBA program can help you achieve that goal, you will probably know when the right time is also. But if this happens right after UG, would you not stand to learn more from the MBA program if you had worked a few years first? Maybe yes, but if your career goal is centered on a big business idea, can that idea wait that long? Would it not be better to get whatever you can from the MBA program now and implement your idea sooner, to ensure you get the first entrant’s advantage? This is why they say that the answer to when MBA is different for different people. You evaluate all the factors that concern your decision and then do what works best for you. And this is what it means to say that when you have your career goal, you will also know when the right time is for you.

Answers 2 and 3 above are fairly clear I suppose and those that identify with them would also be able to decide the right time for them to go for it. Coming then to answer 4 above, about those who are unsure, either when they finish undergrad study or even after few years into their working careers, about where they want to go.

One of the things the MBA program does for you is that it exposes you to multiple industries, various business functions, even multiple geographies and their respective business/ career climates for professionals. So the MBA program can also be a great way to find out what kind of career interests you most. At most good business schools you will get peers from diverse backgrounds, multiple nationalities, different educational and working careers etc. So in the one or two short years of the length of the MBA program, you will get to draw upon a very wide range of experiences as your peers bring their own backgrounds to bear upon any discussion inside or outside the class. And this window-view into so many different careers might be just the thing to help one decide what he or she might wish to take up as their own career. But would the same he or she not benefit more from the MBA program if they already had a career goal? Very probably YES. But the fact is that if they do not yet have that goal in their sights, is it not better to attend an MBA program now in order to at least be able to make a good choice of career rather than waiting indefinitely for that elusive goal? Yes it might be too early to jump into an MBA program right after UG if your only objective is to make a career choice. But what if you’ve already been working for 4-5 years and still not sure?

At this stage look at the point of view of the Business school also. To gain admission to most good business schools you need to pass through a highly competitive selection process, competing against exceptional fellow aspirants. With a large pool of exceptional candidates applying each year, schools too want to put together a great class every time. One big reason for you to choose a good business school is the diversity of the peer group you will get there because then you will get the benefit of the diverse experiences of all your classmates. So obviously the school also wants that you too should be able to add to that diversity. And from their experience if they find that people who have worked for some years before coming to the MBA programs have better experiences to share with their peers, they will obviously prefer such applicants. So another way of telling when you are ready could be when you have significant experiences of diverse kinds to share with your peers at school, which will add to the pool to make the class more interesting.

In conclusion then I can only reiterate that the right time to join an MBA program would be different for different people. A fresh grad would probably have a different expectation from the program than someone with workex. And while it might be true that the same fresh grad might learn more from the program if he or she were to join up few years later, his or her objective might be better served by doing so now. This is what would work best for them and so this is the right time for them too. Likewise a late career entrant to an MBA program would probably not be able to attract an employer who is looking for someone younger who can be better molded to the culture of his company. But then this later entrant probably might not want to start at the bottom of the ladder in a new career. He or she probably has useful skills and knowledge from their past workex and would look for some career that will better utilize all those past skills as well as the ones newly acquired through the MBA program.

So introspect deeply to find your own reason(s) for joining business school and that is what will best help you to decide when you are ready for it.

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