It’s a question that comes up a lot, but we’ve never discussed it here. In today’s newsletter, in the Readers’ Forum, a reader asks:

I’ve been quite successful in my field (Information Technology) and I’m trying to move up the corporate ladder. I read conflicting things about MBA degrees. Should I get one? Will it pay off?

Put aside the MBA school rankings in the major magazines and all the marketing the schools do. How much of a difference does it make to add an MBA to your credentials?

And let’s take it a bit farther: How much does it matter whether the degree is from a big-name school?


  1. Not to sure if I will answer this the way you want to hear it but that’s life and you asked for an opinion.

    As a holder of an MBA from a relatively good accredited school with accredited being the operative word…..ensure that if you do go back for the degree that the school is accredited and that the courses are real/live and in front of a prof… NOT USE PHOENIX!

    Now I dual graduate degrees, some experience in the world but perhaps not as much as others my age (trailing spouse)…..but I have found the degree itself to be nothing more than more soup letters behind my name, rarely do I get the opportunity to emphasize my knowledge no matter how much I try…..If I speak of ROI ROIT, Risk, Leverage etc…most people haven’t a clue, and those that do feel threatened to some extent…perhaps because the first time I ever put it to real practice I saved an organization well in excess of 300k…..the person’s whose fault it was had more power, and washed it away….so in effect the loss continues.

    I suspect that you want to achieve some more objectives with regards to your personal/professional life and I heartily recommend it. If you want to know more about the value an MBA would add, then be frank with your boss and ask them whether or not it would be valuable to them……they like that you ask their opinion. Perhaps they might see more use for you with or without it, instead pursuing some other internal training that benefits the bottom line……

    sorry for my rant, I love the fact that I achieved a difficult degree, and you might as well. Just make sure it is valuable to your current boss, and project that into the future to see if it would be the same for a future employer too……then go out and get it from the best school you can afford, that has a strong reputation. Remember no online/distance MBA’s…..85-90% of the meat in a course is the f3f interactions that occur in a classroom setting. I learned more from guest presenters, dialogue with class and profs, as well as disagreement with them as well……end of rant….

    • Thank you. Your response helped me a lot.
      I have MSc but I had to read and re-read your message many times before I thought I understood what you were saying. I had expected that someone with an MBA would be able to write and perhaps articulate well, but it must be because I am not fortunate enough to have an MBA. thanks

  2. To answer a question with a question; “What do you expect to happen when you get your MBA?”

    First, education has virtue in and of itself…you will be a better person for it (this goes for any degree). Second, you will learn business theory, etc that is applicable to business, especially the corporate business world (I recommend everybody take business courses in undergrad, knowing the basics of how to read financial statements, etc is worthwhile).

    Will it pay off in your field? If the powers That Be at your company value the degree, it probably will. If the Powers That Be feel threatened, it will be a career killer.

    Look at the flow chart above you. Are most of them degreed? If so, are most of the degrees from a particular school? You need to do your homework. If your company does value the degree, get advice. This will be a great way of announcing the pursuit of the degree.

    Note: Small, entrepreneurial generally do not value the MBA the way middle and large sized corporations do.

  3. Good points above. If you do decide to pursue a degree, check the program carefully to see if it includes the topics you want to learn. Many IT people think an MBA is about management but most MBA programs are finance degrees and have little or nothing to say about managing a business. You may find that a different masters degree like an MS in Operations Management may be more relevant and also might make you stand out from the crowd.

  4. As the holder of an MBA from a top-10 business school, I have found that the value of the degree really is in the eye of the beholder. As Greg mentions above, business managers like to surround themselves with people like themselves and feel threatened if they have subordinates that have superior educations to their own. So the value you will get from an MBA depends on what you plan to do with it, and where. If you plan on a career in finance, an MBA is a must. Other large organizations generally value the MBA and want their senior managers to have one, but at that level the school on your diploma will be key – an MBA from Harvard or Wharton will get you in the door, one from your local state college will not. In smaller companies it will depend on the background of the owner/managers. If they are proud and sucessful graduates of your local college, they will look favorably on a degree from there. Honestly, having mostly worked for smaller companies I have rarely been called upon to use any of the specialized business knowledge I learned in school. As mentioned above, if you start talking of Porter’s 5 Forces, SWOT Analysis, Return on Capital, and such, most manager’s eyes glaze over. What the MBA does do for you is act as a door-opener, and also give you a wider perspective and understanding of how the overall organization functions so you can look at IT issues in terms of how they affect the whole company and better understand the wants and needs of the other functional areas as you are interfacing with them. Before investing the time and expense in beginning an MBA program I would do informational interviews with the top IT managers in your area that would be the sort who you would be hoping to work for after graduation and ask them for their opinions on the MBA. It’s the attitude of your future hiring managers that will really define the value of your degree.

  5. I’m getting some interesting points from the comments above.

    1. The value of an MBA lies in what you learn from getting it. How you use it is up to you. Whether it pays off in salary is not always clear.
    2. Before you get an MBA, ask your employer (or the one you want to work for) whether they value it and why. I think this is absolutely key. I frequently talk about the importance of asking the “ultimate customer of education” what education they value. The ultimate customer is the employer that hires you. But see (1.) above. Education for itself is fine, as along as you know why you’re doing it.
    3. MBA’s hire MBA’s.

    Good stuff… let’s have some more!

  6. MBA is valuable if you want to progress and have more job mobility. However, you should not get it thinking your current employer will value it – they will not. You get the MBA for the next employer.

    Top schools mean more than lessor ones. I have actually audited courses at many universities, both traditional and online. There is a difference. If I see Univ of Phoenix, it tells me the person did not have the drive to do an evening program at a “regular” school.

    I agree MBA hire other MBAs, but so do BA/BS, Ph.Ds, etc. When reviewing resumes, one thing I consider is the school. Granted it depends on the position I am hiring, and experience does trump education, but it makes a difference.

    Also, if you go to a big school, you get a large alumni network, which is huge in the work world.

    I always encourage people that ask, after working for 5 years, an MBA from a top school in their area is a good move. But again, you need to be moving out of that employer. Only in rare instances, do they value that.

    You are more likely to get you salary bump from b-school recruiting; you can go from $75K a year to $150K easily from a top 20 school. That is unheard in most companies.

  7. GL Hoffman explains MBA’s in the current Fast Company:

    (Honest, I didn’t put him up to this.)

  8. I’m a programmer with 20 years in the industry, a bachelor’s degree in Information Systems (the business version of a computer degree), and work for a contract house where I intend to stay for at least a few years (didn’t think I’d like consulting – I actually love it). And I’m about halfway through my MBA program from a local school. So I’m in a similar position to the questioner.

    My reasons for wanting the MBA initially were the same as the questioner – I wanted to get more education so I could climb the corporate ladder. Well, I don’t want to climb that ladder anymore (sorry about all those “ladder” references, Nick – I know how much you love that site ). Right now, my reasons for wanting the MBA are the following:

    1. I changed for the better as a person while working on my bachelor’s, and I suspect I’ll change some more for the better working on my MBA. It’s not what I’ll learn or what I’ll do after getting the degree, it’s who I’ll become.

    2. It gives me flexibility with what I can do in the future. If I decide later I want a PhD, then having a graduate degree already can make it easier to get into a program. If I find a job that shows preferences towards applicants with a master’s degree (and I’ve run across several), I’ll have one.

    3. What I might learn while getting the degree – and it’s not so much what I learn from the program itself, it’s what the program opens my eyes to that I can use in my life and career. I’ve found whenever I’ve studied anything, either in school or on my own, that it’s often the references to other material and studying that other material that is the most beneficial in my life. Example from my own MBA program – it isn’t the supply-chain analysis of Chrysler from a few years ago for that presentation in my Managerial Accounting class that was important, it’s answering the questions from the other students about why Chrysler had to sell out to Daimler that was beneficial. I had to look deeper at the company and how they did business, which taught me a lot more than the research for the original project.

    4. Bragging rights – only about 10% or so of the population (at least in the U.S.) has a graduate or professional degree, and I’d like to be part of the 10%. Well, it’s not about bragging so much, but just knowing that I’m part of an elite group.

    5. It gives me an opening to leave the IT field, which is one of my long-term goals.

    As for a top-rated school – it’s great for developing those contacts. Go there if you want to run for President of the United States, or head up a Fortune 100 company. If you see yourself as running your own business, you don’t even need the degree. If you want to climb the corporate ladder and become an IT manager, go the cheaper route. In fact, they may not even care if you have your MBA.

    Here’s something to think about – the city of Omaha has produced more people worth over $100 million than any other city in the US (Warren Buffett and pals, etc.). Only two of those mega-millionaires have a master’s degree, and one is Buffett himself. Ref: (sorry, it’s a locally-produced book, and not much is available on Amazon – the title is “Making Millions, Instructions Included” by George L. Morgan).

  9. Well, I’d edit my post if I could. That should read – “more people worth over $100 million per capita than any other city in the US…”

  10. Working in the pharmaceutical industry as a physician, I can assure you that an MBA degree is invaluable for one reason – it forces respect from the business side of the table. My position requires much business acumen, but most intelligent persons could develop the skills on their own without the formal degree. But, once you get the three letters behind your name, it forces those across the table to acknowledge your value and respect your accomplishment, as you proved you can still obtain a degree or skills in a field completely outside your original skill set. Additionally, it is almost a necessity for advancement to higher levels of management.

    Do you need the degree to be from an top ten school? Unless you are looking to become the CFO of a Fortune 500 company, in my opinion, NO. Rarely and I even asked as to the origin of my degree. As for those who sneer at the online programs, I assure you they are as tough and time consuming as the bricks & sticks schools, if not more so as face time is substituted for written work.

  11. I have an MBA from a small university. The goal of their program is to produce graduates that have a well rounded understanding of business, not just finance.

    I’ve been in various roles in IT for over 30 years. The degree has been invaluable to me in working with customers and users. It helps me understand their needs so I can translate that into a business solution using IT technologies.

  12. This topic is usually kinda polarizing. Some people believe in MBAs while others discount them. But this dialogue has brought up some great points all around. Thanks to all for chiming in. Please keep it coming!

  13. I’ve been a web developer for over 10 years now and have been on and off about getting an MBA. I’d like to think it would be useful for trying to get more into the planning side of IT, though at times I think other Management degrees may work or possibly a different Masters. I have my BMath, Computer Science was one of my majors, from a great school with a so-so average, around a B- so I didn’t get to grad school back then. Although I know what kind of degree I want, I’m not sure how easy it would be to get it. I want a degree about how to manage people, deal with political situations, handle budgets and leveraging technology. Is there such a degree?

  14. @JB King:

    If you’d like to explore why the kind of degree doesn’t exist in the form you describe, look into the book _Managers not MBA’s_.

    MBA programs typically do NOT feature the soft skills in their curriculum. It’s interesting that so many say the people who advance the most in industry are those with the best people skills. Yet if you look at the offerings, how many MBA programs include classes on how to assemble a team?

    Look also how many people get promoted, the IT field itself being notorious about this. It’s not the person who’s good at handling team issues, it’s the best programmer. This also happens in sales, e.g., the best salesperson becomes the sales manager. It’s 2 different skill sets between doing the job best and managing people who can do the job best.

    The assumption made by those promoting you is people skills are secondary, you’ll learn them as you go along. Sadly, nobody really trains you on how to handle these people issues, esp. as mentoring is pretty much extinct.

    I’m convinced (especially every time I hear the false cry of managers that “I can’t find anybody who’s qualified”) that many times these managers who may have the highest positions haven’t got a clue about their most important skill of hiring. If managers were evaluated on producing quality workforces like they are on numerical spreadsheets, you’d see some progress.

    Meanwhile, if you really want to learn about this, nothing wrong with the informal route. See that book, and another one of my personal favorites which is for people without degrees, _Proving You’re Qualified_.