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Bring Something to the Table, Then Get Your MBA

By Mary Ellen Slayter
Sunday, November 18, 2007

An MBA from a top school is often seen as a guaranteed investment, boosting your earnings as well as your career trajectory.

But how do you know when it's the right time to pursue a master's degree in business?

"You have to be ready," said Sam Kang, associate director for recruiting at the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business at College Park. "You have to ask yourself three questions: Why an MBA, why now and why a particular school?"

This decision should factor in your family responsibilities and finances, as well as the strength of your application and your long-term career goals.

Admissions officers at the big-name schools generally agree that you should have a few years of serious work experience on your r¿sum¿. The average age for the class of 2008 at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, for example, is 28. Less than 2 percent of students there had fewer than two years of work experience.

Standards are similar at the University of Maryland. "It's quite rare to admit anyone without any work experience," Kang said.

But it's not just those admissions officers who want you to have experience; so do your prospective classmates.

"The 'best' time to get an MBA is when you have your act together and have something to bring to the table," said Peter H¿bert, a loan officer in Ellicott City, Md., who will finish his MBA in marketing and finance at Mount St. Mary's University in May. "The worst MBA classmate or project partner to endure is one who has nothing to contribute. . . . Those with little experience that somehow make it through the gatekeeper in the admissions office become dead wood in class," said H¿bert, 47. "Several years of knowing your industry, organization and department will prove to be far more meaningful as one MBA project after another come your way. And, in-class dialogue will become more robust."

Mark Acton, a graduate of the executive MBA program at the University of Maryland, agrees. Someone with prior work experience "holds a much more advanced sense of the immediate and practical applications of the principles and disciplines imparted by business school training," said Acton, a postal regulatory commissioner.

Acton earned his degree after being in the workforce for more than 20 years. "I think that often you reach a point in your career where you feel that you have to do even more to set yourself apart, to turn it up another notch, and the MBA enables you to do just that."

Another key factor in your readiness, H¿bert said, is the overall stability of your life. Short-term contracting jobs or a position that takes you out of town most of the time aren't compatible with the workload, he said. "Fall behind on one or two assignments, and it's curtains."

Even your love life can influence your success. "A supportive spouse, or curtailed and managed dating time, will be required to get it all done," said H¿bert, who is married.

For many people, though, matching the right time professionally with the right time at home can require juggling.

After about 11 years in the workforce, Sachin Shah decided to return to school, hoping to build his credentials and possibly change careers. "The day before I was to start my MBA at Johns Hopkins, my wife told me she was pregnant with our first child," said Shah, who lives in Silver Spring. "While I never gave any thought to postponing school, the idea of having a family while working and attending school was frightening."

He's about halfway through his degree now, earning good grades while holding down a demanding full-time job. A supportive employer is key, said Shah, director of marketing and communications for the Montgomery County Chamber of Commerce. "While there have been times I've read my corporate finance textbook to my daughter as a bedtime story, this has been the most interesting, exciting and stimulating time of my life," he said.

But all this talk of experience doesn't mean it's impossible to go straight to business school from undergrad -- or that it's necessarily a bad idea.

When Jeanne Jennings earned her MBA from Georgetown University in 1989, she was one of seven in her class who had enrolled directly from college. Counselors had warned her that she wouldn't get in, but she felt strongly that grad school was where she needed to be, not in an entry-level job. So she applied anyway.

"It was a little bit weird at first. I did feel kind of like this kid," Jennings, now an e-mail marketing consultant who lives in the District, said of working alongside her more-experienced classmates.

But her relative youth was an advantage in other ways, she said. "A lot of people in my class had families, children," she said. "I didn't have the pains of forgoing a salary."

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