Hillary Berman works in a different world from a lot of MBA holders. Instead of climbing the corporate ladder or making waves at a big-name consulting firm, she uses her master of business administration degree as owner of the Friendship Heights-based firm Popcorn & Ice Cream to help small businesses create effective marketing campaigns.

“It gave me a broader perspective that has been incredibly valuable in working with smaller businesses and startups, where everything is so closely intertwined,” says Berman, who got her MBA from the University of Maryland in 2003 and started her company in 2011. “So when I start an engagement with a client, I know to ask, ‘How are you bringing this new product to market?’ and ‘What is your production cycle?’ Then I’m timing a marketing campaign to that ­— not just ‘Oh, we want to launch on February 1.’ ”

A lot of people kick around the idea of getting an MBA at some point in their careers. A recent study by Olivet Nazarene University that analyzed Google search trends found that an MBA was the most searched master’s degree in the United States from July 2018 to July 2019. But while it can help catapult some grads to the next level, it won’t necessarily pay off for everyone.

The first step is figuring out your career goals and researching whether reaching them requires an MBA. In some fields, like consulting, or in some large companies, an MBA is a necessity for advancement.

“What I hear from students over and over again is that to move to the next level in their organizations, they need to be credentialed,” says James Bailey, professor of leadership at the George Washington University School of Business.

It can also be the optimal degree for students who want to transition from specialized roles into administrative or managerial positions. “Say you’ve been working in manufacturing and were in charge of engineering quality control, but you want to move to a more administrative role,” says P.K. Kannan, dean’s chair in marketing science at the Robert H. Smith School of Business at the University of Maryland. “A general management degree like an MBA will really provide that overview of how a firm functions and how different roles come together.”

That was Mangesh Wadegaonkar’s objective when he got his MBA from Cornell University. “I’d gotten a master’s in computer science and started working for big telecoms,” he says. “But I was at a point in my career about six years after that where I realized it was hard for me to move into business types of roles, which I really enjoyed doing. I hit a brick wall.”

He found that both the network he accessed through his program and the skills he gained helped him apply his tech background to corporate marketing and leadership roles.

“The tool kits you come out with help you structure your thinking in a different way than a non-MBA would,” says Wadegaonkar, 43, who’s doing some consulting for BIA Advisory Services in the D.C. area as he mulls his next career move. “You might achieve the same results, but the person with the MBA will do it more efficiently and faster.”

But the price and time required to get an MBA may not be worth it for someone more interested in the startup space. Learning about strategies related to organizational management or solving complex business problems may not immediately pay off for someone who needs to devote their time and funds to things like writing a business plan or securing office space for a new venture. “I’m not sure making the investment that may in fact cost $100,000 or more to get the degree would be worth it for an entrepreneur,” says Barron Harvey, dean of the Howard University School of Business.

While Berman, 42, has gotten value from her MBA, it didn’t really help her launch her company. Her curriculum had a strong focus on theories, models and other higher-level business concepts that didn’t readily apply to launching a new company. “My MBA didn’t cover the nuts and bolts of starting a brand-new business,” she says.

Those interested in more specialized business realms, like data analytics or finance, may benefit more from a focused advanced degree than a generalized MBA. Local universities have tailored options to that approach, such as the master’s in quantitative finance at the University of Maryland and the master’s in business analytics at George Washington University, as well as dual degree programs that combine MBAs with specialized master’s degrees.

National data reflect that trend. According to the Graduate Management Admission Council’s 2018 Application Trends Survey, 70% of U.S. full-time MBA programs and more than half of U.S. part-time MBA programs surveyed reported declines in application volumes. “MBAs are not as in demand as they were 20 years ago,” says Kannan. “The pace of innovation has changed, and companies aren’t hiring as many general managers as before.”

For those who do opt to pursue an MBA, it’s best to have several years of work experience first, Bailey says. “I find that students who have gone straight from an undergraduate degree into an MBA program are not the most interesting students to have in class,” he says. “They don’t have any background by which to absorb what it is you’re teaching, and they can’t participate in a discussion the way other people can.”

When Berman hires for positions at her company, résumés for candidates who went straight from undergrad to an MBA don’t get a lot of consideration.

“To me it says they couldn’t get a job, or they didn’t know what to do so they kept going to school,” she says. “I would not pursue an MBA if you’re just looking to check a box on your résumé. If that’s your approach, I don’t think you’re going to get value out of it.”