The MBA grind

By Timothy J. Gibbons
Published by Florida Times-Union on July 13, 2003.

You shouldn't get an MBA.

(Shhhh ... just wait a second.)

Still there?

OK, hopefully that scared off anybody who wasn't seriously wondering if going to business school was a good thing.

In case it didn't, let's reiterate: you really shouldn't get a master's in business administration ... unless ...

Unless you know exactly why you want it.

Unless you have a career plan worked out, and know how an MBA fits into it.

Unless the investment -- in both time and money -- will reap a commensurable return.

We're not trying to say that you shouldn't invest the next year or two of your life earning a business degree. We are, however, saying that you shouldn't start writing tuition checks just because you've lost your job and don't know what else to do, or because you have some vague notion that it will help you make more money, or just because in the down part of the economic cycle everybody seems to head to business school.

"[An MBA] can be an excellent credential and an excellent educational pursuit for those who have a focused plan and vision for their career," said Daphne Atkinson, vice president of industry relations for the Graduate Management Admission Council. "But it isn't for everybody."

So who is it for? MBAs are best utilized as part of an overall plan, in which the student knows why they're getting it. "The only way to get value out of this degree is to have a game plan going in," Atkinson said. "It doesn't mean you have to spend two years in seclusion thinking about it, but you do need to ask yourself some pretty tough questions."

After talking to business school deans both locally and from around the state, authors and MBA experts, we've compiled the following list to help you in asking those questions -- hopefully leading you to decide if you need an MBA at all, and if so, how you should go about getting it.

One thing to keep in mind: In general, local MBA programs are aimed at a rather narrow section of students, usually in their 30s, almost all attending part-time, often hoping the new degree will provide some sort of movement -- either up or out -- in their careers. At the University of North Florida, for example, about 80 percent of MBA students are in evening classes, while Jacksonville University's program only offers evening and weekend classes.

That's not to say you have to fit into that category to get an MBA, but if you plan on sticking around the First Coast while earning it, it should play into your decision.

Mr. Moneybags

Person: Remember when we said you didn't need to get an MBA? Yeah, well, we weren't talking to you. You're the type of person who majored in business, spent the past three or four years as a consultant or management trainee and are now ready to grab for the brass ring. For you, an MBA is necessary.

Program: Plan on doing it full-time -- and probably not around here. "Some professions are virtually off-limits to graduates of lesser business schools," wrote Richard Montauk in his book How to Get into the Top MBA Programs. "The most desirable companies to work for, such as major consulting firms and investment banks, would no more think of recruiting at Acme University Business School than they would of giving this year's profits to the Flat Earth Society."

There's a variety of programs in the area -- especially if you don't mind driving a few hours away. Nevertheless, if you're leaving your job anyway, and if you're looking to break into a highly competitive market, you probably want to head elsewhere, perhaps even out of state. (No school in Florida made The Wall Street Journal's Top 50 Business Schools list, although the University of Florida was a runner-up.)

Pitfall: If you are heading to a top school, you're looking at a large financial investment, not to mention the opportunity cost of leaving your job in the current economy.


Person: You're in your late 20s, maybe early 30s, and you've come to the conclusion that you don't really like what you're doing. Figuring that advanced business knowledge will help you in another career, you're considering heading to grad school.

Program: School name recognition or reputation is more important for the Switcher than for many of the other categories. Even if you're going the more-likely-to-be-successful route of jumping to a related field -- going from nurse to hospital administrator, for example -- that shiny new degree is going to be your major calling card since you won't have a resume filled with directly related experience to brandish. You have to consider what will impress employers in your new field. This can be as simple as picking a program directly related to your field (the nurse-to-administrator, for example, would probably want to look at Nova's MBA in Health Services Administration) or as fuzzy as picking a school in the geographical region you want to switch to. And, for reasons detailed below, you probably want to go full-time.

Pitfalls: Switching careers is never easy, and the MBA itself probably won't be enough for you to be successful in doing so. You're going to have to work harder than other students to, in effect, cram half-a-dozen years of experience into two, by volunteering with organizations in the industry you're trying to move into, perhaps taking extra courses that fit the hoped-for position and holding down some sort of internship in the summer after your first year in school. Try doing all of that on a part-time basis!


Person: You're in your mid-to-late-30s. You like your job; you may even like your company. Looking into the future, though, you have doubts about taking a step up from your current job without something on your resume making you more marketable.

Program: Part-time programs are made for stalled employees, allowing you to continue to gain experience while getting the education that might unmire your career. "An employee going for an MBA shows he or she has high aspirations," said Earle Traynham, dean of UNF's business school.

While deciding exactly which schools to apply to, you have to figure out if your industry or your company places a high value on the knowledge you'd gain from a master's, or if the degree itself will serve to bolster your reputation. For the stalled worker, the MBA is, to a large extent, more about impressing someone else than it is about personal growth. Going with an accredited program makes your degree a bit more portable; if you're trying to stay in the area, you probably want to go to a school that local companies respect.

Pitfalls: How long have you been stalled, and how much will extra education help you now? Holding down a job while earning a master's isn't a cakewalk, and you want to make sure that the time and money you invest have a decent return. Are there other, cheaper or less time-consuming ways of getting out of your rut, like taking non-credit courses or doing a better job networking? Remember that it's unlikely you'll get your degree one day and a promotion the next. "Most surveys don't show immediate advancement," said Randolph Pohlman, dean of Nova Southeastern University's business school. "You're looking for the impact this will have over the course of your career."


Person: You're in your early 30s with enough years of work experience under your belt to get pushed up the ladder into management. Problem is, that's not your skill set -- and being a great engineer, salesman or marketer doesn't mean much when it comes time to manage.

Program: To an even greater extent than the Stalled worker, part-time programs are made for you. Since the entire point of going back to school is to help you do your job better, it makes no sense to leave it for a year or two. Your goals, though, are subtly different from someone who is stalled: Even more than the degree itself, what you're really looking for from business school is the skills in analysis, managing, strategizing and the like. This is the group online programs are aimed at, letting you sacrifice some of the brand-name benefits of brick-and-mortar schools in exchange for greater flexibility.

Pitfalls: Do you really want to be a manager? Sure, your boss thinks that you're a great programmer and wants you heading up a department, but maybe the reason you're good at programming is because it's something you love. If you're looking for more money and new challenges, maybe a master's in computer science or engineering -- a degree that would improve the technical skills you've already displayed -- would be a better fit. "This is your education dollar," said Ellen Lockamy, director of JU's graduate business program. "How do you want to spend it? It's like investing in anything -- you want to know what your return will be."

More MBA news

We've got the skinny on 7 area universities offering MBA programs -- everything from Web sites to tuition.

Business schools by the numbers. You'll be surprised at how the numbers have increased in a 10-year period.

Area universities offering MBA programs

Address: 6104 Gazebo Park Place South. Jacksonville, FL 32257

Phone: (904) 268-3037 (also has campuses at NAS Jacksonville and in the Prudential Building)

Web site:

Tuition: $13,000 ($9,144 at Prudential Building)

Details: Has evening and weekend classes as well as possible online components.

Webster University

Address: 4500 Salisbury Road North. Suite 200. Jacksonville, FL 32216

Phone: (904) 636-6645 (also has campus in Baymeadows and Orange Park)

Web site:

Tuition: $15,640 in person; $17,200 Flexnet; $23,800 online

Details: Well-known for its totally online program; also offers a "FlexNet" option, in which a third of the classwork is done at one of the local campuses and a totally offline program.

University of Phoenix

Address: Coggin College of Business. Bldg. 42. 4567 St. Johns Bluff Road S. Jacksonville, FL 32224

Phone: (904) 620-2590

Web site:

Tuition: $5,665 to $15,000

Details: Classes for full- and part-time students are held in the evening; also offers a weekend program and a full-time GlobalMBA, through which students take courses in Florida, France and Germany.

University of North Florida

University of Florida

Address: Warrington College of Business. 110 Bryan Hall. PO Box 117150. Gainesville, FL 32611-7150

Phone: (352) 392-2397 ext. 1283

Web site: Tuition: $18,000 to $25,000

Details: Has a one- and a two-year full-time program; two MBA-for-professional programs, an MBA-for-engineers program and an Executive MBA program, all of which meet on weekends; and a one- and two-year Internet program.

Nova Southeastern

Address: H. Wayne Huizenga School of Business and Entrepreneurship. 3733 University Blvd. W. Suite 302. Jacksonville, FL 32217

Phone: (904) 443-2885 (Jacksonville satellite office)

Web site: Tuition: $16,985

Details: Locally, has part-time program with weekend classes; full-time program available at the main campus.

Jacksonville University

Address: Davis College of Business. 2800 University Blvd. N. Jacksonville, FL 32211

Phone: (904) 256-7459

Web site: $11,850 (evening); $25,000 (executive)

Details: Offers a part-time program that meets in the evening and an executive program that meets on weekends.

Florida Metropolitan University

Address: 8226 Phillips Highway. Jacksonville, FL 32256

Phone: (904) 731-4949

Web site:

Tuition: $20,720

Details: Offers part-time and full-time programs; all classes are held in the evening, on weekends or online.

The Wall Street Journal's Top Southern Business Schools

University of Texas

University of North Carolina

Emory University

University of Virginia

Wake Forest University

Duke University

Vanderbilt University

Southern Methodist University

College of William and Mary

Between October 2001 and March 2002, The Wall Street Journal and Harris Interactive polled 2,221 recruiters on their impressions of business schools to determine the top 50 full-time programs in the country.

Take this quiz to find out if an MBA is right for you. Total your score and see where you stand.

1. Do you want to stay on the First Coast?

a. Definitely; I love my new job.

b. I can move if it gets my career moving.

c. I want to get out of here.

d. I'll go anywhere if it leads to the high-prestige job I desire.

a=8; b=7; c=5; d=10

2. Are you happy in your job?

a. Nope. In fact, I hate the entire field.

b. Not in my current position, but I'd be happy if I got a promotion.

c. I like being just where I am, except my parents keep asking when I'll be moving up.

d. I like it, even though managing is a lot different from being an engineer.

a=5; b=7; c=0; d=8

3. What do you think an MBA will do for you?

a. It will give me the skills I need now that I'm a manager.

b. It will let me change careers.

c. It will get me more money and a better job.

d. It will let me break into a competitive field.

a=8; b=5; c=7; d=10

4. How much longer will you be in the workforce?

a. 35 to 40 years

b. 25 to 30 years -- but I hope it's not this workforce

c. 25 to 30 years, and I hope I get a corner office someday

d. 10 more years, if I'm lucky

a=8; b=5; c=7; d=0

5. Where do you see your career going?

a. I'm not really sure -- but I know I want to be a manager

b. Career? Right now I just need to get a job.

c. I'll figure that out using the skills I learn earning an MBA

d. Do you have a few hours? Let me pull out this 20-year blueprint.

a=0; b=0; c=0; d=10

Your MBA quiz score means:

0-15: Why are you reading this? Business school isn't for you.

15-25: Going might not be a mistake, but don't jump into it. Make sure you pick a school and a program that will help you no matter where you go in life, even if it means leaving the area or going full time.

26-35: Looks like business school is the right choice, although you'll probably be happier in a part-time program, gaining both work and life experience. Fortunately, there's many such programs in the Jacksonville area.

36 and up: Why are you reading this? Don't you have applications to be filling out or something? Let us know how you do on that first big case study.


This is a showcase of the work done by Timothy J. Gibbons during a journalism career now stretching back more than a decade.

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