Should you get a full-time job after graduation or start work on an M.B.A.? The answer depends on whom you ask. Students who go directly to graduate business school insist they get a lot out of their studies without working first.
But many business-school officials don’t agree. Many M.B.A. programs require students to work for a few years first before starting their studies. This way, say officials, students get more out of the program and have more to offer other participants.
So which approach is better? Brian Poger, a student at Northwestern University’s J. L. Kellogg Graduate School of Management, believes the answer is clear. Mr. Poger worked for seven years at Eli Lilly and Co., an Indianapolis-based pharmaceutical company, before enrolling in business school.
Having full-time work experience has been essential to his gaining the maximum from the Kellogg program, he says. “I would recommend [you] get the best experience you can whenever you have an opportunity,” he says. “In most cases, that means working, learning how to interact in a business environment and developing your personal skill set.”
Getting the Most Out of B-School
Many career experts agree. Without full-time work experience, students have a more difficult time with business-school coursework and with job interviews, says Ann Browning, associate director of the career-management center at Kellogg.
Without working first, “I don’t think you get as much out of the classes,” says Kevin Nall, associate director for M.B.A. services at Baylor University in Waco, Texas.
Kellogg students have an average of five years of work experience. This gives them the background to “make what we teach here more relevant,” says Ms. Browning. They also have a better sense of what they want to do professionally. “It helps with career focus,” she says. “I’m not so sure that [someone without experience] would be 100% certain an M.B.A. is what they want to do in the long run.”
Mr. Nall notes that starting salaries are lower for students who lack work experience. He cites a Baylor survey indicating that the average starting for M.B.A. graduates with experience is 15% to 25% higher than for those who lack experience. “You do hurt your market value,” he says.
Aiming for a Top-Ranked School
Mr. Poger graduated from Washington University in St. Louis and could have gone straight into that school’s M.B.A. program. But he set his sights on attending a school with high marks in the published rankings — and this required experience.
At Eli Lilly, he transferred around to gain as much experience in different functions as he could. “The first two years [I spent] as an information-systems analyst, the next three as a project manager and the last two in a sales and marketing organization,” he says.
Moving from technology to project management to sales allowed him to develop different skills. “Those were self-selected moves,” says Mr. Poger. “I was consistently interested in business, and I felt like sales and marketing was the type of experience you need throughout life and would be good experience to get prior to going back to business school.”
Besides working first, Mr. Poger advises prospective M.B.A. students to enroll in “the very best business school that you can.” He says that the quality of business schools that require work experience is likely to be superior because about a third of the learning occurs by interaction.
Mr. Poger says he chose Kellogg because of its excellent academic reputation and because he would be “surrounded by peers I could really learn from.”
“Kellogg and many other schools work and meet in groups, which is very important, just as it is in the business world,” he says. “The more you develop those group skills in business, the better off you’re going to be and the more you’re going to learn from the people around you when you go back to school.”
The school’s strong student organization and government also was a factor in his decision, says Mr. Poger, who is president of the Graduate Management Association, Kellogg’s student government.
He spent last summer in London on a strategy-with McKinsey & Co., an international consulting firm based in New York. Eventually, he may opt for a consulting career. “In all likelihood, if I don’t go into consulting, I’d probably be joining some sort of technology company,” he says.
Going to B-School at Night
David Carpe, an evening M.B.A. student at Babson College in Wellesley, Mass., says the importance of having experience before starting graduate business studies is “huge.”
Mr. Carpe, 29 years old, worked in the capital-markets division of Fidelity Investments, a Boston mutual-fund company, then became an executive recruiter for Fidelity. Next, he founded an executive-recruiting firm, Thorn & Graves, in Boston. He started his M.B.A. at night in the fall of 1997 while working during the day as a search executive.
Having prior business experience isn’t as critical when taking courses like statistics and managerial finance and organizational behavior, he says. “It’s when you actually [get] the real meat of an M.B.A. program,” he says., says Mr. Carpe. “Those you can do right out of undergrad,” he says. But experience is key to getting the most from classes dealing with management, strategy,
A 1993 fine-arts graduate who studied sculpture at George Washington University, Mr. Carpe initially was concerned that the M.B.A. program’s math-related courses would be too difficult. “I feared courses like management accounting and linear programming,” he says. “Nothing I’d studied in undergrad had any value other than teaching you how to think and how to do critical research.”
But he soon learned that those courses weren’t as difficult as he’d imagined. Moreover, the core M.B.A. courses have been useful to his day work.
“The courses that were particularly helpful were really the business management-type courses like finance, marketing — real fundamental stuff that I didn’t take as an undergrad,” he says.
Further, graduate students who work full time relate to business-school professors as equals, not as teachers, and may learn more because of this, says Mr. Carpe. They “learn a lot from them as people, not just academicians,” he says.
On the other hand, students who don’t work often “just show up for class, complete their homework and leave,” he says. “They don’t necessarily get as much out of the coursework.”
Mr. Carpe says he met with several professors for advice when developing a business plan for an Internet firm he’s starting called everpath [sic], which will focus on the business needs of religious organizations. Meeting with the professors “was extremely helpful, like the ultimate sounding board,” he says.
Starting the new company has caused him to delay his M.B.A. graduation. “Since February I’ve been working 90 hours a week,” says Mr. Carpe.