Should You Work Before B-School?

Posted on 16 October 2009

Harold Burden is the type of person who hates to postpone important tasks. So when he neared college graduation, he was uncomfortable with the prospect of working for several years before starting his graduate business degree.

Mr. Burden opted not to work full time and began looking for a business school that would waive the work-experience requirement and allow him to enroll directly from college. He found it at Michigan State University’s Eli Broad Graduate School of Management in East Lansing. Mr. Burden enrolled in the program and graduated at the age of 23.

“I’ve always been the type of person who likes to get things done the first time and not put them off,” he says. “In a sense, taking a break between undergrad and graduate school fell in the category of putting off my education.”

Most top graduate business programs require students to work full time for several years before enrolling in M.B.A programs. The idea is that by working first, students can see how business-school theory can be applied to the real world. And, since much of M.B.A. learning comes from interaction between students, students with a few years of work under their belts are believed to contribute more during classroom discussions.

But some business schools bend the work-experience rule occasionally. A few even have programs that allow students to move from their undergraduate studies directly into the graduate business school with little or no work experience.

A List of Advantages

This, of course, raises the question: Is having full-time work experience critical to getting a sound education in an M.B.A. program? Students who have gone directly to business school say it isn’t. And some administrators cite advantages to completing graduate business school without working first.

Mr. Burden had just completed a double major in marketing and management from Loyola University in New Orleans before he started business school. He’s sure his lack of work experience wasn’t a liability at Michigan State. “To be honest with you, it totally wasn’t an issue for me,” he says.

He also thinks that coming directly from an undergraduate business school allowed him to make an important contribution. “I was coming straight out of an undergraduate business program, and in a sense, that gave me a lot to add for those who hadn’t been in the classroom recently,” he says. “It kind of balances all out. I didn’t at all feel disadvantaged.”

Kevin Nall, associate director of M.B.A. career services at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, says there are advantages to going directly to graduate business school. For instance, students complete their education by 23 or 24. At this point, they have few responsibilities and paying back student loans often is easier than it is later in life, says Mr. Nall.

Having already earned an M.B.A. also can be beneficial when seeking a new job because employers know you won’t be leaving in a few years to return to school. “Certain employers are going to value that you won’t have to interrupt your job service,” says Mr. Nall.

Making a Rare Exception

Michigan State has a two-year work requirement for M.B.A. applicants, say officials, but the school made an exception for Mr. Burden. He had good grades, leadership experience, two undergraduate business internships and a high score on the Graduate Management Admissions Test.

“I was told that they may make an exception every now and then, and it’s very rare,” says Mr. Burden. “If you desire to get into an M.B.A. program straight out of school, the odds are against you, but it can happen.”

Mr. Burden concedes that having full-time work experience is probably preferable to not having it while in business school. However, his two undergraduate internships gave him experience that allowed him to contribute during class discussions.

At first, he was concerned he might not fit in with students who had worked in business for several years. “I went in thinking I’m going to be with people who have worked some 10 and 20 years, and how am I going to relate?” he recalls.

But he decided that everyone has something to offer in a classroom environment. “The key is that we all got in for a certain reason, we were all qualified and we all had something to add,” says Mr. Burden.

Enrolling in a small, more intimate M.B.A. program also was a sound decision for Mr. Burden. “I really liked the program because it’s small compared to the University of Michigan and other schools,” he says. “My class took in only about 100. I like that personalized attention. [It] was all I needed to see” during a scouting visit.

Mr. Burden is now an assistant product manager in the Chicago office of Hormel Foods Corp., an Austin, Minn., food-products company, a position he landed through the on-campus recruiting process.

“I’m working with the sales force in Chicago to learn the products,” he says. “Within a year, I’ll be transferred to the corporate office in Minnesota to begin product-management responsibilities.”

0 Two Degrees in Five Years

Some schools have accelerated programs that encourage students to earn their M.B.A.s without working first. For instance, Jason Ludeke majored in engineering at Tulane University in New Orleans and was one of five students to move directly into the graduate school of business as part of a five-year program to earn undergraduate and master’s degrees.

He, too, says that not having previous business experience before starting graduate business school hasn’t hampered his learning. “I would say it hasn’t hindered me,” says Mr. Ludeke, a Houston native.

But like Mr. Burden, he says that working first might have been helpful at times. “It could help in a course in which the job provided thorough exposure to the course material,” he says. “For example, a person with accounting experience might have an easier time with external or managerial accounting.”

As a “start-from-scratch” approach that assumes incoming students have no prior business experience, the M.B.A. program at Tulane’s A. B. Freeman School of Business accommodates Mr. Ludeke’s lack of work experience, says the 22-year-old. “That’s why you’re not really at a disadvantage coming from a different background.”

He chose to complete his M.B.A. without working full time first because he plans to make a career change. “I wanted to move out of engineering,” he says. “I didn’t want to be in the field long term.”

In about 10 years, he may start his own business, but he wants to gain experience first. “It’s [not] really realistic to want to own your own business right away,” says Mr. Ludeke, who will be 23 when he graduates. “I have to start working for a company and learn as much as I can as quickly as I can so that eventually I can work for myself.”

Mr. Ludeke has been interning in the corporate-development department at corporate offices of WorldCom Inc., a telecommunications giant in Clinton, Miss., and had a prior internship with another telecommunications firm’s corporate-development group.

Given this experience, he may seek a full-time job in the telecommunications industry after graduating. “What exact job role I’ll be looking for I’m not exactly sure,” he says.

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