Question of the Month: March 2007

Question: “I don’t feel like I’m as marketable as I ideally should be in today’s job market; should I consider getting an MBA or acquiring some additional education?”

According to the generally-accepted “conventional wisdom” that has prevailed in this country for many decades, if not longer, the path toward increased career success tends to run right through the doors of a higher education facility.  Many professionals in recent years, seeking to improve their job prospects and marketability, have plunked their money down for an MBA or another form of advanced degree, hoping that once this new credential is in hand, their employment fortunes will show dramatic improvement.

Does an advanced degree truly have an immediate impact on a person’s employment fortunes, however, once they’ve invested the time and money necessary to acquire it?  The answer depends a lot, I’ve found, on who exactly you ask.  Not surprisingly, those who have a vested interest in the continued growth of the education industry (i.e. they’re working for a college or university) will certainly tout the benefits of advanced education with few reservations.  For example, after taking a random trip to Google, you can easily find statements on college websites such as “the enrollment in MBA programs has exponentially increased as it has become a necessary credential for those wishing to compete in a global society.”  Additionally, the message about education seems to particularly resonate in Seattle, since according to a well-known survey conducted last year, Seattle is second only to Washington D.C. in terms of the percentage of the city’s residents (20.5%) who hold advanced degrees.

Is obtaining an advanced degree truly the best move, though, for somebody looking to kick-start their career prospects?  Looking at my own anecdotal evidence with regard to education and its connection to job hunting success, I’m not convinced that the answer is quite that black-and-white.  While I’ve certainly met people whose degrees have played a major factor in their success, I’ve also met quite a few MBAs and other Masters program graduates who have languished out of work for years at a time — as well as Ph.D. holders who find that this formidable credential carries tremendous weight in academia, but can actually serve as a liability in the business world, in certain cases.  Not only do these credentials lead to some candidates being perceived as “overqualified” for certain types of positions, but some employers also discount the value of the educational achievement based on the perceived strengths/weaknesses of the school where the credential was acquired.  Or because, in general, the experience might be perceived as “classroom learning” and held in less regard than the skills other candidates have gained through direct, hands-on work experience.

And yet, in fairness, I cannot honestly say that I’ve met more than a handful of people who would claim to actually regret attaining their advanced credentials, which is somewhat telling.  Those who acquire such degrees clearly have well-deserved pride in their achievements and feel that the experience was a worthwhile one, even if it didn’t necessarily lead to the immediate jump in salary or the increase in interviewing activity they were hoping for when they initially enrolled.   Interestingly, too, the majority of MBA graduates I’ve polled have reported that the greatest value of the experience was not the actual knowledge they acquired or even the impact of listing their MBA credential on their resume — but instead, the local network that their studies allowed them to build with classmates, professors, and influential business people around the community.

In closing, therefore, there obviously isn’t a one-size-fits-all answer to the advanced education question and there will continue to be strong debate about the relative value of going back to school compared with investing one’s time and money in other career-enriching activities.  For what it’s worth, however, I’d caution people against enrolling in extensive additional schooling without first conducting significant research to ensure that the experience will produce the outcomes one is hoping to achieve.  In other words, if you want to go to school to learn more about a subject you’re tremendously passionate about or because the credential you’re targeting is an indisputable requirement to advancement in your chosen field, go for it!  It would be hard to argue with the validity of those reasons.  If instead, however, you’re considering school simply to “fix” a lack of job searching success, you might want to recalibrate your expectations.  Advanced degrees are awfully expensive, both in terms of time and money, and they rarely turn out to be “magic bullets” that provide an instant payoff in terms of salary and responsibility.

One final tip: in terms of evaluating the “perceived value” (aka marketability) of certain educational and training credentials among today’s employers, one great technique is to try running some appropriate searches on the little-known “Job Trends” section of the Indeed.com website.  You’ll find this section by clicking here and if you type in MBA, PMP, SPHR, or any other distinctive certification or educational acronym, you’ll get some immediate feedback about how “hot” these credentials are in today’s market!

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