Recap: To MBA or Not To MBA

An animated image of a college graduation in a large auditorium.

‘To MBA or not to MBA’ can feel like a pretty high-stakes dilemma. We all want to ensure we’re tooled up for our next career moves, but is an MBA the right tool? In a recent two-part panel discussion series, we convened successful advertising and marketing professionals to dive into some of the big questions you might encounter as you make your decision.

Why should you get an MBA?

The panelists in both parts of the series were pretty unanimous about this one: if you’re interested in the ‘Administration’ part of an MBA, an MBA can be a very useful tool. In fact, the MBA’ed panelists consistently reported that having an MBA opened doors to high-level leadership positions that may have otherwise remained closed. If you are interested in departmental or organizational leadership, an MBA can be a very helpful tool.

That said, it is important to remember that an MBA is also a very expensive tool, and the school you choose can have a big impact on whether or not you’ll realistically get a return on your investment. MBA programs frequently engage businesses and business leaders as professors, guest speakers, networking event hosts, and internship sites. As you select a program, you are totally within your rights to ask questions about what businesses and business leaders the program is affiliated with. You can (and should) also ask questions about graduate outcomes. Check for alignment between the answers you receive and your own goals and interests.

If you find alignment between what the school offers and your career ambitions, it’s possible that an MBA is right for you. Once you’re in the program, do everything you can to get deep into it. Engage with as many learning opportunities as you can, and remember that a lot of learning and opportunity takes place outside the classroom. For example, networking conversations at happy hours or guest speaker events can bear fruit when you’re ready to apply for a new role, so it’s important that you have the bandwidth to be available. 

Bottom line: An MBA is a tremendous investment of time, money, and emotional energy, but if you find a program that aligns with your perspective and your goals, the ROI can be significant.

Why shouldn’t you get an MBA?

There are a lot of ways to build a successful career, and an MBA is just one of many. If you’re a more hands-on creative who enjoys being closer to the production side of advertising and marketing, an MBA might offer training or open doors that you aren’t so interested in. 

The panelists without MBAs have exceptional skills and were very much ready and able to enter leadership positions they were interested in. The most important keys to their success were curiosity, perspective, and experience. ‘Nerd’ used to be an insult, but it’s pretty clear that nerds (i.e. people who are openly and unabashedly passionate about niche interests that others might not really understand) are seriously running the world right now. Not doing an MBA leaves space for you to literally and metaphorically invest in other things. 

Marketing and advertising is a high-burnout industry. While self-care and career ambition are not necessarily mutually exclusive, finding a sustainable balance that can help you stay engaged and excited about your work is crucial if you want to be in the industry for the long haul. Not doing an MBA can leave time, money, and emotional bandwidth available to maintain the hobbies, relationships, and professional network that help you maintain equilibrium. Networking, open-house, and hiring events take place throughout the year, and not doing an MBA may help you show up with energy, passion, and diverse interests that make people remember your name. 

Building a body of curiosity, perspective, and experience might be a more interesting way for you to establish yourself as a leader in the field. Whatever you’re into, get deep into it. Then bring what you learned to your work, and ready yourself with real numbers that explain how your expertise grew revenue for your organization. If you are a nerd for package design, read all the trade articles and blogs you can about soy inks and 200 lb test boxes and water-activated printed tape. Share that curiosity and perspective in conversations about upcoming projects, and be prepared to make a case that the ideas you contributed had a positive impact on efficiency, engagement, sales, and revenue.

Bottom line: Find the parts of the industry that excite you, learn as much as you can, and your authentic knowledge, passion, and ability to drive revenue can take you a long, long way.

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