Is getting an MBA worth the trouble?
No longer a guaranteed ticket to the top, a master's degree still provides a career boost

George Bush has one. So does Arnold Schwarzenegger, and a ton of corporate CEOs, vice-presidents and executive wannabees. We're talking about an MBA, a master's degree in business administration.

Long touted by its promoters as a ticket to the top, the economic slowdown has led to a drop in demand for recent graduates. So is an MBA all it was cut out to be? More important: is pursuing one worth the time, effort and expense?

To find out, the Gazette assembled a panel of six MBA graduates from the Montreal island's four business schools, who have completed their degree within the last five years, and have had the time to reflect on the experience.

To a man, they said that pursuing the degree was worth the effort. "It teaches basic skills like reading an income statement and balance sheet. This might seem obvious, but many people in business don't know how to do that," said Massimo Fiore, an executive partner with North Star Technology Consulting, which he co-founded after graduating with his MBA from McGill.

Fiore, an engineer by training, is typical of a large sub-category of MBA holders who pursued the degree to act as a catalyst for a career change.

Claudia Teucke, a relationship manager at Scotia Bank completed her MBA for the same reason. Teuke, was trained as a tax lawyer in Germany, but fell in love with a Quebecer. German and Quebec tax laws have little in common, so if Teucke wanted to practice here she would have had to redo her studies from scratch.

So she went to HEC fulltime instead. Although it cost her a lot of time and money, she came out of the experience with a job offer from one of Canada's top banks.

"Doing an MBA was a great way to get to know Quebec's culture," Teucke said. " I met many interesting people in the safety of a school environment, not on the job, where mistakes can be more costly."
The MBA distinguishes itself from most other degrees in that applicants to business schools are generally required to have two years of professional work experience.

In practice that means those thinking about pursuing graduate business studies are generally in the workforce already. That means when they conduct a cost-benefit analysis on whether to complete the degree, they need to consider not just the tuition fees and school expenses, they must also contend with a year or two of lost salary, which can often tip the balance.

Isabelle Dessureault, a partner and vice-president (retail) at National Public Relations, decided to get around this by completing her degree part-time. For five years she attended classes two nights a week, while working a stressful job during the day.

"I'm glad I did it while I was young, because it can take a toll on you," Dessureault said. "If it's 4:30 in the afternoon and you need to get ready for night classes but your client is yelling at you, you're going to have to take care of him first."

Like most of the MBA graduates we talked to, Dessureault did not see any dramatic improvement in her career path as a result of her studies. However she conceded that her academic success may have accelerated her appointment to partner.

Business classes taught her how to work in a team and the credentials gave her credibility with certain clients, Dessureault said.

In recent years business schools have been trying to make it easier for part-time students, by designing special executive MBA programs for those who can come up with big piles of money.

These programs, which can run into the tens of thousands of dollars, enable an executive to cut corners so he can get his degree in just two years while working full time.

Virginie Audet, a biologist by training who works at Pfizer Canada as a special representative, recently completed an executive MBA at UQAM and has nothing but praise for the program.

"The studies are very hard and very intensive," Audette said. "You almost have to completely give up your personal life for two years. But you get it done fast."

As part of the program Audette signed on to an option that enabled her two spend several months studying in Paris, and she found the international experience especially useful. But while bullish about an MBA, Audette cautions prospective students against setting unreasonable expectations.

"The business schools like to promote their programs and they tell everyone they will become vice-presidents and make hundreds of thousands of dollars a year. But it's not always true," Audette said. " If you want to complete an MBA, you have to set your own goals and not listen to the hype."

But Karim Boulos, a business director at Concodia's business school, and a recent MBA graduate himself, not only believes the hype, lately, he's been doing a little hyping himself.

"The MBA is one of the best deals to advance your career," said Boulos, who worked as a swim coach for the Beaconsfield Bluefins for many years before changing careers. "Quebec business school tuition fees are among the cheapest in the country."

But in recent years business schools have been accused of being a little too successful. There are about 100,000 MBA students enrolled full-time in U.S. universities, and Montreal business schools churn out about 1,000 students every year. That makes for a lot of chiefs.

As a result increasing numbers of MBA graduates are finding themselves working in staff, advisory or sales positions as opposed to the line management jobs that many initially hoped for.

And with the tight job market, some, like Wassim Merhi, have to wait a little bit longer to find a placement.

Merhi, who graduated from Concordia's MBA program earlier this year is still looking for a job as a pharmaceutical representative, despite the fact that he has several years experience, and an undergraduate from one of the top universities in the middle east.

But Merhi is not discouraged. "I enjoyed business studies a lot, and met many interesting people that I would not otherwise have met," Merhi said. "In the meantime I just have to keep looking."

In fact the feeling among panel members appeared to be that it was often the intangible benefits of advanced business studies that they enjoyed most, such as the feeling of community they had during their studies, the networks they built and so on.

"I met my boyfriend while doing my MBA," said Audette with a big smile. "You can't put a price on that, but it's got to be worth something."




Getting Ahead: The pros and cons of completing an MBA

o An advanced degree provides a good business background for technicians and engineers who want to broaden beyond their areas of expertise.
o Quebec business schools are highly subsidized making a local MBA among the best deals in the country.
o The degree confers on its holders instant recognition and access to a strong network of contacts including many high-level decision makers.
o In recent years business schools have been pumping out MBAs in ever greater numbers, which reduces the degree's value.
o As a result an increasing number of MBA holders end up in staff or sales jobs in which they manage little more than a secretary or two.


Photo caption: According to six recent MBA recipients, the degree provides invaluable business theory and practical knowledge, which more than compensates for the lost salary and expenses, that it cost to complete the degree.



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