MBA in the USA

Frankly, it's time somebody told you the truth - dispelled the myths, cleared up the inaccuracies, and laid out both the practical framework and the philosophical underpinnings of the Masters of Business Administration (MBA); particularly if one chooses to pursue such a degree in the United States. It's time for some straight talk, and there is no better time than now.

When distilled to its vital essence, its vibrant core, the MBA's true worth lies in three areas: educational value, relationship development, and access to opportunity. Let's start with the easiest of the three - access to opportunity.

Let's face it - an MBA is not the Holy Grail. But in some circles of business, you will not have an opportunity to even compete, much less develop and showcase your skills and talents - without first getting an MBA. For such companies, for such industries, an MBA is an "Admissions ticket." It is the price of Admissions for being hired. The reasons for this are many.

Unlike the generation of my parents who came of age after World War II, where the goal was to find a great job at a great company, where pay and job security were assured - a company from which one retired; we live in a vastly different world today. In my father's day, the key was to find the right company, and to work one's way up the corporate ladder. In America, such companies were plentiful - from telecommunications to manufacturing to electronics to the automotive industries - even government. Such companies had strong in-house programs for training and development whereby employees could improve their skills and thereby their lots within the firm. In fact, those with degrees, much less in business, or those with MBAs, were indeed in the minority. Such degrees weren't all that necessary. Such was the business climate of my father's generation. I say my father, because it was also the generation in which a working woman was an anomaly. The world in which we live today, and the one you will face in the years ahead, is an entirely different species.

Today's world is fluid. On the one hand, many employees change jobs every five years; some even change careers. Given this migratory labor force, many firms have chosen to let the educational arena, particularly MBA programs, do what was originally handled within a company's particularized training and development program. On the other hand, this fluidity is not limited to employees. In today's climate of mergers and acquisitions many companies are constantly reinventing and reconfiguring themselves as well. Regrettably, loyalty and longevity are values of a bygone age. Unfortunately, this is not the end of the challenge.

Technological development, fueled by an ever widening Internet, has created a paradigm shift both in business and in the business of education. The Internet's true impact is not yet fully understood, but what is clear is that it is changing our world. As a manager, it is not uncommon to be called upon to manage in areas that did not even exist when you were in school (e.g. the Internet). Consequently, if you intend to be an effective manager in this fluid world, an MBA is a useful tool to have. But, an MBA from where?

It is an important question. For some American firms, where you go to school is as important as what degree you pursue. Sometimes, even more so . Getting my undergraduate education at Yale taught me that, and Business Week's, October 2 edition: "The Best B Schools," reinforces the reality that where you go to school still does matter. Such schools as Yale, Harvard, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Stanford, Wharton and Northwestern, all have great brand name value. If you get your MBA from such schools, you will have a wealth of opportunities to choose from. However, if you dig deeper, you will learn that while Harvard and Stanford have great brand names and equally great MBA programs, Yale has a great brand name, but its MBA equivalent degree (Masters in Public and Private Management or MPPM) is not as respected as that of Harvard or Stanford's MBA. Still, because Yale's brand name is so great, it seems not to matter that the degree is not as highly valued. As a Yale graduate one still has great opportunities, no matter what degree you pursue. However there is more to the story.

In my conversations with Yale Management school officials coupled with my own observations, I learned that over the years, many Yale students began to feel that nobody really understood what an MPPM was. As such, last year students were allowed to have their MPPM degree labeled as an MPPM or as an MBA. As of the fall 2000, the MPPM is now officially an MBA. Yale did not substantially change the curriculum content. It just changed the name. This demonstrates that at American Universities students can sometimes make a big difference, and it also underscores how important the MBA degree really is.

Many MBA programs seek to appeal to potential students by developing a specialty or by developing strength in a particularly region of United States. For example, the University of Southern California in Los Angeles (USC) has a very strong reputation in the Southern California with respect to its MBA program. Its national reputation as an MBA program provider is not as strong. However, since Los Angeles is one of the most important economic centers in America, to have a strong presence in Southern California is a great thing. We have pursued a similar course here in the Charlotte area, the largest banking center in America. However, USC has a great national reputation with respect to its graduate program in film. On the other hand, the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA), where I spent several years as Senior Associate Director of MBA Admissions, was ranked in the top ten of business schools in the country (now its ranked 12th); thereby, having a great brand name both nationally and regionally. However, UCLA's graduate school film program is not as well regarded as USC. What does this all mean?

The point of the matter is that in the world of business, particularly the MBA world, perception means a lot. What people perceive as being the case is often what counts. On the other hand, this perception may not match the reality. You might choose a particular MBA program in America because of what you perceive it to be or because of what your advisors perceive it to be. But, you may be disappointed, or it may exceed your expectations when you actually arrive. What can you do? Visit, talk to alumni of the school, talk to current students, do independent research, and of course read the institution's promotional materials (including its web site). Examine where its professors were educated, what is their experience, where do the institution's graduates go? How do they fare in the marketplace? However, this information will make little sense if you haven't figured out why you want an MBA and what you expect your MBA to mean in your career.

You must develop your personal framework through which all information you encounter will be filtered. Before you develop your personal framework, let me warn you. You already have one. Let me illustrate the point by dispelling the first myth that often trips up prospective MBA students.

Myth #1: Those without a business major need not apply. Rubbish.

Contrary to popular belief, you do not have to be an undergraduate business major in order to pursue an MBA. In fact, a great majority of the best graduate schools in America prefer a varied mix of undergraduate majors and that an as varied array of work experience backgrounds be represented in their student bodies. Why? It is because the primary method of teaching is through the case method, and the primary method of learning is through collaboration. This stands in stark contrast to schools of law where the method of learning is rooted more in an adversarial process rather than a collaborative one. In plain English, what does this all mean? Let me be more specific.

In a typical MBA course, it is not uncommon for students to examine a particular case study as a means of understanding the key principles the professor deems important. In examining the case, students do not come to the subject matter as a blank slate. Each draws upon their work experience and academic preparation. A person with a marketing background will see things in the case that perhaps a person with a financial background may not. A person with a social services background may see something that a person with a technical base may overlook. However, when all these perspectives (i.e. personal frameworks) are brought to bear on the case, each participating student both contributes and is enriched by the dynamics of the learning process.

While these are indeed generalizations, they are still the predominant learning patterns for graduate business programs in America. It underscores that learning is not just a relationship between a student and the professor. You will learn from each other.

In the final analysis, what is important is to have a reasonable exposure to both quantitative and qualitative elements with a good foundation in reasoning and thinking. However, I am reminded of the words of William James: "A great many people think they are thinking when they are merely rearranging their prejudices."

We still have many myths to dispel, but let's take a break. We'll start from here next time.

Muhammad Abdullah

Associate Dean of the Graduate School

Pfeiffer University at Charlotte

(704) 521-9116 Ext. 253

Muhammad Abdullah, who teaches communications and law, served as Director of the MBA Program for Pfeiffer University at Charlotte before becoming Associate Dean. Pfeiffer University at Charlotte is the largest MBA program in both North and South Carolina.


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