The gap between a degree and work experience

In many cases, a graduate degree is a generally accepted ticket to prosperity and success. To become a doctor, you must go to med school; to become a lawyer, law school. Ambiguity surrounds business school, however; what do you become when you earn your MBA?

According to recent GMAC numbers, the average starting salaries for MBA grads range between $76,000 and $90,000, depending on the school. Even the low range of those numbers is a handsome living for a sub-30 year old professional.

What do those numbers really mean? Can we definitively say that the same people who are raking in $90k after grad school wouldn’t have done the same with the equivalent amount of work experience? After all, a rockstar will find a way to be a rockstar wherever you put her.

Alternatively, a recent Forbes survey showed that more American CEOs had MBAs than any other degree – 38%. What was the second most common graduate degree for CEOs to have? None.

Those numbers paint something of an abstract picture to be interpreted by the reader, so I went out in search of a few successful professionals to get their takes on MBAs in today’s world. Business spans industry and, as business people, our impact can be felt anywhere money is flowing or people are being managed.

One of Vancouver’s major industries is Film, but many of us don’t consider it to be a viable application for our business educations. Directors, Producers and Screenwriters are the CEOs, COOs and Sales People of the film world. Curry Hitchborn, a local Producer and Screenwriter, shared some of his thoughts on MBAs in film with me.

“It’s like any vocation, man. Having a Phd doesn’t make you a doctor, but it gets you in the door. It’s not the experience of getting the MBA, it’s what you do with the ‘social passport’ that is the MBA. I look at degrees the same way I look at having drinks or being able to shake hands with purpose.”

In non-traditional applications of the degree, those letters behind your name can be seen as a differentiator. Film is a perfect example of that point: “As a producer, an MBA would tell others in the industry that I’ve taken the time to invest in myself and so should you.” However, the time spent at business school certainly does not equip you to walk into Warner Brothers and ask for a Producing job. Industry experience and knowledge is still paramount.

More traditionally, business school has led exceptional people into lucrative careers working with ratios, assets, P&L statements and tall glass buildings. Investment banking is one of the most competitive of those careers, and can be the most lucrative. I spoke with an Associate with First National Bank, Troy Talkkari, who has been extremely successful in that world despite the recent down-swing in the markets.

I asked Troy bluntly if there is any value to him in earning an MBA. His response was equally blunt: “No”. When I asked him to expand on that thought, he told me, “It all comes down to opportunity cost. Sure, having those letters are great, but what did you give up to get it? I’d take an analyst from Goldman Sachs with two years of experience over a Harvard MBA any day. You just can’t buy that type of experience.”

It seems that in Banking, much like Film, the MBA is a tool that can be used to sell yourself, and knowledge to increase the quality of your work, but in no way guarantees success. Troy recently moved up in his firm, and I asked him about evaluating candidates to take his previous position. “If one had the MBA and the other just an undergrad, either one could win, but the non-MBA would have to show me that what he did while the other guy was at school is even more impressive.”

As a current BBA student, I am interested in finding out what I can do that may be “more impressive” than an MBA to a future employer. According to Troy: “The CFA (Certified Financial Analyst) program is quickly becoming recognized as equivalent, or even more applicable than the MBA, so that’s where I would start. People can be earning their CFA while earning cash as an analyst. Either of those degrees will really help you out for the first 2-5 years of your career, but after that it’s all about what you manage and the success that you can show.”

Famous Executive and past CEO of Chrysler Lee Iacocca once said, “Apply yourself. Get all the education you can, but then, by God, do something. Don't just stand there, make it happen.” Lee also said, “MBAs know everything but understand nothing.” It seems that the key to success is gathering as much information as possible, interpreting it and acting on it, rather than hoping that the acquisition of that knowledge will magically lead to success.

Graduate degree holder and Capilano U instructor Ivan Surjanovic points out that many of the world’s most successful people do not have graduate degrees - Bill Gates is the obvious example. He believes that business students require skills, tools and knowledge in order to excel in the professional world. “Capilano does an excellent job of providing skills and tools to students, and an MBA may be the knowledge that students need... but it isn’t the only way.” The determining factor, according to Ivan, is attitude.

Apply yourself. Get all the education you can, but then, by God, do
something. Don't just stand there, make it happen.” Lee also said,
“MBAs know everything but understand nothing.

//Conner Galway

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