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6 Ways to Know If an MBA Is Right for You

Is the MBA Right for You?Deciding whether to pursue an MBA requires serious reflection. After all, this degree is quite costly in both time and money. Often, classes are comprised of older students, who are juggling jobs, school, and family, so other sacrifices factor into the decision. Therefore, those thinking about the costs of graduate business school need to be certain that the degree will help them achieve their personal career goals and provide a decent return on investment (ROI) before they make the leap. Here's a step-by-step guide to help you decide if an MBA is right for you:

Step 1: Travel to the future

Ok, so you probably don't have a DeLorean that can handle time travel, but try to think five to 10 years down the road. In what industry and job would you like to be working? Where would you like to live? What kind of salary would you need to be earning to accommodate the lifestyle you want to maintain? Take a self-assessment test to see if your skills and potential align with your desires.

Think about the kind of network you'd like to build and what you'd like to get out of an MBA program, suggests Stephanie Fujii, assistant dean of the full-time MBA program and admissions at the University of California, Berkeley Haas School of Business. "Be very honest with yourself," she adds. "Spend time on answering these questions. It will help you write your application essays. And, more importantly, if your goals and expectations are clear, it will make it much easier to determine which MBA programs are right for you."

Step 2: Work backwards

You'll have to return from the future for this one. Once you know about the kind of job you'd like to have, you should figure out if it requires an MBA, and the path you would need to take from what you're doing now to achieve that dream job. Will you need a certain number of promotions in your field? Will you need to change industries? If so, do you have transferable skills? Would you need to acquire new ones? Even if the job doesn't require an MBA, if you need to amass an entirely new skill set, business school may still be a smart choice.

Step 3: Start researching business schools

Once you've determined that an MBA program is right for you, then you have to pick a school. Actually, you have to pick a few schools to which you'll apply to increase your odds of getting into one, because the programs are pretty competitive. You'll also have to determine if you're going to attend school part-time and keep your day job (most likely for those who don't want to move and simply are looking to get promoted in their current company or industry) or full-time and focus solely on school (most likely for those who want to change industry and/or function).

The first step in narrowing down your options is to find out which schools specialize in the industry that interests you. You can look at the curriculum -- paying special attention to the majors or concentrations offered -- on the school's website. Consider MBA rankings conducted by publications such as Bloomberg Businessweek, the Wall Street Journal, and the Financial Times. (Don't let the numbers in these reports dictate where you go; rather, use them as a guide to narrow down your list and give you an idea of each program's strengths and weaknesses.)

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Assess the career services available. You want to know what help the school provides, which recruiters come to campus and hire the most students, and what hiring has been like over the last few years. "As a prospective student you can ask the programs you are considering for information on salaries upon graduation," says Gerardo A. Okhuysen, associate dean of masters programs at the University of California, Irvine Paul Merage School of Business. "While this information is not perfect, it can be a useful source of information to help you determine the right path to follow."

Step 4: Take a closer look at the programs

Now that your list is narrowed down, you can start to look more closely at programs. Visit the campuses if you can and talk to current students, alumni, and professors about what life is like there. Ultimately, you want to know if X program has the right courses to help you achieve your career goals and if you like the location (regardless of whether you plan on keeping your current job and going part-time locally or taking on a full-time program just about anywhere).

"I think it's important that [applicants] make sure the program provides them with the opportunity to grow and develop in ways that will help them achieve their future career goals," says LaVelle Mills, associate dean of graduate business programs at the West Texas A&M University College of Business. "By researching several MBA programs they can compare both content and costs and select the one that best fits their career goals and budget."

Step 5: Consider value

A quick Google search will uncover lots of reporting on the ROI of the MBA in general and at specific institutions. While you should definitely look at this information, again, use it only as a guide. It's a way to get an idea of how long it will take for you to out-earn the tuition you paid (possibly requiring you to go into debt by taking out student loans). Most importantly, however, you have to think about the long-term value. Will this degree get you to a position that will make you happy? Will you be able to make enough money to live the life you want? Will the education in and of itself be of value to you? Will the network you develop at school and as an alum be of value? Remember, the intangibles count, too.

"If your MBA program addresses your particular interests and reflects a culture that aligns with your values, you will be able to make the kinds of connections that will give you a greater return on your investment," says Fujii. "Think about the MBA as a long-term investment, not just somewhere you'll hang your hat for the next two years."

Step 6: Weigh what you've learned

Think back on all the information you've gathered and make sure this is truly the right journey for you. The MBA requires a commitment of time and money that makes the decision of whether to pursue one all the heavier. Don't be afraid to backtrack if you're unsure. And don't be afraid to move forward if you're certain this will help you achieve your greatest potential.

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