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MBA's: Outdated In Today's Changing Economy?

Thursday, 16 Oct 2008 | 11:17 AM ET

Stephanie Myers co-authored this blog post with Phil Stott.

Despite Monday's history-making stock market bounce, and worldwide government intervention to prevent a complete financial meltdown, the economy still looks bleak for the foreseeable future.

While employees in the financial sector have undoubtedly borne the brunt of recent job losses so far, more and more workers at all levels are facing an uncertain future, and find themselves facing a key question: "Where do I go from here?"

Regardless of what caused it, or where it ends up, this downturn has at least one thing in common with every other recession in recent memory: as it has progressed, the number of applicants to the most popular qualification for professionals—the MBA—have increased exponentially. It seems like the obvious thing for anyone seeking to make progress in their careers to consider in a tight job market, but is it really the best decision to make—especially for those already well progressed in their careers and currently operating at or just below C-level?

We've put our heads together and come up with some reasons why those seeking to go back to school to ride out the downturn might be best to consider a different path than the well-trodden route to the MBA.

More applicants = more competition
With MBA applications up across the board (even if that doesn't necessarily translate into a higher quality of applicant, according to one career center contact we spoke to), anyone seeking to get into a program is facing a sterner test than they would have, say, a year ago. The ideal MBA candidate, then, will have to stand out even further than they would have previously just to get on the course. Dare we suggest that, when the going gets tough, while the tough may indeed get going, the savvy may be better getting into something else that has the potential to be just as rewarding?

Where's the competitive advantage?
Essentially, holding an MBA has become the gold standard for getting in at many companies (especially financial firms)—but is merely possessing one necessarily the golden ticket to a better position? After all, if everyone has an MBA, the value of such a degree quickly diminishes—especially in this economy. (Even The Wall Street Journal recently conceded this point, reporting that graduates are already dealing with a harsh job market.) But instead of worrying about whether now’s the time to go back and acquire an MBA, you might instead want to turn your concern to how you’re marketing yourself. One top school offering an MBA program said that it’s important to be able to “translate your skills to other sectors—or a different type of position, if necessary.” That means looking beyond your usual scope of jobs—or maybe even looking into a new sector altogether.

Consider other options
To this end, it’s important to keep in mind that the MBA is hardly the only game in town. Getting a Master’s in science, engineering or even geography or computer science may just give you that all-important competitive advantage, especially when a recruiter ends up with a pile of near-doppelganger resumes on her desk, all touting their fresh-out-of-school MBAs. Specializing your knowledge and being able to market it accordingly is always important, but even more so in these rough economic times.

As one example, between the move toward cleaner fuel and the trend toward developing hybrid and electric automobiles, the alternative energy industry has exploded and looks set to continue to do so. As it grows, the industry is going to need more experts in the field—and that includes consultants, analysts and those with backgrounds and schooling in engineering. And those financial houses currently handing pink-slips to even their highest-level employees? They’re going to need people who understand these new industries to help them guide their future investment decisions. Anyone deciding to work within these industries and get a suitable Master’s degree to match will automatically find themselves apart from the pack—period.

An uncertain future demands new answers
With governments around the world calling for a new way of doing business in the financial sector, it seems safe to say that the future of business may bear scant resemblance to what we know today—or knew before the housing and credit markets imploded. Not to put too fine a point on it, the vast number of MBA degrees currently afloat in the hiring pool may be a big part of the puzzle that’s responsible for getting us into this mess. Whether it's the people, the system, the MBA, or a combination of them all that's responsible for the current crises, it seems reasonable to assume that following the same approach that got us here isn’t likely to get us to where we want to go.

With that being the case, those interested in becoming the leaders of tomorrow may do well to consider how best to get there. Given that the MBA represents the status quo in business qualifications, and that the foundation our economy is built on has all but disappeared before our very eyes, future leaders—or indeed those in hiring positions—may want to consider how well a qualification that conforms to the status quo is likely to serve them in future.

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Phil Stott is a staff writer at Vault.com. Originally from Scotland, he now lives in New York, and has also lived and worked in Japan, South Korea and Eastern Europe.

Stephanie R. Myers is a staff writer for Vault.com. She possesses a bachelor’s of journalism from the University of Texas and resides in Brooklyn, New York.

Comments? Send them to executivecareers@cnbc.com

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