Undergraduate vs. MBA
Going to school can be helpful for business career; but it cannot be an escape from reality
By Lee Sun-kyo
There are many degrees available for people who aspire to enter or climb up the ladder in the corporate world. For undergraduate freshmen and even high school students, several ― although not all ― major universities offer bachelor’s degrees in business administration or similar programs that train students for a career in business. University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton school of business, the first business school in the U.S., even offers five specialized undergraduate business programs in addition to its famous MBA and Executive MBA programs.
Among the huge pool of business education options, it is critical to choose the right one that will give you the edge you need in the job market and pave your way for success.
An MBA is a common option for people with work experience aiming for management positions or planning to start their own businesses. There are other masters’ degrees related to business such as master’s in finance and master’s in technology management that also allow people to specialize in specific fields in a shorter period of time.
But the earliest you can earn an official business education credentials is during undergraduate years. Although many people prefer to save business education for later in life in professional schools and like steep themselves in liberal arts or acquire a basis for another kind of expertise such as engineering, science or economics, undergraduate business programs continues to survive , and even prosper at select schools, for a reason.
According to the undergraduate students at prestigious U.S. business programs such as NYU Stern, Emory Goizueta and UPenn Wharton, the programs’ emphasis on liberal arts and the option of dual degree allow them to get a quality undergraduate education along with business education.
Lee Su-lim, Wharton class of 2013, has entered University of Pennsylvania’s engineering school as a freshman and has decided to get another degree at Wharton during her time at the Ivy League school.
“There are many students like me, pursuing dual degrees at Wharton and another discipline in UPenn, whether that be in engineering or liberal arts. It is completely up to the students to plan their academic career,” she said.
Some schools like Emory University ensures its students get a well-rounded undergraduate education by allowing only students in junior and senior years to take business courses. Even so, their programs offer as much as if not better networking opportunities and practical knowledge as MBA programs, says Sophie Park, a junior at Goizueta Business School of Emory.
“I have had plenty of opportunities” to build close relationships with Goizueta alumni through the school’s mentor-mentee program and networking seminars, she said.
One of the biggest advantages of attending an undergraduate business programs is that students can become more creative and aggressive in experimenting business ideas because they have little to lose at that ages. For example, Ticket Monster, a popular internet daily deal site, was launched by an alumnus of Wharton right after his finishing the undergraduate course. Now the site is one of the largest daily deal sites in Korea.
“Like the CEOs of Ticket Monster, many Wharton undergrad students explore and succeed in the business world early in their career,” says Wharton’s Lee, who is entering a venture plan competition with friends this summer.
Naturally, many people who have an undergraduate degree in business and management do not choose to do an MBA later in their career. In Wharton’s case, two-thirds of its undergrads do not pursue further degrees in business management.
“I take the same courses with Wharton MBA students. I even heard from a Wharton MBA student that our courses are more intense than theirs,” said Cheong Woo-young, who just finished his sophomore year in the school.
MBA/EMBA not for everyone
Many corporate workers who do not have undergraduate business degrees but do have a few years of work experience under their belt opt for two-year or one-year MBA programs. They hope it will help them change career or put them at an advantage in promotions over their colleagues without such degrees.
The recent trend is that the average age of MBA students has gotten lower, as more and more young people see the degree as a chance to steer or upgrade the level of their career, says Ahn Hong-suk, CEO of Envisioner, a career consulting company in Seoul. However, this can be dangerous as MBA is not a plus to anybody and everybody’s career, he warns.
“Many flock to overseas business schools not knowing what they are getting into - the culture difference, the language barrier, the cost of raising a family abroad if they have one. Nor have they contemplated the opportunity cost of the two years that may not add much to their career,” he said. “For many, MBA has become an escape from reality. People go to MBAs falsely hoping their life will turn around after it.”
Ahn recommends that people consider more specialized master’s degrees other than MBAs. The career consultant, who himself has an MBA degree from University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, says that a Master of Science program takes half the time and money of attending a full-time MBA.
The MS program is often thought as an academic degree pursued by people planning to earn a doctoral degree in management or finance, but in fact it also offers practical education similar to the second year curricula of full-time MBAs. And most of all, when it comes to graduate business education, it is important to recognize the specific place and time of one’s career to evaluate what degree will be most helpful.
For example, for someone who has worked in the field of marketing for some time and hopes to develop further expertise in the field, an MS in management with a concentration on marketing could be the right program. And if one is on the track toward becoming the CEO of a firm or wants to change his or her career path from a specialist to a general manager, then a traditional MBA program will fit the need more than an MS degree.
“What is important is that it meets the need of the MBA taker,” says Charles Kim, the chief of Human Capital Consulting team at Aon Hewitt Korea, a consulting firm. “It doesn’t have to be a full-time MBA. Whether it be e-learning based, a non-degree program or a full-time one at an international campus is not important.”
At full-time MBA courses that last for one to two years, close networking is easier than in shorter programs. So this is especially good for junior managers who are sponsored by firms. But for senior executives with greater responsibilities, an Executive MBA (EMBA) or even non-degree programs with custom-made curriculum might be better.
EMBA and non-degree programs work well for executives who can’t leave work for more than a week at a time. And to maintain the quality of their class, well-known EMBA programs require that applicants have at least eight years of business experience. In case of Kellogg Business School’s EMBA program, most students have between 8 and 15 years of experience.
“Although juggling work and studies can be tough, the executive can apply what he or she learns from the programs right away at work,” Ahn, the career consultant, said.