Does an MBA Guarantee Success?

Oftentimes, the more common something is, the less valuable it is. This is not the case with MBAs.

The fact that more people than ever have a Master of Business Administration degree actually makes it more valuable. That's because not having one in today's business world can be a glaring omission.

However, an MBA is no longer enough to make your resume stand out. You must set yourself apart in other ways, too.

Gaining a few years of work experience before earning an MBA is one way to get an edge. Volunteer experience is also helpful.

"If you were thinking of an MBA 25 years back, you would have been in an exclusive club," says Steve James. He's the executive director of a university MBA program.

"There weren't as many programs, and you would have been truly differentiated," he says. "That's not the case anymore.

"It has moved to a necessity. You kind of have to have it, but it doesn't differentiate you like it did because others around you have it. It's become a baseline requirement, not... 'Wow, I'm standing taller than the others.'"

"There is a certain level of saturation," says Alex Sevilla. He's the assistant dean and director of MBA programs at the University of Florida's Warrington College of Business Administration. "There are more business schools offering MBAs than ever before."

But MBA programs are popular for a reason. They're not just a fad. While an MBA degree doesn't guarantee success, it can give you a big leg up in your career.

"MBA education is widespread because of its importance," says James. "To move from middle to senior management, to move from being a specialist to a generalist, the MBA is the most powerful kind of credential to have."

"The MBA is certainly a well known and well respected credential in the corporate business world," says Sevilla. "It has been around for a number of years, and it has a pretty well defined set of parameters as to what type of value and learning it provides to individuals.

"It's a way to really make a statement to themselves and to the marketplace and the industry that they're looking to join, that they're serious and they're looking at this for the long haul," he adds. "I think one of the other nice things about an MBA is its broad application, so you can... have many different career opportunities after you complete the MBA."

The broad career choices set MBA degrees apart from other graduate degrees, such as law, engineering and medicine. In those professions, you "...end up being very specific very quickly," says Sevilla, "whereas an MBA, by its nature, can be specific, but it also has a much broader context, which allows someone to change their career as they move forward and move into different parts of industry and even different job functions. I think that's a real asset of the degree."

Different Reasons for Earning an MBA

MBAs are valuable because business is more complex than ever. Globalization and the increase of trade between countries is a big part of that. The speed of technological change also adds to the complexity of running organizations.

James says there are three main groups of people seeking MBAs:

1) Those in their early to mid 30s who have enjoyed career success, and want to move ahead and set themselves apart from their peers. This group tends to do part-time or online MBA programs.

2) Those in their mid 20s who want to strengthen their academic credentials and focus on a specialty before entering the job market. This group tends to study full time.

3) Those who want or need to switch careers. They are more common during bad economic times. They study full time. "They're looking for a bridge to another career," says James.

Julie Attebury decided to complete an MBA after raising her children. She had previously earned a degree in biochemistry and had taken some business courses.

"My husband is from a family of serial entrepreneurs, and I realized that in order to be conversant in everything that they were doing I needed to have some business education," she says. "My main reason was to have a broad knowledge of business, to become more conversant with different things that were going on in our families."

Attebury is now a business consultant for the Small Business Development Center in Amarillo, Texas. She helps people start and grow their businesses.

Attebury says an MBA can provide a foundation for running your own business or moving ahead as an employee in a company.

"You can use it as a baseline for entrepreneurship, or you can use it as an entry into a company," she says. "[You can] use your work experience and your MBA as an opportunity to get perhaps a new position or something beyond an entry-level type of job."

Choosing an MBA Program

You'll need a bachelor's degree before applying to an MBA program. Many MBA programs require at least two or three years of work experience, as well.

Many programs require students to take the Graduate Management Admission Test (GMAT) as part of their admission requirements. The GMAT is a standardized test that measures skills in quantitative reasoning, verbal reasoning and analytical writing.

When choosing an MBA program, don't throw darts at a dartboard (unless that helps you think).

"When thinking about where to go and do your degree, you've got to be thinking about, 'How does the institution align to my particular circumstances?'" says James.

This means putting your research skills to good use. Research the reputations of different MBA programs. Find out what they specialize in. Find out what communities they're connected to. You want to make sure their specialties match up with your interests, and that the communities they're connected to are ones in which you want to work.

All of the praise for MBAs doesn't mean you absolutely must get an MBA if you want a career in business. Success in the business world is possible without those three letters after your name.

"There are many people who've been very successful and... do not have an MBA," notes Sevilla.

In fact, there are some very successful business people who don't even have an undergraduate degree. Famous examples include Microsoft's Bill Gates and Apple's Steve Jobs.

So, an MBA isn't always essential. Hard work, great ideas, the right support and a bit of luck have been enough for many business success stories. Still, an MBA degree gives many people an edge.

"An MBA gives you a great baseline of some really important, fundamental business skills that can be learned elsewhere, can be learned on the job, can be learned from mentors and in different ways.... so it's not an absolute requirement," says Sevilla. "But I think it makes the road a lot easier to navigate, and I think it makes someone's understanding of who they are and where they are most capable of being successful a lot clearer."