Getting an MBA With or Without Work Experience?

You can begin a Masters of Business Administration (MBA) program with no experience, or several years of experience. The amount of work experience required is dependent on the type of MBA you’re looking to get, the level of prestige and what your expectations are after completing the MBA.

Depending on the program you may need very little experience or a couple of years of experience. My experience prior to enrolling in an online MBA program was 5-years in the Air Force as an Aircraft Mechanic, 2-years working for the VA (While I got my bachelors degree), and 1-year as a business development rep (cold calling).

Below are some ideas you can use to determine:

  1. If an MBA is right for you

  2. What type of MBA program to choose

  3. How to use your MBA once it’s completed

Why Do You Want an MBA?

If you can’t answer this question, you should probably hold off on getting an MBA. Nothing is worse than working, stressing and spending on something for several years and not actually putting it to use at the end. A degree should support your professional goals, not be the goal in itself.

Too many times I talk to people who are just proud that they got a degree and not what the degree can help them achieve. I’m sorry, but I didn’t bust my butt getting my undergrad and MBA to hang it on the wall and call it a day.

I completed an MBA for these main reasons:

  • Proof for business/leadership topics I’ve studied on my own

  • My undergraduate was too industry-specific (agriculture)

  • I want to work in a leadership role

  • I got paid to get my undergrad, and my MBA (this is how)

  • Check the box for hiring managers

Can you spot the goal that I was working towards? Here’s a hint, it’s #3. That’s the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow for me. In reality, I would like to run this website full time and make a living off of it. Statistically, that’s not likely so I need a backup plan. I love the idea of transformational leadership and have grown a lot from experiences where I’ve been able to lead and develop others. The idea that I can create valuable and positive change in coworkers and help develop them into leaders is exciting to me.

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An MBA Requires Experience (Before or After)

If I expect any employer to respect my MBA (or any degree) I need some relevant experience to back it up. A degree is great, you put in the work and have proven that you can stick it out. If you’ve never applied what you’ve learned, your degree is next to useless. You either need to get experience before the MBA program or after.

Work experience for an MBA doesn’t have to be management or leadership related. A lot of what makes great leaders is what they learned during their time as a worker. Lean on all of your past experiences and be sure to sell yourself to anyone and everyone in your way.

Why I Got My MBA in My 20’s

I decided I would get my MBA right after completing my undergraduate degree. I understood that I lacked the experience, but I really didn’t want to return to school in my 30’s or 40’s. I’m young, have the energy and more importantly the drive to get it done. I was also getting paid to attend school thanks to a VA sponsored program I was in. My goal was to finish the MBA and backfill it with the necessary experience prior to really putting pressure on for a promotion.

I never expected my MBA to radically change my employment situation. I was already happily working at my software company as a business development rep. My manager didn’t have a degree, and her manager (sales manager) either. I understood a degree, let alone an MBA was not a requirement for a promotion.

About halfway through my MBA program, I got promoted to an inside sales position which had little to nothing to do with my educational history. The next promotion I received 6 months later did. The manager that brought me onto his team also had his MBA (I think there’s only a couple of us in the entire company with their masters). We’re a lot alike, get along well and have this connection over getting an MBA early in our careers.

This was the first door my MBA opened for me and I was a month out from graduating. I’m pleased to say that I’ve been an account manager for over 6 months and am getting the relevant experience I need to really make my MBA valuable.

Pros of having work experience before MBA program:

  • Better understand course material

  • Apply MBA material as you learn it

  • Better promotability upon completing MBA

  • Higher chances of increasing salary upon completion

  • Ability to make a career change

Pros of getting an MBA before work experience:

  • Already used to going to school

  • No need to relearn math if it’s been awhile

  • Better chances of getting scholarships/financial aid

  • Easier to go to school outside of the state

  • Faster promotability through the ladder

  • No need to make a career change

What Type of MBA Program is Right For You?

There are a couple of options when looking into the right MBA program for you. In-person, online, prestigious, or “check the box.” The type of program you apply for really depends on your own unique situation and goals:

  • Are you looking to land a job at a large firm?

  • Are you simply looking for a promotion at your current workplace?

  • How much money are you planning on spending?

  • Are you going to work at the same time?

  • Do you plan to network extensively with your peers?

  • Are you interested in entrepreneurship?

These are all questions you will want to consider as they will hold significant weight on the program you choose. I chose to attend Western Governors University as it was one of the best online options I found. They’re fully accredited, online and self-paced. Read more about my full WGU review.

If you’re looking to get your foot in the door at a major fortune 50 company, then you’ll likely need to up the prestige level of the school you get your MBA from like:

  • Stanford University

  • University of Chicago (Booth)

  • Columbia University

If you are like me and aren’t planning on relocating to a major metropolitan city and climb the corporate ladder at a major firm, then you may be able to get away with a state university or online program. Washington State University has branch campuses across the state and offers an MBA program. I couldn’t make this happen because I have 3-kids under the age of 7 and just couldn’t visualize how I could work full-time and make it into the classroom.

How Much Work Experience Is Right For You?

Only you can answer this question for yourself. I’m a big fan of identifying the goal and work backward from that. That’s the only real way you can be sure that you’re on the path that will take you where you want to go. Don’t forget that experience doesn’t have to be business administration experience to count towards an MBA. I’m able to lean on a lot of my time in the military as a leadership experience.

I wish you the best in this venture. Don’t be afraid to reach out directly with your questions or concerns. I’ve been there and have asked all the same questions you’re probably asking right now.

Remember, the best investment you can make is an investment in yourself.

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