Is There Such a Thing as Too Many Qualifications?

Studying an MBA

One of the great challenges of taking an MBA is the lost career momentum and earnings. Students at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business do not just pay US$138,000 in tuition fees — they also forgo an average of US$160,000 in salary over the duration of the two-year course. The news that business schools are, increasingly, preparing their graduates for life-long learning, begs the question: Is there such a thing as too many qualifications?  

While learning should never be considered a bad thing, and acquiring new knowledge and skills is linked to career progress, a growing number of students think they are better off doing that while working. 

Part-time MBA programs have reported year-on-year growth for the past several years, says the Graduate Management Admission Council (GMAC), which administers the entry test most schools use. At the same time, many self-paced programs in the US continue to report falling application volumes. 

“Our students occupy relatively senior executive roles and are obviously very busy people. So, the Modular MBA, or MEMBA, caters for this by holding classes once a month over a weekend, Friday-Monday,” says Peter Fleming, director of the MEMBA at Cass Business School in London.  

“Compared to the full-time MBAs who have classes most days, MEMBA students can build class-time into their work schedules more effectively. 

“Moreover, this allows non-UK students to benefit too since they can fly to London for that particular weekend.”

Post-MBA continuous learning is more likely to be taken off-campus, through online and distance learning. MOOCs (massive, open online courses) are a good example. 

Others prefer to gain a first master’s degree, such as a Masters in Management (MiM), before getting an MBA later in their careers, according to GMAC. 

But an additional degree will not always be beneficial. How do you ensure that your education interweaves with your career goals? “Do your research,” says Chioma Isiadinso, from the admissions consulting firm Expartus. For example, by checking out employment reports to see which schools have the strongest links to your intended career path. At INSEAD, around half the MBA class are hired by consultancy firms such as the Boston Consulting Group. 

One of key drivers of continuous learning is the changing employment market. New technology such as artificial intelligence, and ways of working such as remote collaboration, mean that employees will have to re-train to stay relevant, as they progress in their career. 

Learning may need to become more focused, say to acquire a new, specific skill for a job — such as data analysis — rather than the more general management education associated with an MBA.

“As organizations struggle to fill technology-related job openings with qualified candidates, companies are re-examining their hiring practices and implementing skills-based models," says Anant Agarwal, CEO of online learning platform edX and professor at MIT

“Tech development requires very specific skillsets, as well as knowledge of languages and processes. In many cases, these skills can be gained without a specific degree from a traditional institution.

“Organizations, like LaunchCode, have been conducting skills training using online courses, such as HarvardX CS50, to up-skill professionals and get newly-trained individuals with online course certificates into paying jobs.”

Yet Jonathan Trevor, associate professor at Oxford University’s Saïd Business School, argues that a desire and willingness to obtain new information is in some instances better than the information itself.

“Being skilled at obtaining and using information in all its variety will be more important than developing specialist knowledge,” he says. 

Saïd has addressed this challenge by creating a course called Global Opportunities and Threats: Oxford (GOTO), in which students, alumni and faculty connect online to debate new business ideas that address international issues such as the future of work. 

“It’s a great example of looking to the future based upon rigorous and relevant research, and furnishing students with the skills to lead — systems thinking, futures and how to build relational capital for influence and collaboration,” Trevor says. 

In 2016 in the UK, 262,150 people obtained a postgraduate qualification such as an MBA, which usually requires a first degree, up from only 198,280 in 2005/06 — a 32.2% increase. Meanwhile, the number of people taking MOOCs in 2016 was 58 million globally, up from an estimated 35 million a year previously.

With the labor market changing so rapidly, these figures will likely grow, as more people realize that one degree is no longer enough to sustain an entire career. But they will need to do their research to ensure that continuous education pays off. 

Seb Murray
Written by Seb Murray

Seb is a journalist and consulting editor who has developed a successful track record writing about business, education and technology for the international press.

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