MBAs and professional development: Do the benefits outweigh the costs?

From MBAs to master's degrees in specialist areas, many professionals decide to invest in further education. Here's what the experts think you can gain -- or even lose.
Written by Mark Samuels, Contributor
Professor of Computer Science Reads Lecture to a Classroom Full of Multi Ethnic Students. Teacher Holds Laptop with Deep Learning, Artificial Intelligence Infographics on the Screen.
Image: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Professional qualifications are an intense and often expensive experience: an MBA from a top-tier business school can cost tens of thousands or more for a programme of courses and events crammed into a year or so of hard studying. 

Supporters argue that, with the demand for digital transformation, understanding business as well as technology is a key requirement for those who want to get ahead. So is it worth it the time and money to gain a further qualification, especially if you're funding it yourself? 

Lee Cowie, CTO at Merlin Entertainments, says his MBA was definitely worth the investment. 

He completed it 11 years ago and chose the hard route to qualification – self-funded and spread over three years of studying during his spare time. The reason? Cowie wanted to boost his ability to talk in terms that senior stakeholders could understand. 

"I was always conscious in my career that in order for me to be successful in a business environment, I needed to be able to speak the language of the decision makers," he says. "I needed to be able to translate technical concepts and things that resonate and make business sense. And I felt that the only way I could do that was to learn the language and to demystify business." 

Allying business knowledge to his technical acumen meant Cowie felt confident to take on more responsibilities and to climb the executive ladder.

"Going through that process gave me the confidence to push myself forward. You start to think it's not actually as complex as you possibly thought. So yeah, 100% – I think doing an MBA was a real good investment in my time."

However, not everyone is so convinced about the value of further education.

Cristiane Muller, digital marketing manager at Midea, completed a master's degree in digital marketing. 

Like Cowie, she funded the qualification herself; unlike Cowie, she doesn't believe the investment in time and money has paid dividends. 

"Having a master's degree is going to be something to put on your CV. But in a few months, the information you learned is going to be old."

Muller says that's particular true in fast-changing areas such as digital marketing and technology.

She suggests professionals should take a different approach. Rather than spending an intense period studying for a single qualification, she believes professionals can gain more value from taking tailored courses focused on a specific skill or by networking with like-minded professionals in other organisations.

Muller says the future of business education will be all about constant study.

"When I talk to people younger than me, I always say look for smaller courses with short-term and more specific elements – that will be the future of education. You have to be studying all the time and learning more and not just being comfortable with titles."

Lily Haake, practice head for CIO and Executive Technology Leadership at recruiter Harvey Nash, recognises the value in further education.

She says the top business schools estimate that achieving an MBA can increase the average candidate's salary by up to 140%, which for some would certainly make the qualification worth exploring.

Yet despite this potential upside, Haake says it's up for debate whether the time and financial investment is worth it.

"Our top priority in assessing executive leaders is whether they can – and have – delivered for an organisation," she says. 

"Plenty of amazing, proven leaders have never even been to university, and likewise plenty of candidates with MBAs have a less impressive track record in the working world."

Proof comes in the form of Harvey Nash's executive search tactics. Haake says that when the firm recruits executive technology leaders, the team rarely look for an MBA specifically.

"In fact, I don't think I've ever taken a brief from a client where an MBA is an essential requirement," she says.

"That being said, if a candidate has an MBA from a prestigious institution – especially alongside other academic qualifications – it does help to paint the picture of someone who is intelligent, business-minded and dedicated. You can't underestimate the dedication required to complete an MBA."

Mark Bramwell, CIO at Saïd Business School, University of Oxford, says the basic return on investment from doing an MBA means a further qualification is worth the time and money.

As a business leader who works for one of the most prestigious academic institutions, Bramwell says it's important to recognise the benefits that come from being part of a research community of like-minded professionals.

"The bit that is slightly less tangible is the experiential networking you get from maintaining a cohort of contacts, which – from an Oxford experience – tends to stay with people through life," he says. 

"These people go on to do great things in great organisations at different levels, whether that's organisationally, commercially, philanthropically or societally."

Steve Otto, CTO at the R&A, is another executive who points to the non-financial benefits of MBAs and other financial qualifications.

After completing a PhD in aerodynamics, Otto worked at NASA Langley in the US, before returning to the UK to become a senior lecturer at the University of Birmingham. He now holds an honorary Chair at the institution.

"Further qualifications are useful in terms of helping people think in new ways," he says, before outlining how his organisation views candidates with additional qualifications.

"We have a real balance in our team between useful experience and people who have perhaps taken education further. We rarely hire people who are the finished article – we hire people who are really good at thinking and considering problem-solving rather than people who are doing their specialism."

At the end of the day, the value of any further education comes down to the individual. 

While some will see an MBA or a master's as simply something to add polish to their CV, others will become fully absorbed in the education experience. These experiences might expose the individual to new skills and even new areas of work.

More than a decade after completing his MBA, Merlin's Cowie has strong advice for others contemplating further education as a way to boost their professional credentials.

"I would say don't consider it – I'd say do it," he says.

"I understand the commitment. Very few people are fortunate to have the financial backing to be able to not work for a year and do it full-time. So I suspect many people will end up going down the path that I did, which is spread it out over several years. It's a lot of work. But ultimately, it's really rewarding."

Editorial standards