What Are the Pros and Cons of an MBA?

by Meg Embry

Updated May 23, 2023 • 5 min read

If the pandemic has taught us anything, it's that we need nimble, adaptable leaders who can step up and perform well in a crisis.

Such skills will be marketable in the post-pandemic landscape, so it's no surprise that MBA enrollment spiked in 2020 as people took advantage of the economic slowdown to crisis-proof their careers. Demand for online MBA programs has also increased with the massive global shift to remote working and learning.

What's so Great About an MBA?

A master of business administration (MBA) is a general graduate degree that focuses on the analytical, technical, and ethical aspects of business. It's popular with students looking to boost their careers, jump into new industries, or become entrepreneurs.

The degree also prepares students to step into leadership roles that extend beyond business — according to the Edelman Trust Barometer of 2020, 92% of employees want business leaders to play a role in fixing societal problems. MBA curriculums are adjusting to reflect growing student expectations around having a positive social impact.

On top of that, an MBA can be a ticket to a great salary. Median starting salaries for MBA grads in the US hit a record high of $115,000 in 2019. Chief executives in scientific, technical, and manufacturing fields can earn a median salary of over $200,000.

What are Some of the Most Popular MBA Specializations?

  • Strategy
  • Consulting
  • Marketing
  • Operations management
  • IT or technology management

There are three important things prospective students say they want to gain from an MBA:

  • Knowledge and skills in business
  • Access to new job prospects
  • Access to a strong professional network

Most MBA programs deliver all of this and more. But what do alumni say about their own return on investment — and what do they wish they knew before getting an MBA?

It's Not a Golden Ticket to Success

"Before getting my MBA, I wish I knew that it wouldn't instantly guarantee more opportunities out of college. As a college graduate, you still have to work hard to break into an industry. The way MBAs are advertised, it seems like you'll be able to get hired easily right away. But lots of employers either don't want to pay extra for an MBA, or do not care enough to adjust your pay scale."

–Luke Smith, Founder of We Buy Property in Kentucky

"I graduated with an MBA in sustainable innovation from the University of Vermont. Since then, I've worked as a business consultant for nonprofits. I wish I had known that an MBA will not replace experience."

–Margaret Arzon, Project Manager and Strategy Consultant at Rodel

"I thought, 'Okay, I'm coming out of the projects. If I can just make $60,000-$80,000 a year, all my problems will go away and I'll somehow magically be happy.' That's very much not the case. I make well over $80,000 a year, but I still have to choose to be happy."

–Jamie R. Wright, CEO of Jamie R. Wright LLC

Work First

"I wish I would have worked for 3-5 years before joining an MBA program. The exposure might have given me better clarity on whether to pursue the MBA. I would have known which electives to take, would have appreciated the learning experience more, and would have understood the material better."

–Olivia Tan, Co-Founder of CocoFax

"I worked for two years after my undergraduate and then decided to pursue an MBA. It was challenging. If I had waited a little longer to get started, I would have had more insight and experience.

Wait until you have an area of focus in mind. I took the broad approach, but knowing what I know now, I would have found great value in an entrepreneurial minor or focus."

–Tara Goodfellow, Managing Director at Athena Educational Consultants, Inc.

"I would tell my younger self to find an internship instead. It would have been more beneficial to my career; employers were less impressed by the MBA than they were hesitant about my lack of experience. So get a job first and see what career path you want to take in that company. If it requires an MBA, your company might reimburse you for part of it."

–Gene Caballero, Co-Founder of GreenPal

Networking Is Everything

"By far the most valuable part of my MBA was the network I built. When I went back to school I didn't understand how much these people would enrich my life both personally and professionally. I am constantly in touch with classmates. I have joined every local alumni club in every city I have lived in. I have attended every reunion.

I started a global branding and digital marketing firm 19 years ago and my first clients came from my MBA network. I continue to get referrals and offers to speak at events through my MBA contacts today. The people make the program and staying connected has kept me relevant throughout my career and happy on a personal level."

–Paige Arnof-Fenn, Founder and CEO of Mavens & Moguls

"I wish I had known the importance of establishing key relationships with other students in the program. Once your relationships are established, it's just as important to maintain them. Today, my classmates have generally advanced their careers to senior management positions in notable companies in healthcare, technology, construction, and government across the United States.

While the MBA was nice to have for negotiating that initial salary bump upon graduation, advancing to these senior positions still took time and effort. Genuinely and authentic contact with fellow graduates is helpful in maximizing the return on investment."

–Patrick Smiley, Director at Northramp LLC

Lean Into Soft Skills

"It was helpful to understand balance sheets and income statements, marketing techniques like AB testing, and supply chain operational processes.

But the softer skills that I developed have been even more useful: how to command a room, build a team, and problem solve while adapting to business challenges. In the COVID-19 remote work environment, the increased need for team building, trust, and good communication based on strong relationships is key for business success. The MBA helped consolidate deep knowledge while I practiced authentic leadership."

–Liz Kwo, Deputy Chief Clinical Officer at Anthem

Portrait of Meg Embry

Meg Embry

Meg Embry is a Colorado-based writer for TheBestSchools.org covering higher education. She is an award-winning journalist who has lived and worked in Canada, the Netherlands, and the United States.

Header Image Credit: Westend61, Sameh Wassef | Getty Images

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