Career Crossroads: Do You Really Need an IT MBA?

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ITimage2Maybe you've been thinking of getting your MBA with an IT specialty. Maybe you want to jump-start your career, move to a new area of IT, or make yourself stand out in the job market.

You know that grad school can be very costly. If you have previous student loans or a family to support, going straight for a graduate degree could be more financial pressure than you are prepared to shoulder. If you don't have the financial burden, it is still very important that you pursue the degree that meets your professional goals.

Getting your MBA might be just the ticket. On the other hand, an MBA might stand in the way of getting your ideal IT job. So let's make sure you think it through before enrolling by looking at your professional goals before considering B-school.

If Your Goal is Upgrading Your IT Skills...

Because IT is a dynamic and continually developing field it can be tough to keep up with the latest changes. Ask yourself if the skills you need are for technical improvement or to help you lead changes or teams. In some cases you may need a grad school program that is not an MBA. For instance:

• A Master of Information Technology Security program helps you look deep into IT security issues, testing and improving security experience. If you want to work in the field of defending against hackers and other security elements, perhaps this is more for you than MBA studies. However, if you want to be the boss of your company's "Hacker Research" department, your MBA in IT Security will provide the management basics – strategic planning, finance, staffing and team building.

• A Master of Computer Engineering program improves your engineering skills for advanced work in developing or streamlining computer operations. If you want to be the Engineering Manager or Director of Engineering, getting your MBA in Technology Management will provide a more business-level base of knowledge.

• A Master of Information Systems program helps you refine your data and communication skills. But the MBA in Information Systems prepares you to direct or oversee a company's IS team up and down the line.

The key to walking out of grad school with a specialization that makes you more employable is knowing if you are upgrading your skills for expertise at doing the work (Masters) or whether you want to manage the IT work (MBA).

If Your Goal is to STAND OUT from other Applicants...

Know that just attending and completing grad school does make you a stand out. Still, part of a great graduate academic program is also improving your team and communication skills. Ability to communicate what you do, what you want, how you can use it to benefit the employer and be a team player, team leader or team builder is one of the main things employers seek. Whether you earn a Master's degree or MBA, if you can't communicate to an employer that you can work with your team so he or she makes money, you will not advance your career.

Consider whether you want to stand out because you can communicate technical details of an engineering or architecture project, or present business cases for how the engineering or architecture will improve the employer's bottom line. That's where you'll decide if your graduate school efforts should be toward a Master's (technical) or MBA (business).

Master's degrees do give you a distinct advantage for jobs with employers in research and development or academic cultures. MBA degrees will make you stand out to business leaders and consulting providers.

When Getting an MBA in IT Doesn't Help...

Sometimes people go for an advanced degree in a field completely unrelated to that of their bachelor's because they want to change career direction. This can stand in your way if the new degree doesn't make sense to employers. For instance, if your undergraduate degree was in Women's Studies and your graduate degree has a concentration in Systems Administration employers may simply not understand how your academic background is relevant. Others will wonder if you can focus on your profession.

Another situation in which an MBA won't help occurs once you are out in the workforce. You will face two very common applicant situations: the daunting interview question asking, "Don't you think you're overqualified for this position?" and the tiresome letter of regret that says, "We're sorry, but you are overqualified."

In the back of their minds, employers are always looking for someone to grow with the company. But in the front of their minds is the important issue of the budget. Employers want employees who are not overqualified because they believe overqualified employees will be dissatisfied with the budgeted salary. They also want to avoid the high costs of replacing employees who were dissatisfied and left the company for better salaries.

It doesn't matter what you think about this or how it "should" be. This is how it is in the real working world. So, if you don't want a position that requires a lot of critical thinking, analysis or strong leadership and communication skills, an advanced degree can be a detriment.

It is absolutely fine to choose the work you love over its level in the company. Many engineers have left positions in management because they miss the technical work of engineering, product support or operations and do not like managing people. No master's degree or MBA will look right to an employer seeking non-management workers at this very important operational level.

When Your MBA in Information Technology is the Right Choice...

To ensure your MBA will meet your goals, consider what kind of IT work you want to do.

If you want to lead or consult on IT operations or systems an MBA is a great concentration to have. It will provide you with the academic "chops" to be credible to your team and the perceived authority to advise experienced business clients as a consultant. If this is what you want, start the process of preparing for the GMAT and researching MBA schools.

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