Deciding to Pursue the MBA: More Complex than You Might Think

As we have discussed in prior entries, the value of graduate management education is well documented. In most cases, students investing in graduate management education reap significant short- and long-term career-related benefits.  Further, it’s clear that organizations benefit from encouraging and investing in employee’s pursuit of graduate business degrees because such human capital investments have strong returns (when employees remain in the organization).

Despite the importance attached to MBA application decisions, the conditions that prompt individuals to pursue the degree are not entirely clear. Prior survey research from GMAC has focused on career stage, career motivations, salary potential, job retooling, and applicant demographics.  A recent study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, however, shows that application decisions are in fact much more complex than originally thought.

In developing a predictive framework for application decisions, Scott Seibert and his colleagues argue that there are two major aspects of the career management process that most impact decisions to apply to MBA programs –  engagement in career self-management and presence of career-related shocks.

Specifically, the authors hypothesized that those individuals who engage in career self-management strategies such as setting intrinsic goals (i.e., focused on self-improvement, not extrinsic success) and career planning are increasingly likely to pursue graduate management education.  At the same time, they cite evidence suggesting that individuals with high career satisfaction are less likely to apply than those dissatisfied with their careers.

With respect to career-related shocks (i.e., events that trigger significant deliberation about one’s career), Seibert and his colleagues hypothesized that experiencing negative and impactful career-shocks will increase the pursuit of an MBA, whereas experiencing positive and impactful career shocks (e.g., succeeding on a challenging project) will reduce the likelihood of applying.

So When do People Pursue an MBA?

Using a time-lagged data collection method, these authors twice surveyed undergraduate alumni of two institutions who were between 2 and 5 years post-graduation, with a 16-month lag between surveys.  Based on a final sample of 337 alumni, the study found that individuals who possess strong intrinsic career goals, engage in career planning, and are dissatisfied with their careers are more likely to apply to graduate programs.

The findings regarding both positive and negative career-related shocks were much more complex and unanticipated. Many of the career-related shocks (such as losing one’s mentor) showed a direct relationship to peoples’ decision to apply for graduate school admission in a way that suggests that these unplanned events may be strong enough to motivate (or demotivate) application to an MBA program – regardless of one’s level of career planning. Further, whereas positive career-related shocks (e.g., visible job success and/or quick raises or promotions) increased intentions to pursue graduate education, obtaining an early raise or promotion actually decreased the likelihood of applying to graduate school.

In this sense, having positive career-related shocks may heighten individuals’ awareness of their potential and propel them to consider the pursuit of graduate programs, but when it actually comes down to walking away from this early career success to go back to school, people are less likely to do so. The authors summarized this point by remarking (p. 177):

The negative effects that extrinsic career goals and early career success have on application to graduate school suggests that some employees may be less likely to pursue graduate education because of their concern for lost earnings or lost organizational status.  Human resource managers or career counselors could make salient to these individuals the potential long-term costs that a short-term emphasis on extrinsic outcomes is likely to have on their careers.

It’s important to note that the study focused solely on applications to full-time MBA programs as only 4% of the sample applied to part-time programs and thus were not included in the study.  As the authors rightly comment, “part-time graduate programs are ideally suited to encourage employee investment in their human capital without the opportunity costs associated with full-time enrollment.” Thus, future research is needed to tease out whether their findings hold in decisions to apply to part-time programs. Nevertheless, this study provides significant evidence to suggest that individuals’ decision to apply to MBA programs are a complex combination of planning, career-related events and perhaps a bit of serendipity.

Siebert, S. E., Kraimer, M. L, Holtom, B. C., and Pierotti, A.J. (2013). Even the best laid plans sometimes go askew. Career self-management processes, career shocks, and the decision to pursue graduate education. Journal of Applied Psychology, 98, 169-182.


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