School Day: An MBA is still key to a successful career

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I had never heard of a villanelle, let alone felt the need to write one. Yet there I was, somewhere deep in the second week of my freshman composition class, staring at a blank sheet of paper, angrily attempting to set down a few coherent lines in this ancient and demanding form of French verse. When the instructor explained the assignment, I complained that rhyme and meter were hopelessly out of style. I wanted to write the poetry of liberation, and like Ginsberg and Berryman before me, I would not be bound by arbitrary rules. My verse, like theirs, would be personal and free.p. Although the instructor applauded my lofty aspirations, he countered my protests with an argument that I have heard often over the years: Before you can break the rules, it’s a very good idea to know what the rules actually are. This experience comes to mind as we enter a new school year, because a lot of people in the business world have begun floating the idea that the venerable M.B.A. degree is not as valuable as it used to be. Despite the volatility of the market in recent months, faith in the future of the roaring e-conomy remains strong. In a world where fortunes can still be made on a single good idea and a well-timed IPO, textbooks seem increasingly irrelevant. Why waste time cooling your heels in a classroom when you could be out having coffee with a venture capitalist?p. Carolyn Woo, dean of theMendoza College of Business at the University of Notre Dame in Notre Dame, Ind., admits that sentiments like these are not uncommon. “There is such a concern that if you don’t go out and do it now, the window on all of these IPOs will close,” she says.p. Woo and most of her colleagues argue that this view is dangerously shortsighted ? like thinking you can become a good poet without at least understanding how to craft a villanelle or a sonnet. “Does practice substitute for an education?” asks Woo. “It absolutely does not. Practice can teach you a lot, but it’s different from getting a chance to systematically sort through decisions, to change perspectives, to have much broader perspectives.”p. Of course, Woo and her colleagues are paid to fill classrooms. Do the people who are financing the new economy share this zeal for a traditional business education? Yes, they do…up to a point. “It’s kind of a mixed bag,” says Warren Packard, a partner at Draper Fisher Jurvetson in Redwood City, Calif. “I would never discourage someone from starting a company if they don’t have an M.B.A. It’s certainly not a prerequisite. But I think a smart entrepreneur will complement his skill set with somebody with either an M.B.A. or the equivalent of an M.B.A background.”p. If you have four years of frontline experience, this could be the right time to pursue an M.B.A. Schools everywhere are inaugurating new programs with special tracks in global management, electronic commerce and entrepreneurship; and the Internet has opened a whole new world of long-distance and interactive instruction. With their growing emphasis on case studies and collaborative problem solving, these programs are more relevant than ever. Yet they are still structured to teach the fundamental skills such as accounting, finance, production and marketing.p. “It’s a real compact learning experience,” notes Packard. “You’re developing frameworks for thinking about business problems and business issues. When you go through case histories, you’re gaining a lot of experience from a lot of different companies, instead of having to live through that yourself.”p. The value of the M.B.A. doesn’t end with the knowledge and discipline you gain from the classroom experience. The friends you make in the program form a network of contacts to draw on throughout your career. The referrals they send your way can alleviate the uncertainty in the hiring process. And when the chemistry is just right, they may eventually become your business partners.p. “While the M.B.A. education is typically one that is earned in your mid-to-late 20s, the real payoff comes 10 to 15 years out,” explains George Parker, director of the M.B.A. program at Stanford University in Stanford, Calif. “The M.B.A., for many, many people, constitutes a kind of foundation, a platform on which a career is built.”p. As any contractor ? or successful poet ? can tell you, when you’re building a foundation that you hope will last, it’s good to know the rules. And if you’re serious about business, the M.B.A. program still offers the best way to learn them.

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