Do you need a business degree (or any sort of degree) to be successful in business?
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Do you need a business degree to be a business professional?
The answer is, of course, maybe. It depends largely upon your business aspirations. Before you begin providing anecdotal evidence of why you definitely do or do not need a business degree, please allow me to explain.
There are two primary aspects in which to explore the need for a business degree:
- Knowledge Acquisition (Learning Business Theory or Practice), and
- Career Opportunity Creation (Getting a job or promotion).
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Knowledge Acquisition in Business School
In separate material, we discuss in detail the various Options for a Business School Education. In that material, we begin by stating that business school is not the only manner of obtaining a business education.
After exploring the options for acquiring business knowledge and skills, we then explore the distinction between training and education.
Business schools offer a mix of knowledge acquisition (which we refer to broadly as education) and skill development (which one acquires largely through training).
Both education and training are highly valuable; but, it is important to understand the unique value that each offers to the students as well as future employers.
In summary, there are many ways to acquire both - many of which are outside of formal education programs.
Here we dive deeper into what a business degree has to offer.
Learning Objectives of Business School
In separate material, we discuss What is Business Education.
In that material, we examine the objectives of business schools in terms of Acquiring Knowledge vs Learning a Skill.
Here, let's take a look at what you can expect in terms of what you can expect with regard to knowledge acquisition from the business program.
Business school faculty and administrators work diligently to develop learning objectives and to assess proof of understanding and proficiency.
I use the word proficiency cautiously. The school strives for proficiency in wielding the theory and concept presented in class.
That is not the case for the procedural or technical skills presented in most courses. That is, a business degree generally offers exposure, but rarely proficiency at the level required to perform that task or function competently in the workplace.
This again demonstrates the discrepancy between acquired knowledge and skills ability through training.
While skill proficiency would be a lofty and admirable goal, reality dictates that proficiency is generally obtained through concerted effort and repetition over an extended period of time.
This is particularly true for technical fields, such as accounting, finance, data analysis, information systems, etc.
Business schools offer exposure to create familiarity with business knowledge or practice and orient the individual in what is required to work in a subject-matter field.
Continued learning (particularly in terms of acquiring specific skills) through work experience is expedited and made easier for the employee with this level of background knowledge and exposure.
If this is the underlying objective of a business program, it begs the question, how do business schools facilitate the knowledge acquisition process?
The most notable elements include:
- Program Structure
- Professors and Staff
- Other Students
- Experiential Learning
Lets address each of these in turn.
Business Program Structure
First off, a business program offers structure. In separate material, we discuss the Structure of a Business Education. In summary, schools either offer a bachelor of science or arts in a subject-matter area or they offer a bachelor of business administration.
Within these programs, schools routinely offer the following majors, minors, or concentrations: In summary, the most common categories of course include:
- Management & Leadership
- Marketing (including Public Relations & Advertising)
- Operations (including Supply Chain Management)
- Information Systems (including Information Technology)
- Data and Decision Analysis (including Business Math)
- International Business
- Human Resources
- Real Estate
- Insurance & Risk Management
To say the least, there is a lot to learn in any subject-matter area of business.
With this many business fields, it can be extremely difficult to know what to learn, in what order, and how to go about learning it.
In this regard, a business program offers the following benefits to students.
- Curated learning material. (Course text & instructor notes)
- Organized sequence for learning material
- Identified learning outcomes
- Checks on learning
- Time frame and deadline for learning.
Professors and Staff
Next, a business program provides you access to knowledgeable individuals as resources.
In separate material we discuss the Role of Professors in Business Schools. In summary, while not universal, professors generally offer a wealth of theoretical understanding, practical knowledge, or both.
Business school staffs also offer a great deal of benefit to students in terms of knowledge acquisition.
For example, many business programs offer access to mentors, advisors, and industry professionals, such as professionals-in-residence, as resources.
Business School and Other Students
Next, a major benefit of a business degree is the person sitting next to you. In separate material, we discuss the Learning from Fellow Students. In summary, the primary benefits are:
- Diverse Experience
Notably, this benefit is reduced (and sometimes non-existent) in online degree programs that offer very little interaction with classmates.
Experiential Learning - Opportunity to Practice
Finally, business programs offer a wealth of materials to assist in the knowledge acquisition or learning process.
In separate material, we discuss the Experiential Learning in Business Schools.
In summary, the primary benefits of the business school program are as follows:
- Practice exercises,
- Team-based work,
- Case studies,
- Business simulations,
- Business Competitions,
- Accelerator or Incubator programs,
- Internships or Cooperatives,
- Studies Abroad
Conclusion on Knowledge Acquisition Benefits of Business School
I think that it is fair to say that, business schools offer a numerous and impactful benefits in terms of knowledge acquisition.
Despite these benefits, a business degree maybe quite useful - but, it is not absolutely necessary.
There are many ways to acquire business knowledge and skills.
Free and paid learning resources have never been more available.
Now we can take a look at the second major benefit of business school.
Before we do, however, I want to discuss an important point - opportunity generation is not enough.
In separate material, we discuss Opportunity Generation, Recognition, and Exploitation.
In summary, most career advice regards creating a career-related opportunity.
Equally important, however, is the recognition of an opportunity once it presents itself.
Too often, we fail to recognize situations (or potential situations) that could have a profound effect on our lives.
You may have heard the cliche that 90% of success is showing up. How many times in our life do we miss the chance to meet a person or be involved in an activity that would change the course of our lives forever?
Finally, once you recognize a career opportunity (regardless of how it arises), you must do what it takes to exploit the opportunity.
Generally, this means working diligently, acquiring skills, fostering relationships, changing locations, etc., that will allow you to realize the potential of the opportunity.
With that said, its time to discuss how business school can aid with the generation of opportunities.
Opportunity Generation through Business School
Interestingly, many students, when asked why they pursue a business degree, answer as follows:
- I didn't know what I wanted to do, so business was a safe choice.
- I want to earn lots of money, and business is much easier than the STEM majors.
While these may seem like poor justifications for a major life choice, they are not without sound reasoning.
A business degree does open a number of doors for career opportunities.
Of course, there is generally a dichotomy of classes of employment.
In separate material, we discuss Breaking Down Jobs: Classes of Employment.
In summary, jobs can be broken down into:
- Skilled Technician
- Professional Service Provider
Most graduates of business school find themselves in line for skills in these classes other than labor.
Additionally, many business careers can be quite lucrative in terms of compensation.
Lastly, a business curriculum is generally less academically demanding than studying a STEM-related curriculum.
That is not to say the business courses are not difficult or do not require a high degree of effort to gain proficiency.
Most would agree, however, that the minimum standards for course completion in most business courses requires far less effort to achieve than do the standards in a STEM curriculum.
So, if you are in this same position, don't worry; a business degree can be a great step toward satisfying these initial career objectives.
We'll begin our discussion with one aspect of opportunity generation - finding a job.
Gaining Employment after Business School
Many people study business with the objective of securing employment that with either be fulfilling, lucrative, impactful, or any combination of the three.
A business degree can certainly aid you in:
- Understanding Business Careers,
- Searching for Opportunities in a Career Field,
- Securing an Employment Opportunity,
- Advancing in a Career Path, and
- Changing Career Paths
Notably, a business school degree can be a helpful step in the process of creating ones own business venture.
In separate material, we explore in detail Entrepreneurship Theory and Practice.
Here, we will focus on these steps in the toward careers for business school students.
Understanding Business Jobs and Careers
In separate material, we discuss the Importance of Understanding Business Careers.
In summary, understanding business careers helps students in the following ways:
- Personal Motivation
- Understand What Job Functions Interest Them
- Understand What a Career Path Looks Like
- Using Knowledge of Career Paths in Networking
As previously discussed, business school programs may take a variety of structures.
Within those structures, they offer a variety of majors, minors, concentrations, and course offerings.
Exposure to these individual courses and programs of study help to create a general awareness of the duties, responsibilities, and functions of professionals in a given field.
It also helps to understand the various job positions generally tasked with these business functions.
Searching for Opportunities in a Career Field
In separate material, we discuss Career Development Resources - covering the process and resources available to students find job opportunities.
In summary, the assistance offered through student career development and resource offices is as follows:
- Job & Internship Postings
- Career & Internship Fairs
- On-Campus Networking
- Interviews (What is it?, Types, Preparing, On-Campus, & Practice)
- Professional Mentorship
- Alumni Connections
- Resume & Cover Letter Review & Development
- Portfolio Development
- Interview Technique and Practice
- Professionalism & Etiquette Instructions
The size, offerings, and effectiveness of these offices will vary greatly depending upon the quality and resources of the business program.
Securing an Employment Opportunity
In separate material, we examine Business Degrees and Employers to explain the effect of or how employers see business degrees. In summary, a business degree creates a signaling function to employers that entails the following benefits:
- Formal Credentials
- Exposure to Knowledge
- Talent or Skills
- General Intelligence
- Diligence or Work Ethic
- Fit (Beliefs, Interests, Values)
When seeking a management position or professional service position in a business field, you will likely be competing against other job candidates.
Unless you have some level of personal connection that secures the position (or opportunity to interview for the position), the prospective employer will look to your credentials.
For better or worse, many employers will only consider candidates who have a college degree.
Whether this is a good idea for the employer, having a degree will make certain that you are not automatically disqualified from a position due to a lack of required formal credential.
Exposure to Knowledge
Having a business degree is an indicator that you have some level of knowledge or exposure to the skills necessary to effectively perform in the position.
Talent or Skills
If an employer expects to fully train new employees on the knowledge and skills required in the job, simply demonstrating a willingness and capacity to learn is adequate.
There are, however, many entry-level, professional services positions that require some level of ability or skills to qualify for the position.
This is true for most technical jobs, such as mathematical calculations, data analysis, IT functions, etc.
Often a business degree is seen as a representation for one's intelligence. While research and experience tells us that this is far from certain, many employers believe that a degree signals a base level of intelligence.
Diligence or Work Ethic
An individual's accomplishments in a degree program may further signal intelligence or, at a minimum, a person's work ethic.
Of course, employers want an individual who is apt to work diligently. This can be demonstrated by school GPA, prior work history, personal interaction with the employer, etc.
In separate material, we discuss the concept of Fit In summary, we analyze how employers gravitate toward individuals who seem to fit well with them personally and the business culture.
Fit generally includes commonality of:
These attributes lend themselves well to Likability, which is a result of these attributes of fit.
It is safe to say that a business degree is beneficial for landing a position in many business career paths, but it is certainly not essential.
Of course, as we have discussed, you may have prior experience or knowledge acquired through other means that make you an equally qualified candidate for the position.
For example, an internship or having completed training courses in the applicable field can be equally beneficial.
At this point, I want to bring up a broader, but very valuable element of a business school program - Internships.
In a separate section, we discuss What is an Internship and Why is it Valuable?
In summary, the internship provides benefit in terms of Knowledge Acquisition and Opportunity Creation.
Students are better able to assess their personal motivations and knowledge or interests in job functions or career paths.
In terms of opportunity generation, the internship has the function of signaling:
- Reliability, and
- Career interest.
In many instances, such as in Fortune 500 companies, completing an internship is the best (if not only) manner of securing a professional service position in ones intended career path.
What if you already have a position in an organization?
Advancing in a Career Path
In separate material, we discuss Moving Up in a Business Career.
If you plan to move up to senior management in an established organization, a business degree is highly beneficial, if not essential.
This is true whether your role is that of a technical service provider to the business (such as a nurse, engineer, architect, etc.) or any other role where you provide a professional service that is not related to the administration of the business.
If you are part of a small business or you have entrepreneurial aspirations, a business degree may not be necessary; though, there is an argument that the exposure to business knowledge as skills as part of a business program is always beneficial.
Let's dig into this topic a bit further by exploring the benefits of a business degree in creating advancement opportunities.
It is no secret that moving up the ranks of a large (or even mid-sized) organization depends upon the acknowledgment of ones superiors.
These individuals make the decision as to who will be considered for promotions or different positions in the company.
While the concept of fit is generally the most important factor, the signaling function of credentials is extremely important.
As you move up the ranks, companies value the internal perception and external appearance of its company leadership.
Holding a business degree has a strong signaling function to others.
When upper management is making decisions on who to promote or consider for higher-level positions, they are likely to favor individuals who have some level of formal education in business.
This is particularly true for individuals in professional services industries.
For this reason, it is very common for professional service providers to seek a masters in business administration (MBA) degree at the point in their careers where they wish to make the transition to management of other professional service providers.
The Masters of Business Administration (MBA)
In separate material, we discuss MBA Programs, their purposes, and how this degree should be used to benefit your career aspirations. In summary, the MBA has the following purposes:
- A finishing degree for industry professionals.
- Recruiting tool for better job
- Recruiting tool to change careers
The MBA serves a unique functions for students based upon their expectations. Importantly, not all MBA programs are created equal.
The benefits that the MBA can bestow largely depend upon the nature, reach, and resources of the individual program.
Changing Career Paths
A bachelors degree is a business field is generally thought of as a manner of beginning a career. It can also serve as a career transition.
Many non-traditional students find that seeking a business degree (even if they already possess a degree in an unrelated discipline) to be a good method of changing career paths.
An MBA degree is particularly beneficial for individuals seeking to change career paths.
In prior material, we discussed the role of the MBA in advancing career interests.
Generally, individuals making the transition from professional service provider to that of manager of professional service providers use the MBA program to do so.
It is also a common approach to changing career paths. Many people will undertake an MBA program with the purpose of completely changing career fields.
This is particularly true for individuals who already work or have begun a career in a business-related field.
MBA programs are perhaps the best recruiting tool for any business professional.
The built-in networking, company connections, and on-campus interviewing provides the opportunity to make a career transition that would be difficult to make without these resources.
Let's take a look at networking.
Networking is, without question, the single most important undertaking for creating opportunities. In separate material, we provide a thorough explanation of the value of Networking and Employment Opportunities. In summary, a business program provides access to a network in the following ways:
- Student/Alumni relations
- Company Information/Networking Events
Of course, the event to which business programs can offer these benefits varies with the level of resources and connections that the school possesses.
It may surprise you to know that this aspect of a business school is far more important that the quality of education when it comes to creating opportunities.
Of course, it should not surprise you to know that the business programs with the highest academic prowess generally offer exceptional networking opportunities.
How to Network
While it is a bit outside of the explanation of why a business degree is highly valuable; I want to end this overview chapter by discussing tactics and approaches to networking.
In summary, professional networking begins with creating the opportunity to interact with others who could presently or eventually influence your career.
As previously discussed, business schools offer a great deal of value by providing networking opportunities.
Likewise, many fortunate individuals are born into families or happen upon situations that create the opportunity to network.
Regardless of whether these scenarios apply to you, you should work diligently to expand your personal network.
Techniques for doing so might include:
- Social Groups
- Professional Organizations
- Interest Groups
- Religious Organizations
- Charitable Organizations
- Political Organizations
Regardless of the outlet, you will need to work diligent to create the opportunity for personal interaction with others.
Notably, electronic or distance involvement does very little to foster meaningful relations the way that personal interaction does.
Once you have created the opportunity for personal interaction with others, you need a plan to make the most of the networking opportunity.
Here is a summary of the approach that we prescribe:
- Break the Ice
- Create Rapport
- Mutual exchange of information
- Closing out the interaction, and
- Following up with the person
This process sounds simple, but it is highly involved and requires extensive practice.
The underlying objective is to create a professional relationship.
It is rare that networking will produce positive career opportunities at the time of first meeting an individuals.
Opportunities typically arise in the future when the interest of both parties align to the benefit of both.
Note that the benefit to both parties does not need to be career related.
It may simply mean the opportunity to satisfy ones desire to:
- Personal satisfaction in helping the other person
- Self aggrandizement by showing off to the other person
- Personal satisfaction or self aggrandizement in helping or showing off to third parties
- Obtaining some other personal value or interest by helping the person
These are just some examples of why people help others.
An important thing to remember is that you must be as ready to give as you are to receive.
If someone does help you, it pays to be humble and appreciative.
This general disposition is understood to invite future help.
To answer our initial question, do you really need a business degree? The answer remains, maybe.
It will depend upon whether you need or desire the benefits that a business degree can offer.
Are you perfectly capable of replicating all of these benefits without attending business school?
Only you can answer that question.
Regardless of which path you take in achieving your business-related aspirations; we are here to support you with our advice and acquired knowledge.