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Military Experience and the MBA Choosing the Right Program

Graduation cap on a book next to a degree.

People generally seek an MBA for one of two reasons: to enhance their careers or to switch to new careers, often in a different field or industry. For instance, you may plan to remain in the active military for the balance of your career; if so, you might choose a program focused on finance or supply chain management as a means of adding valuable skills for that career. However, if you plan to leave the military once your current commitment is over and join, for example, a consumer goods company, an MBA with a marketing concentration would serve you better.

Selecting the right program to attend is the most important MBA-related decision you will make. Choosing the correct program requires several steps. You will need to determine your objective for getting an MBA, decide which type of program best meets your needs and, finally, select a school that will provide the curriculum, network, and credential recognition that will best prepare you to succeed. The process of finding the right school for you (and a few alternatives that would meet your needs) can be time consuming, but the outcome of your search will shape your education and your career.

As you consider your future, it can help to talk with individuals who have pursued the path you are considering, particularly those with backgrounds similar to yours. You may also want to discuss your options with Education or Transition counselors or take a self-assessment test such as the online CareerLeader tool (available through mba.com). As you explore your choices, remember to think about location, travel requirements, and other lifestyle issues as well as the work itself. The decision you make from this investigation will form your objective -- the outcome you hope to achieve by acquiring an MBA.

With that objective in mind, you can next determine what type of program best meets your needs. Program types range from full-time, on-campus formats to part-time programs to flexible distance-learning arrangements; each format has different advantages and requirements (for a complete comparison of program types, go to www.mba.com). Your choice will depend on your objective and personal situation.

To illustrate, let's return to our example of remaining in the military. If the military is your chosen career, you may want a program that is highly flexible in terms of time and location, unless you are sponsored for a full-time program. A distance-learning program may work best for you. This, or part-time study, might also be a good fit if you are returning to a former civilian career after your tour of duty. But if you plan to leave the active military for a new civilian career (or if you plan to change civilian careers), a full-time program might be a better choice -- this type of program provides hands-on experience through internships, helps you develop a network of individuals working in that field, and offers substantial career services to help you get started.

The last step in choosing a program is to identify the set of schools that will provide the curriculum, credential, and professional network you need to achieve your objective. Many business programs begin with the same curriculum, but some are better known for expertise in a particular field of business or industry sector. You should choose several that match your career objective -- these schools will provide the skills you desire, as well as the connections you need to get started. The school you choose can become a valuable resource as your career progresses.

In addition to academic reputation, the breadth of a school's recognition should factor into your decision. If you expect to spend your career with your current employer, choose a school that is respected in the organization. If you plan to work in a given city or region, look into schools that are respected in that area. However, if your career is likely to span many different companies or regions, a nationally recognized school may be best. Other factors to consider are the school's culture, cost, and location, as well as any family-related or lifestyle issues.

How do you learn about reputation and recognition? Looking at individual school Web sites to determine which companies recruit there and for what types of positions can help. Talking with colleagues who work in your chosen field is a great way to gather information. Average Graduate Management Admission Test (GMAT) scores can be a good indicator of student quality -- often, schools with higher average GMAT scores are recognized more broadly for the quality of their graduates.

The best place to start is www.mba.com/military. This site provides a downloadable MBA Planner for military personnel considering an MBA, and it's a gateway to www.mba.com, a Web site of the Graduate Management Admission Council. More details on the issues covered in this article are available at this site, as well as tools to help you in this selection process, such as the free mba.com school search service. Once you have used these tools to narrow the field, talk with school representatives and alumni to confirm your judgment.

Again, this process can be time consuming. You may want to start a year or more in advance of the date you wish to begin your education. Choosing a business education program is one of the most important career decisions you will make; investing the time to make the right choice will pay dividends for the rest of your life.

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