Your Professional Arsenal: Do You Need an MBA?

Businessman outdoors with colleagues.

People pursue a graduate management degree for a variety of reasons: to access additional professional opportunities, outstanding compensation, improvement of management skills, and development of a lifelong professional network. The MBA provides skills that, combined with your military experience, outfit you well to advance your military career or succeed in the civilian marketplace.

An Excellent Combination

As a military leader, you have a jump on the competition. You know leadership, you understand responsibility, and you are goal-oriented. The MBA balances these skills with practical information, critical-thinking skills, and focus on solution implementation. In short, the experience you've gained in the military and the MBA enhance one another to put you ahead of your competitors, whether in a military or a civilian career.

So, how does military experience really fit with the curriculum of a graduate management program and the business world at large?

Military experience traditionally provides excellent grounding in leadership, flexibility, managing individuals and teams, and moving toward a goal, often under extreme circumstances. The flexibility that military experience provides enables you to think more broadly than the analysis alone suggests, resulting in better decisions. The orientation toward achieving a goal that is a requisite of military service better prepares you to effect that strategy and create a successful business or military outcome.

When you're in graduate business school, this kind of experience makes your input invaluable to your classmates. Most MBA students can draw from work experience, but your military career may have taken you to foreign countries, placed you in different cultures, and required a level of adaptation and high-stakes decision-making that can't be duplicated in the civilian world. Your perspective and skills will be important while you're in school, and they will be actively sought by corporate recruiters.

If your career goal is military advancement, the MBA will help you achieve it. Graduate management education can help you hone the skills you bring to the classroom. Analytical and critical thinking skills will be particularly valuable as you manage larger and more complex operations, whether they involve areas such as supply chain management and finance or more general operations, or even personnel functions. The MBA curriculum provides analytical training, specific business skill sets (such as finance, marketing, operations management), and industry-specific information. It offers all the basics you need to operate successfully in a management environment, in uniform or out.

Solving problems is part of the graduate management curriculum; an MBA program teaches you to analyze situations and suggest actions based on that analysis. The business skills you build help you to understand the setting in which you are functioning, and your background in military team management can help you better implement a given set of actions and coordinate the work of others.

You can see that the combination of military experience and a graduate management degree is almost perfect for meeting the demands of either a civilian or military setting. In the words of an MBA with a background in naval explosive ordinance disposal, "In the military, we prioritize based on threat level. In the business world, things are more subtle. One prioritizes based on profit and loss. I've gained a new perspective."

Your Advantage

Military experience teaches leadership in ways civilian positions may not. Most MBA candidates from the civilian economy have business experience, but they may have spent less time directing the activities of large groups of individuals to achieve specific goals; they may lack the depth in dealing with others and managing teams that those in the military develop. Perhaps equally important, they generally have not been called upon to function under difficult circumstances (sometimes literally life and death) that military personnel often face.

These abilities are prized by employers and are directly applicable in the military and in many of the civilian positions people with graduate management degrees ultimately occupy. Because many MBA candidates do not have the leadership experience of those coming from military backgrounds, they may begin their post-MBA careers in a narrow functional area, rather than as managers; however, the background acquired through the military, combined with an MBA, often leads to management positions immediately upon separating from the service (and, according to a recent study, starting salaries in excess of $100,000 annually).

Not only does this combination of education and experience put you ahead of your competition, but it also serves you well as you proceed with your career, whether military or civilian. To quote a West Point graduate who pursued a civilian career after the military, "My time management and project leadership skills are used frequently  -  Military service taught me to think about the future as well as what is around the corner and helped me refine my multitasking skills, which has proven invaluable. The MBA gave me the financial analysis skills and business acumen I needed to succeed in a corporate environment."

Likewise, from an Air Force Lieutenant Colonel who remained in the service after receiving his MBA: "I frequently call on my MBA skills for fiscal and marketing needs in order to justify budgets and 'sell' the decision makers on the worthiness of projects for taxpayer funding -  my military training in time management and leadership are important."

Professional Opportunities

The MBA is a proven vehicle to additional immediate and future professional opportunities - either civilian or military  -  and provides individuals with a broader array of choices. The degree is earned by individuals who want to advance more rapidly along their career paths; move from their current narrow, more technical specialty to a broader one with a significant management focus; or build a "bridge" from a military to a civilian career.

A graduate management degree enhances skills useful in many military specialties and necessary as you move up in rank throughout your military career. A quick review of the educational resumes of many senior officers will show that many have MBAs. In addition to the powerful combination of skills and experience, the degree provides a network of fellow students and alumni you can rely on for help throughout your career.

Whether you plan to return to civilian life soon or after a full military career, an MBA from a respected school provides useful skills and a valuable credential, and it will help you advance your civilian career or transition into one more smoothly.

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