Duke MBA Insights: The Best Time to Get the MBA (Reader Request)

I've been getting quite a few questions from readers on when the best time to do the MBA is. Usually the question is around how much work experience would be competitive as an applicant. Some prospective students are concerned that they do not have as much work experience as others. If you look around, the Duke MBA and similar MBA programs usually have a median work experience of 5 years in their incoming class. Here I'd like to offer my perspective as someone who only had 3 years of work experience prior to starting the MBA at Duke Fuqua.

How Work Experience Affects MBA Recruiting

One of the biggest lessons I've learned from my Duke MBA recruiting experience has been that prior work experience means a lot. I've written about this here and explained that prior functional experience is important when recruiting for that particular function. However, does length of work experience matter? Both yes and no.

I've found that the answer is that it depends on the company. In the health care marketing positions I recruited for, 3 out of the 8 either implicitly or explicitly required 5 years of prior work experience. This is a deliberate human resource decision on their end and it makes sense. Some companies simply want folks who are more experienced. On the other hand, some firms are open to recruiting folks who are less experienced but demonstrate potential. However, even with these firms if you have less experience, it can be a challenge to compete with folks who have more experience. Therefore, having less experience not only reduces the number of opportunities available, but also makes the recruiting process more competitive.

However, this is not to say that someone with less experience is disadvantaged. It simply means you need to be more clear and deliberate when recruiting and interacting with companies. You'll need to be active during the first year to make up for some of the lack of experience. Companies are looking for maturity as well as commitment for folks with less experience. The good news is the Fuqua MBA and most other MBA programs have a lot of opportunities for students to demonstrate this (health care specific, but useful information, nonetheless).

It's definitely smart to be aware of this when applying to MBA programs like Duke and also before starting the program. That allows you to be aware of the obstacles of having less work experience and plan accordingly. I was someone who was not aware of this. If you're also coming from a non-traditional background (like I was) and also have less-than-average work experience, be prepared to work extra hard in the first year of the MBA.

How Work Experience Affects the MBA Classroom Experience

There's a good reason why programs like the Duke MBA require prior work experience - it enriches classroom discussions and allows everyone in the class to learn from each other. As I've mentioned before, the purpose of the MBA classroom is not to learn knowledge, but to learn how to make business decisions and build leadership skills. I definitely agree with the notion that folks need some experiences to reflect on to appreciate the ambiguity surrounding business decision-making and to understand one's own leadership development needs.

With that being said, I've definitely felt that my non-traditional background and shorter work experience has been an impediment to my contributions in Fuqua MBA classes. However, this was mostly limited to the first year, as by the second year at Fuqua, I had really good experiences from my summer internship to reflect on and I became very comfortable in business settings. It does make sense when you think about it. In the first year, you're mostly relying on what you know prior to business school when contributing in class. Part of my problem also stemmed from my personality - however, in the Duke MBA I've come to learn that engaging and contributing to team discussions is more important than being right.

Ultimately in the business world, it's not what you did that matters, it's what you're doing. The MBA is a great way to demonstrate that you're doing amazing things, especially if your work experience is short or in a different function/industry.

Should I Apply to an MBA with 1-2 Years of Work Experience Upon Matriculation? 

My recommendation will always be to just apply and see what happens, if you feel ready. The application process consists of 4 parts: 1) Taking the GMAT, 2) Networking with Schools, 3) Writing the Essays, 4) Getting Recommendations. Most of these parts are consistent between schools so if you apply for one school, the incremental work for the next school is much lower. If time allows, you could also apply for a new job at the same time if you're unsatisfied with your current career path. Regardless, either decision will help you with the MBA application the next time around if you don't get in.

As an alternative, folks with less work experience can apply to degrees similar to the Master's in Management Studies (MMS) offered at Duke Fuqua. These degrees offer courses that are similar to the first year core courses of the MBA, and can help jump start a career in business. They typically don't require any work experience at all and students who matriculate are just out of school or have one or two years of work experience.

This post stemmed from some emails and messages I've been getting on GMATClub. Based on the questions I've been getting, I'm going to start a new series as my Duke MBA journey comes to an end. These posts will be part of the Duke MBA Insights Series. As always I appreciate feedback from readers and also enjoy helping folks with their questions on the MBA or Fuqua. Feel free to subscribe (top right of page) or reach out via email (here).

This post is part of my Duke MBA Insights Series where I answer frequently asked questions about Fuqua. These are questions that I've received from readers throughout the 2 years and also sourced from GMATClub. Check out the page here to read the other posts in the series. Also feel free to ask questions about the Duke MBA anywhere on this site, which I may include in the series in the future.