MBA: don’t do it for the letters

by 28 Apr 2009

Many executives and some HR professionals undertake postgraduate MBA study. The choice of university determines the cost and often the study method. Which gives the best return on such a significant investment? Teresa Russell asks around

In 2009, about 44 Australian institutions offer more than 80 MBA degrees that cost anywhere from $15,600 to $56,000. You begin to understand why choosing the place to study just might be important. HR Leader magazine spoke to four HR professionals with MBAs about the value of their degrees.


After her undergraduate degree, Sarah Dalziel started work ing for DJ’s as a training officer, rising to training manager before leaving to join ICI. She worked at ICI/Orica for 14 years, where she moved from employee development into a generalist HR position before completing a part-time MBA at Melbourne Business School (MBS). Dalziel then became a product manager in a small division at Orica and is now national HR manager in Bluescope Steel’s sheet and coil processing services division.

“The main reason I did an MBA was to broaden my business experience and progress my career,” says Dalziel, who sought advice about choosing her university from a col league at Orica who was an MBS MBA graduate. Orica’s head of HR had done an MBA and was also supportive, with the company paying her course fees. The school’s rep utation and location played a part in Dalziel’s choice.

“Time management was very tricky. There were very few hours left in the week after work, travel, sleep and study. I learned a lot and became very disciplined,” she says, adding that she knew all the subjects were good for her, even if she didn’t like the odd one.

Career progression was always Dalziel’s primary goal. She is now delighted to be in a business HR role, develop ing people initiatives to help deliver business goals. “HR is most effective when aligned with the business. If that is your driver, then you should do an MBA,” she says.


RMIT offers its executive MBA program both as a face-to-face course and a fully online format through Open Universities Australia ( James Balazs is HR manager for an international edu cation organisation based in Melbourne. He has completed 75 per cent of his MBA online, and chose the course because of its flexibility and value for money.

Surprisingly for a distance education student, Balazs says that one of the best aspects of his study has been the network he has created with like- minded people from a variety of industries. The course has an introductory and a closing residential unit and includes participation in online forums, including Skype, telephoning other syndicate members two to three times per week.

“One of the benefits with online lecturers is that they are active in the corporate world and not just pure academics. Everything I have learned has been very, very useful so far,” he says.

The 12-unit MBA costs $2600 per unit. Balazs is foregoing employer funding on offer and is paying for it himself. “Realistically it will proba bly take a couple of years to earn it back, but like any long-term investment, it’ll pay huge dividends down the track,” he believes.

Before the MBA, Balazs completed one unit of an HR Masters program, but decided that would confine him too much to the HRM pigeonhole. “You must be highly engaged with business drivers and operating on the same plane as operations managers and GMs. You must speak their language,” advises Balazs.

Nathain Secker has been working in training and devel opment in the not-for-profit sector for 12 years, the last six of which have been with Presbyterian Youth NSW. He lives in the suburb next to Macquarie University, and wanted to do his MBA at MGSM because of its reputation, location and variety of study formats.

“I researched the Good Universities Guide at the time and found that MGSM was double the price of UNE (Uni versity of New England), but just one grade above it on their rankings. It was not financially worthwhile,” says Secker, who self-funded his study.

Secker sees an MBA degree as an independent standard and believes that the university choice is unimportant. “Money is not an important component of what I do, so I measure my return on investment in terms of applying the material I have learned – so I am getting my return every day,” he says.

Secker advises against doing an MBA to get the letters behind your name. “Buy something else to make you feel better. Do it for the learning,” he says.


Peter Szilagyi started his self-funded MBA at AGSM part- time, but in 2007 enrolled in the full-time program to com plete the course before the birth of his first child. After completing his undergraduate economics and IR degree, he joined Accenture, working in its human capital consult ing practice for seven years.

“I realised that if you want HR to support the business, you need a good understanding of that business, including marketing, finance, management accounting etc,” says Szi lagyi, who looked at rankings and the reputation of the business school when choosing an MBA. “Ranking was important for me. It is a sign of the quality of the lectur ers, materials and facilities.”

After graduation, Szilagyi joined Hewlett Packard via its 18-month management associate program, working on strategic HR projects including talent management and cost of workforce analysis. “The MBA led me into a different role where I can apply a lot of the skills I learned in the degree and when I was consulting,” he says.

It will take Szilagyi several years to realise a financial return on his $50,000 degree, but, he says: “It is an impor tant investment in knowledge, the networks of people you build up and the skills that you can apply with your job.”

Although he began his study to understand business better, he discovered that concepts such as data analysis, statistics, finance and marketing have helped him become a better HR practitioner.