And, as Hamlet learned the hard way, there is no single or simple answer to such a seemingly plain question.
In almost any profession these days, a graduate degree has become standard fare. Expected. Like a bachelor's was 25 years ago. Prospering in today's increasingly complex, cross-functional, internationalized work place demands more of an individual than ever before - more skills, more knowledge, more wherewithal, more everything. So which is best for a professional communicator who wants to grow, an MBA or a master's in communication? It comes down to two unavoidably frustrating words - it depends.
On what? Mostly your professional aspirations. But also on your educational and work background, your skills set and your perseverance.
Looking Beyond Today
The MBA or M.A. question can't be answered before addressing several other questions first. One such pivotal question is: What skills and knowledge will you, as a communication professional, need to be successful in the future that you don't have now? (Interpretation: What competencies do you need to boost your credibility?) And closely aligned with that question is this one: Do you see yourself as primarily a business person who's also a communication specialist, or a communication specialist who just happens to work in a business setting? (Interpretation: What role do you want to play in your organization or with clients?)
How you respond to those questions will go a long way toward determining whether an MBA or master's in communication is right for you. In other words, before you can know how to prepare yourself for the future, you have to first figure out what you want to be when you grow up. Simple enough.
Communication and business, once viewed as separate and unequal, have become uneasy partners. An odd couple, perhaps, each increasingly dependent on the other. This raises a dilemma pervading the work place and the college campus: Communication people need to become more business savvy and business people need to become more communication savvy. How savvy is savvy enough may be the critical issue. Which, of course, immediately launches another parade of sub-questions about how best to educate communication - and business - folks. One thing's for sure, though. Neither group gets enough information about the other.
MBAers Coming Up Short
Take the business side. Consider a statement that appeared in the October/November 1996 Communication World: "About 98 percent of the MBAs take at least one workshop [in communication] during their time at Stanford."
The words - spoken with unabashed pride - are those of Barbara Kent of Stanford University's management communication program. They appeared in an article by Indiana MBA student John Williams titled "Top Business Schools See Value of Communication Skills," which looked at nine prominent MBA programs' attempts to teach communication to wannabe managers.
The statement raises the hair on the back of my neck. One workshop. One "whole" workshop in a two-year program designed to prepare the next wave of business leaders. That's got to be, what, several hours or maybe a full day's worth of exposure to communication. Plenty, right? It's not the words themselves that rankle me. They are factually correct: More MBA programs today, particularly top-tier programs like Stanford and Dartmouth, are offering something communication-wise. A workshop. A module within a course. Maybe even a full-fledged course.
What fries my mind is the article's tone, its unspoken, misleading and alarming message: What's being taught in MBA programs today, while more than it used to be (something is better than nothing, especially when nothing is the norm), represents ultimate victory. The most we can hope for.
I couldn't disagree more.
As I see it, we're barely halfway up the mountain. Way too early to hoist the flag and sip champagne. …