How to Choose an Online MBA Program

A bewildering--and ever-expanding--array of online MBA programs can make it difficult for IT professionals to determine which one is right for them. Susan Cates, executive director of the University of North Carolina's online MBA program, offers five tips for finding a program that best suits your individual needs.


Search for "online MBA programs" and you'll be met with a staggering array of options. These days, it seems every institute of higher learning offers an online MBA program.

Demand for business degrees is high, especially among engineering and IT professionals, for a variety of reasons. First and foremost, studies show that professionals who hold master's degrees earn more money than those with bachelor's degrees, says Bonnie Diehl, chief academic officer for the SANS Technology Institute, a for-profit educational institution offering advanced degrees in IT security management and engineering.

Second, many IT professionals who've worked in the field for a few years decide to pursue an MBA because they realize they may not be able to progress in their careers without one, says Susan Cates, executive director of the University of North Carolina's online MBA program, MBA@UNC.

"Engineers, for example, come out of their undergraduate experience and go into a functional role in a company with a very specific set of skills. As they grow and are given broader sets of responsibilities, they reach a point where their job becomes more about their leadership and management skills, their ability to think about strategy and financial decision-making, rather than about tech skills," says Cates. "When they need to broaden out their skillsets, it's a natural conclusion for folks with an IT or engineering background to see an MBA as a good path for expanding their career opportunities within their company or industry."

About half the students currently enrolled in UNC's online MBA program have a background in science, engineering or IT, adds Cates.

Martha Heller, president of Heller Search Associates, a retained executive search firm specializing in technology leaders, says that MBAs can be advantageous to CIOs with traditional technology backgrounds and to some of their direct reports, such as business relationship executives.

"What CEOs looking to hire CIOs care about is the CIO's ability to contribute as directly to the business as possible," says Heller. "The best way to demonstrate that experience is to have worked in the business, to have run a non-IT operations group, to have been a general manager. If you have that experience, the MBA is redundant."

However, if you lack that business management experience and are gunning for a career in industries that want their CIOs to make a direct contribution to the business, "an MBA will help," says Heller. "All things being equal as a recruiter, when I'm looking at a resume, I would rather see an MBA than not."

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