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Should I go right into a business degree?

Kareen Sarhane’s bachelor of commerce from Queen’s University got her a job in the advertising industry.

JENNIFER ROBERTS/The Globe and Mail

PICTURE A YOUNG HIGH-SCHOOL GRAD.

She's personable, good with numbers and has always had an entrepreneurial bent. She has her heart set on being a business person.

Let's call her Janet.

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Now, should Janet dive right in and get an undergraduate business degree? Or should she learn more about the world first, perhaps get a degree in the humanities, or maybe specialize in a marketable field such as engineering, and then take that broad education or specialized skill and pursue a master's in business administration later on?

Some fields require students to get a broad education first and learn the profession later.

Medicine, for one. Law is another. But business education is different.

An undergraduate business degree works for some people. It gets them right into the job experience they want.

For others, particularly those in more traditional business fields such as finance, an MBA is still crucial. Remember, not only do business students learn to sell something, they also must learn to sell themselves to companies and investors in their chosen area of business. And so the decision on whether to study business in undergrad or in grad school highly depends on the individual.

Kareen Sarhane, for instance, got a bachelor of commerce at Queen's University in Kingston. She used the degree to get into advertising at a Toronto-based agency, and she feels her BComm was enough. Paper credentials at a graduate level count for little, she says, compared with talent and experience in her industry.

"I've spoken to people who have gone to an MBA program," she says. "You don't really learn anything that you don't learn with a BComm. You just are now in a [learning] environment where there are people around you who have professional experience."

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So, for her, a BComm gave her the business training she needed. What a BComm student gets less of, she feels, is the same kind of learning that occurs in graduate school; that is, learning from past experience. When you get an MBA, the learning stems "from personal knowledge and experience," she says, whereas during a BComm, students are doing more textbook-type learning, "dealing with case work and hypotheticals."

Ms. Sarhane indicated that a BComm lets a student get more immediately hired and directly into their chosen area of business, getting that crucial work experience, whereas an MBA is more about career advancement based on higher educational credentials. "I didn't feel I needed to waste my time doing something like that, because the career path that I've chosen doesn't really require it," she says.

Her friend Shannon Hamilton, on the other hand, feels differently. She went the other route and got a broader education first.

This included a BComm, but also a bachelor of arts in economics at Queen's.

A business consultant with Accenture, specializing in customer experience for banks, retailers and consumer goods companies, she has left to get an MBA at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management in Evanston, Ill.

Her old job in Toronto is waiting for her when she returns, but she feels an MBA will open new doors at her company and at others that her BComm likely wouldn't have opened. In the middle of her MBA degree, she has had an internship with Google, working on customer-service strategy.

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An MBA, as opposed to simply a BComm, still counts significantly for getting higher management positions in industries such as banking or telecommunications, but it also comes down to an enhanced education, Ms. Hamilton says.

"For example, in a leadership class or an ethics class, if I've actually been in that situation [that's being studied] and so have my classmates, we bring that to the conversation. That's just a different level of learning and engagement with the material that you just cannot have without a few years of work experience," she says.

In the end, there is no right or wrong decision, experts say. Every student's career goals and interests are different. But there are certain attitudes that exist in different sectors that students should be aware of. And that is ultimately the takeaway from the two women's differing views.

Ms. Sarhane pointed to a belief in the world of advertising, if not among some younger companies and startups, too, that an MBA seems old-fashioned and the antithesis of the startup attitude. A BComm suffices.

But Ms. Hamilton notes that in the more institutional side of business, an MBA is still a required stamp.

They both indicate, though, that a business degree, whether undergraduate or graduate, depends entirely on what the student makes of it. An MBA, for instance, can be very self-directed, Ms. Hamilton says. "If you choose to go very deep into something, the resources are there for you. But if you choose to get a more generalist education, you can do that."

Joseph Doucet, dean of the Alberta School of Business, says that undergraduates have just as much flexibility to tailor their degree to their interests. If a student decides to pursue a BComm, they should still have some of the same focus and self-awareness as a grad student. In other words, a student can make a BComm a highly focused and specialized degree.

"When I speak to new students – new undergraduate students at the university – one of the things that I like to emphasize to them is that it's good to have a plan. It's good to have ideas regarding what you might do and how your life and career might unfold," he says. "But it's also very, very important to understand that there will be many twists and turns, and you will never end up where you plan on ending up."

Of course students should be aware of the job market, but they should not base their academic and career paths solely on that, he contends. It's more important to know one's true interests. That makes them more distinct in the business world and potentially open more doors.

"It's not a bad thing to think about careers and career potential – and not just about salaries and employment rates. It's fine to think about that, but I think it's more important to think about what interests people, where their passion is, what their talents are," he says.

It is also important to note that business schools offer many different degrees, from a BComm to an MBA, to executive MBAs and dual degrees (in which the graduate portion of the degree is sped up), or even specialist master's degrees, such as in finance or real estate. This allows people to get business training at many different phases of their career, beyond simply a BComm or MBA.

Still, one risk, especially in the digital economy, is that an MBA can seem old-fashioned or unnecessary in companies that are less institutional. Jobs in these companies are often a combination of being highly specialized and yet fluid, with employees expected to adapt to new specialties quickly.

"I'm in a creative environment, so it's a very different world," Ms. Sarhane says. "But I do know a lot of people who work in more traditional organizations, which have a lot more hierarchy, a lot more structure. And definitely, I've heard that if you don't have a postgraduate education, whether it be an MBA or whatever, you're not taken seriously or even considered."

For Ms. Sarhane, getting into the field of her choice with a BComm meant contacting people and researching jobs on her own.

"You'll never see a startup come and recruit from the school," she says.

And that's why, as Dr. Doucet at the Alberta School of Business says, the choice of business degree has to be based on personal interests and one's own chosen career path.

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About the Author

Guy Dixon is a feature writer for The Globe and Mail. More

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