Though she was employed at an advertising agency, Stephanie Burns wasn't satisfied with her career trajectory and craved a new challenge. She enrolled in the M.B.A. program at National University in San Diego and graduated in 2008. Though she had maintained her full-time job while in school, she was surprised when her firm didn't offer her a raise after she completed her degree. She looked elsewhere, but didn't find that her new M.B.A. had significantly enhanced her earning power, as other firms offered only about $5,000 more a year than she was already making.
Burns was laid off in 2009 and had to put her $50,000 in student loan debt into deferment. She has since started her own business, ChicCEO, a consultancy that offers guidance to female entrepreneurs, but is still searching for a job that meets her salary expectations. Despite the troubles, she doesn't regret getting an M.B.A., feeling the long-term benefits will eventually outweigh any short-term financial pain. "I would do it again," Burns says. "The monetary compensation isn't there, but it really gives me a leg up now in terms of employers looking at my résumé. Having my master's degree makes me a little more well rounded."
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Stories like Burns's are common among those who received their M.B.A. during the peak of the financial meltdown. Unemployment spiked to 10.6 percent, hiring nationwide stalled, and M.B.A. programs were flooded with applications, turning the degree from a seemingly profitable investment into a financial burden for many. However, survey data released this year by the Graduate Management Admission Council, which administers the GMAT, indicates that a turnaround, albeit a gradual one, is afoot. The median salary for M.B.A. students who graduated in 2010 rose by 5.1 percent to $78,819 when compared to 2009—this after a 6.4 percent decrease in median salary from $80,096 in 2008 to $75,000 in 2009. Still, the median salary hasn't eclipsed $80,000 as it did for several years during the boom in the middle of the decade. "In this economy you have to be flexible," says executive recruiter and career counselor Bruce A. Hurwitz. "[But] the M.B.A. degree is still sought after [by employers]."
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Another favorable indicator for recent graduates is a dip in the number of M.B.A. applicants, meaning less competition for enrollment and ultimately for jobs. In a separate GMAC survey, 59 percent of schools indicated that their application volume fell in 2010. M.B.A. students who graduated this year are also finding the job market more hospitable than did their predecessors, assuming some students are willing to take slightly lower salaries than they might have anticipated. In fact, 88 percent of M.B.A.s who graduated in 2010 reported finding work this year, which is up from 84 percent in 2009.
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Kyle Zahorsky, who quit his job as a pilot to pursue a business degree, was one such student. Zahorsky, who earned his M.B.A. from the University of Oklahoma's Price College of Business this month, amassed interviews for seven jobs before graduating. He was hired by ONEOK, an energy firm based in Tulsa, Okla. He claims his initial salary is slightly lower than he expected when he started his M.B.A. and that his $22,000 in student loan debt could be burdensome during his first years on the job, but he is pleased with the doors the new degree has opened. "I often consider [whether I should've pursued an M.B.A.] and I have no regrets," he says. "I'm very happy with my decision."
Also working in Zahorsky's favor was his decision to narrow his focus while in school. Rather than completing a general M.B.A., he opted for a concentration in energy, which he felt made him more desirable to employers. Hurwitz, the career counselor, echoes that view, claiming his clients who've opted for a specific track during their studies have fared better in today's tougher market than those with a general M.B.A. "Specialization is becoming more important," he says, and points to marketing and human resources as the tracks that are most in demand.