Business Schools

Do You Need an Undergrad Business Degree?


BusinessWeek.com's online panel tackles the question of whether they're worth the time and effort and answers other reader questions

What are the benefits of an undergrad business degree? Do you need one to go into the business world? BusinessWeek.com took readers right to the source in a recent chat event. Guests Milton Cofield (MiltonCMU), the executive director of undergraduate business at Carnegie Mellon's Tepper School of Business, Scott Menzer (ScottLehigh), a student at Lehigh College of Business & Economics, and Jacqueline Morris (JacquelineBU), an associate with the Carlyle Group and graduate of Boston University's undergraduate business program all fielded questions from an online audience and BusinessWeek.com reporter Francesca Di Meglio (FrancescaBW). Here's an edited transcript of their conversation:

FrancescaBW: Jacqueline, please start off by telling us why you opted for the undergraduate business degree at Boston University (BU)?

JacquelineBU: I chose to attend the undergraduate business program at BU because of an early interest in business and the desire to pursue a career in finance after college. I decided on BU after applying to quite a few programs—both liberal arts and business—and deciding that the team-oriented approach to learning and the case-study based curriculum would be particularly useful in my future career.

FrancescaBW: This next question comes from a parent who couldn't join us today. He asked, "Scott, are there any good summer internship programs available for undergraduate business students? If so, are there any specific Web sites that you would recommend? My son is currently a freshman at Lehigh, and I would guess that the summer internship opportunities for rising sophomores would be rather limited."

ScottLehigh: Absolutely. It depends on your interests and major, but there are plenty to choose from. For example, accounting majors can go to any of the Big Four accounting firms, which all recruit heavily at Lehigh. For a rising sophomore, the options are much more limited, but PricewaterhouseCoopers and Ernst & Young, and I believe KPMG, have leadership events for sophomores.

JacquelineBU: I can attempt to address that as well, although not specifically for Lehigh. Like you mentioned, I did find opportunities for rising sophomores to be more difficult to come by than for rising juniors and seniors. However, they're definitely out there for the students who take the initiative to do some legwork on their own. I found that professors tend to have quite a few contacts throughout the business world, and are often willing to assist promising students with their search.

While I knew I was interested in finance, as a rising sophomore, I didn't have the necessary skills to pursue a finance internship. Instead, I was able to secure a position with a startup firm working with the head of marketing. I strongly believe any business-related internship, even outside of your preferred field, will help lead to the next one.

FrancescaBW: Scott, can you please tell us why you chose an undergraduate business degree?

ScottLehigh: I knew I wanted to work with technology, so a computer-science degree from the engineering school seemed like an option. However, having only a technical background limits you a lot more than having a background that teaches you about business. I could learn some technical aspects at my job but understanding how a business runs is something that's much more valuable early in your career.

jorgetrueba: What's the right major to land an investment banking job?

JacquelineBU: My major was in business administration with a concentration in finance. However, I don't believe there is a "right" major. There are successful bankers from all backgrounds. Your focus should be on doing the best that you can in whichever track you choose.

FrancescaBW: Jacqueline, could you also tell us what kind of career options exist for undergraduate business grads? What was your path like?

JacquelineBU: I explored quite a few options while in undergrad. During my summers, I had an internship with a startup tech company, two internships in General Electric's (GE) financial-management program (at corporate headquarters and at GE Capital) and an internship with ING Barings in London.

After trying the corporate side of finance at GE, I decided I preferred a path that was more project-oriented and client-focused, which is what I found at JPMorgan (JPM). Today, I'm working in private equity as an associate with the Carlyle Group. I'm involved both with analyzing potential new acquisitions, as well as monitoring our current investments, focused in the aerospace and defense sectors. I joined Carlyle after completing three years in investment banking at JPMorgan, which is the typical path into private equity.

FrancescaBW: Milton, what are the major benefits of earning an undergraduate business degree?

MiltonCMU: An undergraduate degree should primarily be about educational experiences and personal growth and development. Careers are a natural result of this, but students who do well in college in any major can access many kinds of careers. Business as an undergraduate experience should be seen for its flexibility regarding the process of beginning to develop careers, not necessarily as a unique career-development process.

FrancescaBW: Do you believe that students who earn an undergraduate business degree have a disadvantage if they decide to go for an MBA? Why or why not?

MiltonCMU: Disadvantage? Why would we perceive this to be the case? What would be the supposed disadvantage? Obviously, this is not true.

JacquelineBU: I'm not sure I understand why students with an undergraduate business degree would be at a disadvantage in an MBA program. I believe if you look at the stats at most schools, a significant portion of the class comes from an undergraduate business background. I myself intend to pursue an MBA in the fall of 2007.

FrancescaBW: You would be surprised how many people write to us asking about whether it's redundant to get an MBA if you have an undergraduate business degree and how it will affect their applications (see BusinessWeek.com Undergraduate Forums).

JacquelineBU: From conversations I've had, it's generally recommended that people don't return to their undergraduate university for their MBA—to avoid some redundancies in the curriculum. However, I know people who have done this as well.

FrancescaBW: Scott, do you have any plans for the MBA? If so, how has your undergrad program helped prepare you for that?

ScottLehigh: I'm not sure yet. I guess it depends on my career. Most likely I will go back and get one, but I don't know when and it will probably just be at night.

FrancescaBW: Scott, do you know what you would like to be doing after graduation?

ScottLehigh: Starting in August, I will be working for IBM (IBM) in the Global Business Services division doing SAP Consulting.

NN23: How did you obtain your internship?

ScottLehigh: IBM recruited at Lehigh, so I signed up for an interview. I had to go through just one interview (although now I believe it's a two-day process), and then I got a call a couple of weeks later with an offer.

JacquelineBU: With regard to internships, I obtained my GE placements through on campus recruiting at BU and my ING internship through my study abroad program.

jorgetrueba: What is a better major—finance or accounting?

ScottLehigh: It really depends on what you think you want to do. If you want to do accounting (whether that's auditing or just general accounting at a firm), then choose accounting. If you're more interested in finance (banking, investments, etc.), choose finance. They're related but also different. Take a few classes in each area and decide what you like best.

MiltonCMU: The answer to that depends on your goals, which you're more likely to develop as you go along. Most of the undergraduate curriculum is designed to be broad, and that's because the most interesting problems that business people encounter require high levels of general thinking. If you already know what you want to do, then have some confidence that the decision you're making will allow you to have the opportunities you want.

Careers are long-term development processes. While it's important to have certain kinds of specific skills, accounting or finance, to gain access to first-level career experiences, in the long run this will be less important than the ability to see opportunities and take advantage of them as you move along in your career. So it's possible to have an I-banking career in the long run with either of these major areas as the focus, the most important things in the long run will be your ability to contribute.

JacquelineBU: I also found that most accounting majors intended to pursue a CPA, whereas finance majors had more general goals within the finance community. I don't want to understate how important accounting skills are, however, if you intend to pursue a job in finance. Having a solid grasp on accounting fundamentals is crucial to the work I do on a daily basis.

jorgetrueba: I am an undergraduate finance student at University of Florida with a 3.7 GPA. I speak English, Spanish, and French. What are my chances to land an investment-banking job after graduation?

ScottLehigh: If you have a chance to, try to get an internship at an investment-banking firm. As for your chances, it really depends on more than just your GPA and class work. They'll be looking for you to be able to solve simple finance questions pretty quickly, as well as be a critical thinker, and be easy to work with. Your stats will help get you in the door for an interview. After that it's all you.

JacquelineBU: I would also suggest you look to your school's alumni network as soon as possible. Making contacts with alumni in the field is an excellent way to become known to one or more banks, particularly as they may not all conduct on-campus recruiting at your school.

FrancescaBW: What would each of you say is the most important thing to take advantage of while at an undergraduate business program?

ScottLehigh: Get a broad background in business, so that if your career path changes, you will have some experience in everything, not just your original path.

JacquelineBU: I think it's important to make sure your business education is as cross-functional as possible, meaning take classes across all functions—marketing, finance, accounting, operations, strategy, etc. It will not only help you to hone in on the area you like most, but will help in your career later on.

MiltonCMU: Undergraduates aren't just developing career skills through their education, they're also developing confidence through a set of experiences that help them to know who they are and what they're interested in. The most important thing, to me, is to be really involved in this experience, not to take a narrow point of view right off the bat but to be open to what undergraduate education really has to offer in terms of personal and intellectual development experiences.

joey6776: It seems like many business schools are focused on careers and forget about education and classes. How can schools balance both and which schools do a good job of that?

JacquelineBU: I found that BU did an excellent job of balancing the two. The primary focus was on developing the skills necessary to be successful in a business environment (such as public speaking and presentation skills, working on teams with people of diverse backgrounds, etc.) rather than on specific careers.

ScottLehigh: At Lehigh, [the administration] does a great job of balancing careers and education. In classes, they use a lot of real-world cases to teach the subject matter. They also have companies come and give their thoughts on what they would like to see students being taught.

jorgetrueba: Can you talk about the study abroad program at your school, Jacqueline?

JacquelineBU: Sure, BU has a variety of programs that it offers that are joint study-abroad and internship programs. I spent half of my semester taking classes and half working at ING Barings. The internship program helped to link up students with firms in their area of interest, and then we had to go and interview for the position. I would imagine other universities offer similar programs, and I know BU programs are open to students from other schools as well.

MiltonCMU: About 15% of our undergraduates are involved in studying abroad each year. I just returned from Germany with two of our students. We even have a new campus in Qatar with the undergraduate business major. I think that studying abroad is one of the highest value-adding experiences that undergraduate education has to offer as it's really the only opportunity that most people have to become involved in studying and living in another part of the world.


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