Local businesspeople already in the workforce say that returning to school for a master's degree polishes their career, despite criticism that the MBA is too focused on theory.

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Steve Ballmer, president and CEO of Microsoft, doesn’t have one. His boss, Bill Gates, doesn’t either. But President Bush has one, just like Phil Knight, chairman of Nike.

Then again, so does the disgraced Jeffrey Skilling, former CEO of Enron, along with his equally disgraced underling Andrew Fastow, the former CFO of the bankrupt company.

It’s the MBA (master’s in business administration), an advanced degree that for decades has been considered de rigueur for many business-management positions but has been criticized as being too focused on theory rather than the real world.

But local businesspeople already in the workforce say that returning to school for a master’s degree polishes their career, both by enriching their knowledge of business and by unmatched opportunities to learn from fellow students in different industries.

Graduates of the master’s in business administration program make an average of $77,533 a year, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Pay can vary widely and it’s been climbing, fueled by increased hiring at investment banks and consulting firms. June graduates of the MBA program at Harvard make an average of $174,580, up 11 percent from 2004, while recent graduates of Stanford University’s MBA program make an average of $149,913, up 9.5 percent.

Some grad students are just a few years out of school; others graduated from college years before. While it can be tough earning a master’s at nights and on weekends while holding a day job, students say it’s worth it.

“I felt I could learn a lot from my peers,” said Brendan Vaughn, who in June received his MBA from the University of Washington, several years after acquiring his undergraduate degree and working as a consultant.

Demand for graduates with master’s degrees is strong, said Stephen Bangs, a spokesman for the UW’s Business School. In the recent annual survey of “Best graduate schools” conducted by U.S. News & World Report, the UW MBA Program ranked No. 1 in the country with 97.5 percent of full-time students employed within three months of graduation.

In recent years, one of the big trends in business schools has been the expansion of specialized master’s programs, for students who want to study full time and those who want to keep working while they earn a degree, Bangs said.

Vaughn especially bonded with the seven members of his study group, which met weekly throughout the 18-month program.

He clicked so much with them, in fact, he landed his current job at the Walt Disney Internet Group as a market analyst even before gradation because of a tip from a fellow student. Previously, he had been working as a consultant and an elementary school volunteer.

He and his study group members still remain in contact, e-mailing one another frequently and getting together for games.

“It really sort of changes your path I think, almost your social path, because it opens so many doors,” Vaughn said of the program. “Business schools give you contacts and networking in a specific regional area.”

That benefit can’t be underestimated, says another UW June graduate from the master’s program, Bob Nebel, who adds that meeting other students from diverse backgrounds enhanced his studies.

“It provides an extremely rich environment,” Nebel said.

He received encouragement from the partners at Olympic Associates, the Seattle construction-management firm where he’s controller, to acquire his master’s in business administration so he could develop the background he needed to become chief financial officer at some point.

“I came from a pretty pure accounting background,” Nebel said. The program was exactly what he needed: “A transition from an accounting environment to general management.”

In retrospect, he’s glad he waited until midcareer to earn his master’s in business administration, he said. His performance in college was average, and the maturity and career focus he’s gained in the intervening years has made him a better student.

“I certainly think I brought more career focus to it,” Nebel said, and had the added benefit of a “stable and supportive family.”

The program concluded with his study group doing case studies of businesses in China, followed by a weeklong visit to that country.

“We met with trade ministers and visited companies, including auto manufacturers in Beijing and Shanghai,” he said.

T-Mobil Financial analyst Jon Dorrough is earning his master’s in the UW’s evening program, and he found his first year of class work both absorbing and useful.

He earned his undergraduate degree in 2000, and spent the intervening years working at other companies that included Boeing and Starbucks.

“The biggest driver [about returning to school] was that I was working at Starbucks with people who had their MBAs, and realized they had a skill set that others did not,” Dorrough said.

“Some people may look at an MBA as a rubber stamp, but I knew there were a lot of things I could learn.”

Dorrough is glad he didn’t go to graduate school immediately after college.

“Everything I’m learning now, I’ve seen part of it in the real world,” he said, “so all the classes I’m taking now are really relevant.

“When you’re an undergraduate, there’s a lot of grade pressure. Now it’s fun to just go and learn. I feel more free to go off on tangents. Now I really want to learn.”

Information about Harvard and Stanford MBA grads is from Bloomberg News.