Is a midcareer MBA really worth the time and money? These days, not always. Here's how to ensure that you get a boost from business school.

RAY BAGLEY THOUGHT he had a surefire career booster. The Vicksburg, Miss.-based contract specialist for the Army Corps of Engineers had noticed that his supervisors tended to promote workers with undergraduate business degrees. "I figured if I got an MBA, I'd be ahead of the game," Bagley says.

But after spending two years and $14,000 taking night classes at nearby Belhaven College, Bagley is no further along than he was before. "It kind of backfired," says the 18-year Corps veteran. "No one has mentioned anything to me about it, and I was just passed over for a promotion. I get the sense that I was out too much, and now that I have some business background, I'm seen as asking too many questions."

As Bagley discovered, MBAs don't come with guarantees, especially these days. With the number of new business school grads at an all-time high — 112,000 in 2000 — the degree doesn't have the cachet it used to. "No longer is an MBA a sure ticket to success," says Emory Mulling, an Atlanta-based recruiting and outplacement specialist.

As application deadlines approach, does that mean you should scrap your plans to pursue an MBA on the side? Not necessarily. The average grad over 35 still sees a 31% hike in salary after earning the degree. But to make a midcareer MBA worthwhile, you must have in mind a well-mapped strategy for applying what you'll learn, say experts.

An MBA may be essential, for example, if you want to make a dramatic career change — not only because you'll learn new skills, but because you can network with classmates from other industries. Craig Cavanaugh, a former environmental engineering consultant who wanted to break into tech marketing, milked his B-school experience to land a fast-track executive job with BellSouth this summer.

In classes at the University of North Carolina's Kenan-Flagler Business School, Cavanaugh found ways to focus even the most general assignments on his interest. Assigned a case where he had to boost brand loyalty for a hypothetical cabinetmaker, he created a plan for online communities and showrooms. "I was more single-minded than most of my classmates," he says. He also worked his relationships with fellow students. After he failed to land an interview at one tech firm, he wrote to one of his classmates, a VP there. "All of a sudden, I was added to the list," he says. When he graduated in June, he had two job offers, whereas some of his classmates had none.

Such thoughtful planning helps even if you plan to use your MBA to advance within your current company. Candace Moody of Jacksonville, Fla., worked closely with her CEO from the moment she proposed her business-school plans. Moody, then director of business services for a job-training nonprofit, explained to him how specific classes would help her make the organization more efficient and responsive to the business community. She even offered to sign an agreement that she'd stay on for at least a year after she graduated. Impressed, the CEO agreed to pay partial tuition for her to attend Jacksonville University's executive MBA program.

As she moved through the program, Moody was careful to update her boss on how she was applying her coursework. "I wanted to show the obvious benefits to the company," she says. And she volunteered for projects at work that she couldn't have attempted before, such as an analysis of career-center traffic. When she graduated last January, she pitched a new public relations program, noting that she'd acquired the skills to build one from the ground up. It worked. She's now the VP for marketing and communications, and has gotten a substantial raise to boot.

Andrew Potter, formerly a sales associate with a Southfield, Mich.-based managed-care provider, didn't stop at applying his textbook learning to his job. He hounded his professors at Eastern Michigan for ideas about how to develop a new role for himself at his company. After taking courses in finance and operations, he decided he wanted to become an internal consultant, sharing his expertise with departments throughout the company. Potter grilled his professors on how such consultants functioned in other firms, and when he pitched the idea to his boss, he cited the benefits his professors had described. "It was a lot better than just using a couple magazine articles for backup," says Potter, who now heads up his own department at the company, providing guidance on issues such as purchasing and budgeting. "My only regret," he says, "is not getting my degree sooner."

It took Potter eight years of night classes to earn his degree. But that approach plays better to recruiters than quitting your job — or waiting until you're laid off — to study full time. "Going back on your own accord on a part-time basis, even at a lesser-known school, can be a signal of willingness to persevere and of mental toughness," says Andrew Dietz, a recruiter with Egon Zehnder International. Also, a recent study by the Graduate School of Admissions Council found that, in hiring MBAs, recruiters placed a higher premium on real-world experience than on school reputation and focus of study. "It's important to stay current in the industry," explains Jean Martin, a San Francisco-based executive recruiter. "People can be suspicious if you drop out."