December 11, 2013 6:11 pm

Choosing a business school

Although the Financial Times ranks the elite 100 Global MBA programmes each year, the number of accredited MBAs on offer worldwide extends to thousands. So it is worth trying to find a programme that meets all your needs.

An initial period of self-reflection is advisable; ask yourself why you want to get an MBA, says Stacy Blackman, business school admissions consultant and author. “Is it so that you can earn a promotion within your current organisation? Are you trying to start your own company? Do you dream of switching into a completely different field. Knowing where you want to be at the end, will help you decide which programmes make the most sense for you,” she continues.

General v specialised MBA

The majority of business schools offer a general MBA programme. Designed to allow students to develop knowledge and skills in management disciplines, it can be customised according to academic and professional interests through a variety of elective modules.

One way of filtering these programmes, aside from looking at rankings and considering your preferred location, is by cost. Can you afford $126,000 in tuition fees for Harvard Business School, for example?

For those who are more certain of the direction they wish to take on graduation, specialised MBA programmes have become increasingly popular. ENPC School of International Management, for example, now offers two specialised courses alongside its traditional MBA: the MBA in Technology and Entrepreneurship and the MBA in Enterprise Risk Management.

“General MBAs have been around for years, [which] the big players stick with,” says Tawfik Jelassi, dean of ENPC. “But others, like us, believe in offering diversity and letting applicants decide.”

Some admissions directors argue that it may be best to opt for a general MBA programme, to avoid being too limited. “I feel that a general MBA prepares you better to be a business leader, because running a business involves an understanding of all aspects of the business. [It] also allows networking and an exchange of ideas with all different types of people with different backgrounds and goals,” says Ms Blackman.

Mark Stewart, academic director of MBA programmes at the Australian School of Business, says it is common for students to change career objectives during the course of their programme, which a general MBA can accommodate relatively simply.

A change in career objectives can also be necessary after graduation. “Should anything happen, like the recession, where students need to adapt, the skill set and network acquired on the MBA can be applied to a variety of fields and not just the specialisation,” says Maryke Luijendijk-Steenkamp, director of marketing and admissions at Rotterdam School of Management in the Netherlands.

However, if you are tending towards a specialised MBA then Ms Luijendijk-Steenkamp recommends asking the school why it offers that specialisation – what was the gap in the market that convinced the school the specialisation was needed? Knowing the answer to this may help with your decision.

Combined degrees

A combined degree is another option to explore, particularly if you are keen to gain expertise in other disciplines as well as business. Stanford Graduate School of Business, for example, offers four joint degrees: the JD/MBA with Stanford Law School, the MA Education/MBA with Stanford Graduate School of Education, the MPP/MBA with the School of Humanities and Sciences and the MS Environment & Resources/MBA with the School of Earth Sciences. Stanford also offers a range of dual degrees, including the MS Bioengineering/MBA with the School of Engineering and the MD/MBA with the School of Medicine.

But according to Elissa Ellis-Sangster, executive director of the Forté Foundation, a non-profit consortium of organisations and business schools, and a former director of the MBA programme at the University of Texas at Austin McCombs School of Business, some recruiters can be wary of this type of degree. “They may think you don’t know what you’re trying to do and need more self-reflection.”

But, as Ms Blackman points out, a combined degree nonetheless signifies extra knowledge. “If you are unsure of your career plans and interests and have the time and money, the additional education does not necessarily hurt,” she says.

Campus v online

It is also worth considering which learning style suits you best. Would you like to study on a campus or connect virtually, for example?

“An on-campus MBA enhances personal networking with peers, EMBA or exchange students and interaction with professors. It makes it easier to be involved in team projects – and working with a team enhances your leadership skills, [which] is crucial,” says Angel Garcia, an MBA student at Ceibs.

However, online degrees are evolving, with new technology emerging every day to promote interaction and team work – so much so that schools are increasing their initially low-cost fees to reflect the programme’s value. In July 2011, for example, the Kenan-Flagler Business School of the University of North Carolina launched its MBA@UNC with fees of $89,000.

Some remain sceptical and believe that students should be cautious if they do opt for an online programme. “My advice is to go with one affiliated with an established bricks-and-mortar-institution,” says Ms Ellis-Sangster. “Even if the programme then finishes, you still have the institution there.”

One-year v two-year programmes

The decision to study for one or two years also depends on the learning style you prefer, as well as the amount of time and money you have.

“You need to decide what is most important to you. If time and money are tight, a one-year programme is a brilliant solution. However, for many career changers, the two-year programme is a better option as it allows for the summer internship and more introspection and education in general,” says Ms Blackman.

A two-year programme can also allow for study overseas. Second-year MBA students at Cornell, for example, exchange places for a term with students selected by partner institutions based in Europe, the Middle East, Africa, Asia and Latin America.

Full time v part time

The same considerations apply to whether you should study full or part time.

“A full- time MBA allows you to experience a much deeper transformational experience and concentrate on a possible career switch. If part time, it is going to be difficult to switch industry; it would be more feasible to switch function inside the same organisation,” says Mr Garcia.

A part-time programme is also ideal for those who are keen to maintain a regular income while studying.

When you have decided what kind of programme suits your needs, you need to begin your investigation of business schools.

Alumni and recruiters network

Pilar Vicente Maese, senior associate director for admissions at IE Business School, in Spain, explains that a school’s alumni network and links to companies are important considerations for applicants to have a network that can help them in their short-term and long-term career goals.

“If a candidate aims to work in the US right after graduation, of course, they should look for a school with ties in this region. But in the long term, perhaps work will take him or her to Latin America, thus a well-rounded network is essential,” she adds.

Student community

Ask yourself what type of classmates you wish to mix with in terms of professional experience and cultural backgrounds. If you want to be part of a very international community, then find out the percentage of overseas students as well as faculty.

MBA student Sebastian Schmitz, at Ceibs in China, explains why student diversity matters to him: “Throughout the MBA you interact a lot with your classmates, for example, in case discussions, group projects, case competitions and club activities. From my point of view, the overall learning experience from these interactions is most valuable when students have different cultural and professional backgrounds and bring different viewpoints to the discussions. This diversity broadens your horizon and helps you improve your cross cultural teamwork skills.”

Academic community

The quality of teaching is another criterion to think about. Discover more about the instruction methods of the school, learn more about the faculty and their achievements. For example, are they well-known experts in the fields you are interested in? Are they practitioners in the industry you wish to work in?

Location, costs and visas

Location is obviously a significant factor when choosing your school. For example, if you wish to work in a particular country, studying there can help you get an understanding of the local job market and work culture.

Importantly, find out about the cost of living in the area. Can you afford to study there for one or two years? If cost is a concern, see what financial aid is available from your chosen schools.

Check out work visa regulations if you intend to seek employment in that country after completing your studies. For example in Australia, an applicant must have completed a degree of at least two academic years to be able to apply for a work visa. While in Canada, a three-year work permit is available to those who graduate from a two-year masters degree even if they have not secured a job.

Big cities such as London have the advantage of being near the headquarters of global companies and having easier access to business leaders if these appeal to you. According to Oliver Ashby, senior manager of recruitment and admissions at London Business School, their location makes it easier for big-name recruiters to come to campus and interview for internships and full-time jobs. It is no coincidence that Boston Consulting Group - management consultancy company - which is near the campus, recruits heavily from the school, he says.

Even moving to smaller cities can open up opportunities, as it did for Matt Barnett, who is an MBA graduate from Australia Graduate School of Management (AGSM) in Sydney. He comes from the UK and previously worked in London and is now chief executive of a tech start-up in Sydney. He mentions that the city appeals to him as there is a vibrant tech start-up community with close links to Silicon Valley as it is becoming the gateway to Asia for the US.

Mr Barnett also advises prospective students to consider studying in a different country or culture to your native one: “If you surround yourself with new experiences, you will naturally find many more unbeknown opportunities.”

Partner and family friendly

If you plan to study with a partner and or family in tow, then it is worth finding schools that are partner and family friendly. At Insead, in France and Singapore, about 30 per cent of students bring their partner or spouse with them, according to the school’s website. There are services to cater for their needs, such as family rooms for those with young children and the Insead Partners’ Club where individuals can socialise with other partners.

Reputation

There are plenty of resources to consult when assessing a brand or reputation of a school such as school accreditation. Look out for accreditation bodies such as AACSB (Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business) in the US and Equis (European Quality Improvement System) an international accreditation body of the European Foundation for Management Development.

Associate dean of Ceibs, in China, Shimin Chen says: “International accreditation…indicates global recognition of a business school and is a useful guideline in ensuring that it meets and maintains globally accepted standards. Applicants use it as one yardstick when selecting a school. It is also a factor when decisions are being made about which schools to partner with for exchange programmes and other collaborations.”

In addition, Sebastian Schmitz, MBA student at Ceibs, points out: “Recruiters have to make their decisions based on limited information and an MBA degree from a school with a good reputation can give you a competitive advantage over other applicants.”

Do your research

It goes without saying that it is essential to do your research – school websites and third-party information such as rankings are the usual resources to consult. Luke Peña, associate director of MBA admissions at Stanford Graduate School of Business, in the US, explains that the most prepared candidate has taken time to collect information directly from the school. In particular, candidates should consider speaking to alumni who have pursued careers in which they are interested in, he advises.

Take advantage of school open days and if you are unable to visit, ask if there are webinars and virtual tours. Nothing beats face-to-face interaction, so enquire about opportunities to meet current students, faculty and attend MBA classes to get an insight of what student life is really like.

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