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In choosing an executive MBA, there is no one-formula-fits-all approach. However, soul-searching and self-assessment are essential preparation. By comparison, research into programmes (online, personal visits, personal networks) may prove fairly easy.

Why do it?

“Some people always had the intention to go to business school, but life or jobs or promotions got in the way,” says Chioma Isiadinso, chief executive of Expartus, an admissions advisory firm. “Before they know it, they are in their mid-30s and a full-time programme doesn’t make sense.” Others see knowledge gaps they want to fill, or are inspired by a colleague.

Professors say applicants are typically on a successful career path, but want a broader professional network to achieve their next ambition. Ruth Martel, EMBA programme director at London Business School, says a common theme is that participants want to develop an ability to operate internationally.

Can I do it?

Admissions staff and deans alike stress the importance of taking a realistic view: most part-time programmes last 20-24 months; you will need support from those in your personal life and your employer, who may have to allow you 10 weeks or more off; and finance must be available. Some programmes, such as the Global Executive MBA at Fuqua School of Business at Duke University in the US, which costs $140,900, will only take participants with corporate sponsorship – though they will help persuade your employer.

Richard Johnson, managing director of the EMBA programme (Europe) at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, estimates a third of participants at the school’s London campus are self-funded. In terms of the others, sponsorship for the £73,000 ($116,000), 21-month programme varies from 10 per cent to 100 per cent. But employers tightened up on travel and living expenses during the downturn, Johnson adds.

What kind of programme, and where?

EMBAs come in a variety of flavours. Though universal in scope, some courses are rooted in a city or region, while others involve sessions around the world. Some are structured around weekends, others around weeks on site.

In an era of management itinerance, participants at leading schools often study in regions they visit on business. Others see low-cost airlines as an opportunity for cross-cultural benefits and lower tuition fees abroad. What is striking, says Martel, is that even programmes that appear local may have a high global content. What will fit best with your family, lifestyle and work commitments?

The best for you?

Identify your post-graduation ambition: Bernard Ramanantsoa, dean of HEC Paris, notes that a growing number of students have ambitions to run their own companies.

Isiadinso advises: “Think about where the alumni of the programme end up – a good indicator of what kind of experience you might have, and where it can lead. If you want a career in biotech and there are few alumni in that field, maybe the programme is not for you.”

Talking to past and present students is probably the best way to choose a programme, says Martel. Moreover, alumni can tell you the strengths and weaknesses of a programme, and support your application.

Right for them?

The top-ranked schools get many applicants. They want a diverse group, so you could be a great candidate but still be turned away, if there is a surfeit of people like you. On the other hand, EMBA programmes often take participants with a decade or more of experience, which can be challenging for admissions teams. Isiadinso says: “If, say, you have been working for government in an emerging economy, it might be difficult for the school to evaluate whether you cut the mustard.”

Though many schools do not insist on a Graduate Management Admission Test score, you may increase your chances by offering one. So begin research a year before you want to start.

What tips the balance?

Some candidates apply only to one course, but if several appeal or your window of opportunity is limited, apply to two or three, of different standing. Schools that invest in attracting the best faculty and creating modules covering corporate and social responsibility, ethics and entrepreneurship strengthen their pull. A school that is part of a university may be more easily able to pull in faculty expertise in the environment, history and other emerging business issues.

And remember, MBA graduates often say their enlarged address book is among their best rewards; a powerful alumni network is a draw in itself.

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