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It is a common question. Year after year, students on the cusp of graduating ask us whether furthering their education is a good idea. Their reasoning is simple: in a tough job market where too many people are chasing too few positions, adding an extra layer of qualifications could make them more attractive to employers. So far, not so unusual.
What astonishes us, however, is that an increasing number of them are considering taking the chartered financial analyst programme (CFA), a Masters in Finance programme, or an MBA (with a specialisation in finance). For them, the main question is not so much about whether they should do it or its affordability but more about which one to choose.
There are innumerable discussions over which programme is best but a quick glance will reveal that they mostly offer only short-term benefits. Comparisons of the three tend to focus on the cost-effectiveness of the qualifications such as in-depth financial knowledge versus wider management skills; whether to study full time or part time; and a choice between independent study and being part of a student body. The list goes on and on.
We think there is a need for a different conversation. One that is free from these short-sighted views; one that looks beyond the headlines.
On the basis of more than 20 years of experience, first as students and now as professors, we believe the most important factor is the ability to think broadly. We observe, time and time again, that students are fairly narrow in the way they think.
But can we blame them?
Our education system has a tendency to favour narrow depth rather than breadth. It starts with elementary school through to university and along the way people become ever more specialised. Just consider how little we value liberal arts degrees these days.
This, of course, is not to say that specialisation is pointless. On the contrary, it can be rather attractive to human resource departments who often look for candidates with expertise, which is why the CFA is so appealing to many graduates and employers alike.
Our worry, however, is that technical qualifications like the CFA may end up further strengthening narrow expertise.
With the MBA, many business schools still structure their programmes in silos, reinforced by an accreditation process that encourages all of them to standardise. The programmes are then taught by academics who quite often have limited direct exposure to the industry.
This can mean that MBA students miss out on an opportunity to think widely across disciplines. Instead of developing lateral thinking, they end up with a collection of unconnected academic discipline-specific skills.
In today’s job market, where many business graduates are trained with the same set of (technical) skills, students need to realise that their competitive edge could come from the ability to speak with a distinctive and individual voice across disciplines.
It is crucial for graduates to look at business not in isolation but to break down the traditional academic boundaries and make sense of current social and economic affairs.
Instead of worrying about which qualifications to go for, graduates would be much better off thinking about how they think.
Terence Tse is associate professor of finance at ESCP Europe Business School, and Mark Esposito is professor of business and economics at Grenoble Ecole de Management and Harvard Extension School