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Before jumping into the search for a masters programme, students are strongly advised to first take a moment of reflection. “Define your needs,” says Miroslaw Jarosinkski, director of the masters programme in English at the Warsaw School of Economics. “The programme you choose has to suit your needs.”

This is the primary advice given by most business school professionals.

“Students must first ask themselves, ‘What do I want? Where would I like to be in the next five years?’” says Christos Tsinopoulos, deputy director of masters programmes at Durham Business School in the UK. Bernard Ramanantsoa, dean of HEC Paris, similarly advises students to “anticipate [their] first job”.

However, this can be difficult for some people. Georges El Hajj, a recent graduate from HEC Paris, says he found it hard to think so far ahead before starting a programme. “I [initially] studied engineering, but I didn’t know what I wanted to do, or where.”

As a starting point there are at least three factors that can help narrow down the choice.

First, there are specialised MSc programmes for those who know they want to enter a particular industry; then there are courses on general management; and finally there are courses designed for those seeking a conversion path into business management.

ESCP Europe currently has 15 specialised masters programmes. Examples include an MSc in management of cultural and artistic activities and an MSc in marketing management for the pharmaceutical industry and biotechnologies.

Courses on general management are inevitably much broader in their approach. They usually last 12 months and focus on developing a general understanding of organisations. Due to the length of study, some schools require graduates to have degrees in certain disciplines, while others advertise this as a fast-track route for beginners.

Conversion courses also tend to be broader and are more suitable for those who come from a different undergraduate discipline, such as the arts, and would like to spend time learning the basics of management. They usually run for two years. The first year focuses on the fundamentals of business, and the second offers specialist modules.

This is the type of programme offered by HEC Paris, which El Hajj finally chose. It gave him the time and flexibility to make a career choice in his final year, after having changed his mind several times.

El Hajj, originally from Lebanon, especially valued the international exposure that a longer course afforded. “I chose to go to Asia for one semester and now I would like to work one day in Asia, after I’ve worked in France [in strategic consulting],” he says.

Indeed, international exposure is a strong factor to consider when choosing a programme. “With today’s globalising world … the more international your CV is, the better,” says Jarosinksi. Amy Wong, an alumnus from Audencia Business School, agrees that having five months working for the French embassy in Malaysia on her CV greatly helped her career.

However, Ramanantsoa says this international element can be taught within a programme, without the need for students to go abroad.

“Today we all talk about globalisation,” he says. “This refers to the ability to cope with diversity and understand different cultures, and it is not always necessary to study abroad to achieve this.”

Marie-Laure Djelic, professor in the management department at Essec Business School in France, agrees that a programme can offer international perspectives by including students from a variety of nationalities and ensuring the school offers several languages and cultural diversity training.

Then there is the hotly debated issue of reputation. “You will only do this once and at significant cost, so it’s best to look for reputation and brand,” says Tsinopoulos.

Although this is important, it should not supersede other factors. “Be a little cautious with this approach,” says Djelic, “as it can sometimes lead you in the wrong direction, if you don’t pay attention to your personal objectives.”

Wong also points out that reputation differs according to the country. “In France [for example], it is the business school that counts, but in the UK, corporate relevance is everything,” she says.

Looking at value for money is another part of the decision-making process. Can you afford it? What is the return on investment?

Finally, students are encouraged to talk to graduates and gain insight into the true nature of a programme.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2018. All rights reserved.

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