The MBA or Masters in Business Administration degree is now probably the world's most popular and widely recognised post-graduate qualification and every year over 100,000 students will invest large amounts of time, effort and money to gain one. But what exactly is it and is it really worth all the effort? The first MBA programme was developed at the Tuck School in New Hampshire in the US during the early years of the last century and was originally a largely administrative qualification with an emphasis on finance and accounting. The programme remained more or less unchanged until the 1950s when the new business school at Harvard developed teaching based around real-life case studies - a methodology which remains the basis of most business school training to this day. Modern programmes are designed to give students a basic grounding in the key tools of business management and consequently cover such areas as finance and economics, human resources, marketing, IT, strategy and leadership. Core subjects are then supplemented by a range of electives in such subjects as entrepreneurship, consulting, brand management or ethics to round off the candidate's experience. Some schools are now going beyond the "generalist" approach of traditional programmes and are introducing courses with a high degree of specialisation. The ESSEC School in France, for example, teaches an MBA in Luxury Brand Management, Nottingham in the UK offers one covering Insurance and Risk Management and Liverpool University has developed a programme focusing on Football Management.
MBA programmes come with a wide variety of study options. If you are feeling sufficiently committed and want to focus completely on your studies, the full-time option may be your best bet. Programmes vary in length depending on which school and even which country you choose. In Europe, programmes vary between one year and eighteen months, but in the USA, and across the Pacific Rim, two years is the norm. What the right length is, is an argument without end. Advocates of the short programme maintain that it is highly concentrated and has the advantage of taking you out of the workplace for the minimum time. Their opponents argue that longer courses give you more time to digest lessons learned and deal with subjects in greater depth. The debate has yet to be satisfactorily resolved. For any of these full-time programmes, work experience is vital, as you will be both learning from, and contributing to, your class' pool of knowledge. Consequently, most schools will insist on a minimum of six months previous work experience and this rises to more than two years at the better known international schools. If you are unwilling or unable to face as long as two years out of the office then you should consider studying on a part-time basis. Taking an MBA in this way usually means completing a large part of your studies on-line using distance learning technology, supplemented by occasional evenings or weekends in the classroom. It gives you the flexibility to work around your day job, when and where is convenient and it also allows you to stretch your training over a long period - anything up to eight years. It does however call for a lot of self-discipline, stamina and a sympathetic family, who are willing to put up with you disappearing to tackle the mysteries of financial analysis when they would prefer you to be helping with cooking, cleaning or looking after children. Jane Tansley, who works for the United Nations in Israel, decided to take an MBA to get a qualification, which would help her to move into management when she returned to the UK. She chose the Open University Business School course as it seemed to offer maximum flexibility. She freely admits that she was very daunted by the prospect when she began. "I received the brochure through the post and my initial thought was, "Oh, my God, how will I get through all this?"but then I made a call to the school and spoke to a real person who was helpful and provided the reassurance I needed. It's all about discipline and commitment and a good system. You'd often find me in the middle of the night in the online library catching up with colleagues in the chat room because that was when it was convenient for me." The third route to those prized three letters after your name is the Executive MBA. These tend to be used by organisations that want to develop leadership and management skills in employees with high potential and usually combine short periods in the classroom with some online work. The major difference between this type of MBA and those discussed earlier is that your employer sponsors your training and consequently foots the bill. Time, perhaps, to start being as nice to your boss as is humanly possible.
So is an MBA right for you? Before you start imagining yourself rubbing shoulders in the classroom with the best in the business world, let's examine some of the negatives about taking an MBA. First, it's extremely hard work and second it can be expensive. While there are schools in Europe that charge as little as US$10,000, (not too bad if you say it quickly!), two years at The Wharton School in the USA will leave you with little change from US$70,000. On top of this, you will need to add accommodation, travel, food and drink and, of course, your lost salary. Altogether it can prove quite a significant investment. It's also highly important to identify exactly what you are looking to get from your time at business school. Too many candidates come to the course with the expectation that it will change their lives, or at least the path of their career, beyond recognition. It won't. An MBA can give you more confidence in your abilities, can introduce you to new ways of doing business or working with colleagues, but it's a hard fact of life that most recruiters still regard it as "icing on the cake" and not the cake itself. If you're an accountant or a lawyer you may find yourself moving into a more strategically oriented role, you may even be able to move into some form of consultancy, but unless you are one of a relatively small group who pass through the very top schools fairly early on in life, it's unlikely that your career will change direction completely.
That's some of the bad news. Now let's look at the good. An MBA can definitely make a difference to your future earning power, particularly if you are willing to make the investment of studying at a world-class school. According to figures from the Columbia Business School in the USA, students increased their remuneration level by 232% in the three years after graduation. Similarly, MBAs from London Business School saw their earnings rise by 189% and graduates of the Saïd school at Oxford University, by 145%. After a downturn in recruitment in the wake of the dotcom crash and 9/11, demand for MBAs is now consistently rising again according to the latest research from QS TopMBA.com, which surveys over 400 employers around the world every year. At INSEAD in France, Mary Boss, director of corporate development, reports that consulting firms are,- now hiring for thirteen offices compared with 2001 - 2002 when they only came to campus to hire for five or six offices", while according to Abby Scott of the Haas School of Business, University of California, Berkeley Campus, "Students are finding jobs in industries all across the board." One unexpected bonus stemming from the downturn in the early years of the decade has been a broadening of the range of organisations interested in hiring MBAs as we enter a period of recovery. "When times were tough individual students and career departments at business schools had to go out and find new opportunities outside the "usual suspect" banks and consultancies," says Mike Holmes of the specialist MBA career service, Global Workplace. "That meant selling the value of the qualification to a much wider variety of employers " small, growing companies, specialist consultancies, family firms and public sector bodies. Now these organisations have seen what an MBA can contribute, they're keen to come back for more." This increase in demand is having a demonstrable effect on remuneration levels. According to the QS TopMBA.com research, average salaries for graduating MBAs around the world have increased 27% in the past eight years.
In a shrinking world, the MBA has the advantage of being the only truly international business qualification, much more so than even the most widely accepted accountancy qualifications such as the ACA or ACCA. "I've already worked in Belgium and the UK and when I graduate I want to get experience in China, which seems to be a market with tremendous potential for the future," says Ida Huang, a student at Manchester Business School. "An MBA helps you to consolidate and build on what you've already learned in business, but, perhaps most importantly for me, it's the qualification which offers almost total international mobility." Her opinion is reinforced by MBA, Johanna Bengtsson, who studied at EADA business school in Spain. "The MBA gives you a quality label that works wherever you want to work.- However, the international aspect of the MBA can go much further than opening doors in countries around the world, it can also provide invaluable insight into markets and business methods overseas. "Working with people from such a wide variety of cultures and countries really helps to give you a global perspective on business, which I've found invaluable since graduating," says Piyush Unalkat, who took his MBA at IE-Instituto de Empresa in Madrid. "Since completing my MBA, I've stayed on in Spain, working as a venture capitalist and now founding a company there - not too bad for someone who came to the country five years ago with a beginners guide to Spanish he bought off Amazon!" As the student bodies on MBA programmes become more and more diverse - Instituto de Empresa in Spain, for example, now boasts some 48 nationalities on its Madrid-based programme, while at INSEAD in France fewer than 10% of participants are recruited from the home country - the business school experience can help to plug you into an international network that will become increasingly useful as your post-graduate career develops. According to Elif Kulac, who took her MBA at MIP Politechnico di Milano in Italy, mixing with a wide range of fellow students is a vital part of the business school experience. "I'd say that the people were one of the best parts of the MBA for me," she says. "The high international profile of the class and the unusual blend of backgrounds gave me really valuable experience. Working together, we learned to be more open minded and look at problems from different points of view." Veli Vardali, who studied at Koc in Turkey and is now Innovation and New Beverages Manager for Eurasia and the Middle East with Coca Cola, shares her view. "The alumni community is getting bigger all the time and we're all in managerial or other positions of influence. It's invaluable to be part of such a wide-ranging network."
With so much potential at stake, choosing the right MBA programme is vital. While there are now a whole host of sources of information on courses, both in print and online, one of the most popular and effective is still the business school fair. One of the largest, the World MBA Tour, works with nearly 300 international business schools, including most of the US "Top 20' as defined by Business Week magazine, such as Chicago, Columbia, Cornell, Dartmouth, Duke, Michigan, Northwestern, UCLA and Wharton. All of the key European schools also take part, for example: Italy's SDA Bocconi; France's HEC and INSEAD; Spain's IESE, ESADE and IE - Instituto de Empresa; Switzerland's IMD and the UK's Judge Institute Cambridge, Cranfield, Tanaka Business School Imperial College, London Business School, Manchester and Warwick Business Schools.
World MBA Tour events enable potential candidates to meet face-to-face with admissions directors and to obtain a wide range of information on programme content, costs and duration, financial aid and post-qualification career options. Seminars and workshops presented by the Tour organisers cover wide-ranging issues including: choosing between specialist post-graduate courses and an MBA, picking the right school, financing an MBA, taking the GMAT test and preparing a winning application. MBA scholarships are also exclusively available through the Tour fairs, including the six QS (Quacquarelli Symonds) Leadership & Community Scholarships, many school-specific scholarships, such as those from Wharton and IE-Instituto de Empresa, as well as funding from a broad range of charities and governmental bodies. The 2007 Tour commenced in February and registration is now underway at www.topmba.com. Source: QS TopMBA Career Guide