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Things to Consider When Considering an MBA Degree Program

Things to Consider When Considering an MBA Degree Program

February 18, 2010

The Master of Business Administration is one of the most popular and sought-after degrees available today. As the world moves to an increasingly corporate and service-based economy, companies have an ever-growing need for business savvy and certain sets of technical skills. And an MBA-holder is likely to have those skills and savvy. According to a recent New York Times article, "the term MBA has become synonymous with raw business talent. Pay scales have risen accordingly, and overall, the future looks bright for MBA students."

Increase in the Number of MBA Degree Holders

In 1965, fewer than 10,000 MBAs were granted to U.S. students. In 1977, the number rose to 48,000 and in 1998, it was 94,000. Even more interesting, some two thirds of these degrees are awarded not to full-time students, but to part-time or distance students, often subsidized by their employers. These are people looking to advance their careers,  to move to a more rewarding career or even to start their own businesses. According to a survey conducted by the Graduate Management Admission Council, about 20 percent of the people who get MBAs are planning to go into business for themselves.  Many MBA degree holders are older, and about 30 percent of business school graduates have families. In distance-learning programs, that ratio jumps even higher; a distance-learning MBA allows students to study at their own pace, without interrupting work or family life.

Choosing the Right MBA for You

There's a world of MBA (and other useful business-related) programs out there. Which one is right for you? There are absolutely no right or wrong answers here. Each person is different, and each person's needs, in both the present and future, are different. The following list gives eleven things you may wish to consider when deciding which MBA programs to pursue. After each item, we've summarized the decision you need to make regarding that item. Remember, the more thought you put into this now, the more likely you are to select and MBA program that meets your needs.

Eleven Vital Factors to Consider When Choosing an MBA Program

Slant 1: Specialized vs. General

There are a number of courses that appear, in one form or another, in just about every MBA degree program on earth: finance, economics, marketing, strategic planning, and so on. But beyond those, there are literally hundreds of different subjects that have been included in MBA programs, either as stand-alone courses, or as part of a specialized MBA program, where just about every course has a certain slant: not just marketing, but marketing for the automotive industry. Not just organizational behavior, but OB for the military; not just accounting, but accounting for the medical profession.

Many people are not only content with a generic, or 'plain vanilla' MBA; they prefer to have a degree without any specialization. They argue that if they were to change careers, their broader degree would be applicable, regardless of their new chosen field. Others feel that a specialized MBA say, in healthcare administration, church management, banking, or international trade and finance, will be a better ticket to jobs in those professions.

You need to decide: Will a specialized MBA best suit your career needs, or will you be better off with a more general business education?

Slant 2: Theoretical vs. Practical (or More Math vs. Less Math)

How important is it to understand technical theories that may drive the commodities market up or down? What do we know about the causes and aftermath of major economic recessions in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries? Can sophisticated economic modeling help a high-tech company's long-term strategic planning? Is it more important to learn how to write a business plan in short order, or to spend a year understanding the underlying nature of business plans and the ways in which corporate behaviors are shaped by them?

These differing approaches are one of the main reasons that some MBA programs require a good deal of high-level mathematics, including advanced calculus, while others are content to offer nothing beyond elementary algebra and beginning statistics.

Note: Many of the more practical programs (and some of the others) require internships, in which students work for real-world companies.

You need to decide: Do you want a theoretical or a practical education? (Of course, many programs provide both, but there is usually a slant one way or the other.) If you just want to get the information and apply it quickly to your career, practical may be the way to go. If you're looking to be a "big picture person," maybe even to teach or to advance to a doctoral level, theoretical may be your best option. Weigh the balance of these two approaches and decide if the school has what you need.

Cost: Lower Cost vs. Higher Cost

There is not a whole lot of correlation between the cost of an education and its quality. In our part of the country, for instance, there are two wonderful schools, Stanford and Berkeley. The former costs about five times as much as the latter, but even the most die-hard Cardinal fan would not argue that the Stanford education is five times better.

The total cost of an MBA can range from the vicinity of US$5,000 to well over $100,000 (when you take into account tuition, fees, housing, travel, and, most significantly for the non-distance-learning ones, time lost from your job). Many students can get funding in the form of employer subsidies, student loans, or grants. But it is important not to fall into the trap of thinking that an MBA that costs under $10,000 must have something wrong with it. Research the program, see if it offers what you need, and then decide if you can afford it.

You need to decide: What you can afford to pay. You need to remember that more expensive is not always better.  Spend some time researching your funding options.

Worldview: National vs. International

Some schools are in business to train people to work in the country where the school is located, or at least in that region of the world. Others pay special intention to the growing globalization of the economy, and the increasing numbers of business people who may work in two or three or more countries in the course of their career.

These differences are often reflected in the kinds of courses offered, and the approach taken in the courses. As one simple example, there are certain basic accounting principles that are the same anywhere in the world. And yet there are some significant differences in generally accepted accounting principles as they are practiced in the U.S. versus in Japan, or Russia, or Saudi Arabia. If a student is considering an MBA in order to be a better manager of a lumberyard in Michigan, then it may not matter to him or her that human resource practices are dramatically different in China than they are in the U.S. But if that person gets involved in buying or selling products in Asia, needs to understand NAFTA, or needs to remit or deposit foreign currencies, then he or she could benefit from an international approach.

You need to decide: Whether an international focus is important to you and, if so, you need to be sure the program you choose meets that need.

Reputation: Big vs. Modest

There are a small number of schools that are world-famous, either as entire universities (for instance, Harvard, Stanford, Oxford), or especially as MBA-granting business schools (for instance Wharton, Chicago, Henley).

These schools, and others like them, regularly appear on the "ten best" or "25 best" or "world's best" lists published annually by magazines such as BusinessWeek, U.S. News and World Report, Canadian Business, and The Economist. These "best" lists vary slightly from year to year programs change and, probably more importantly, magazines need to tell at least a somewhat new story each year. But the great majority of good, decent, usable MBA programs offered as online degrees--surely more than 90 percent of those with recognized accreditation--never make any lists at all.

Undeniably, some people choose a school because of its reputation. They believe it will help them in the job-finding or internal promotion process, and they may be right. They believe that a person who finishes near the bottom of his or her graduating class at Harvard or Yale will get ahead faster than the person who finishes first in his or her class at some obscure little school in Nebraska, Montana, or the English Midlands. If you were a recruiter for your company, which would you choose? There is no simple answer to this question. It is simply a factor to keep in mind during the school selection process

You need to decide: Is prestige vitally important to you? If so, be prepared to pay more and meet more stringent entrance requirements.

Interactiveness: Low vs. High

There are distance MBA programs in which an online degree can be earned literally without ever talking to another human being: read the textbooks, take the exams, and earn the degree. There are others in which the hallmark of the program is its interactivity. Each student is expected to be either online, on the phone or at meetings of local cohort groups for quite a few hours each week--and there is a wide range of models in between.  Take time to explore the many online schools that offer MBA programs to see if the structure may work for you.

Similarly, there are people who prefer working on their own, perhaps with the option of being able to ask a question of a faculty member if the need arises. There are others who thrive on group process; they enjoy sharing ideas, gaining insights from others, and regularly getting a sense of how well they are doing.

The simple advice here is that if this matter is important, then it is wise to choose a program with a model that matches your preferred style.

You need to decide: How much supervision do you want or need?  How much interaction with students and professors do you want? Do you want to set your own pace or have regularly scheduled on-line meetings?

Exams: Many, Few, or None

Some people would rather suffer medieval torture than take a major do-or-die exam. Some, on the other hand, thrive on the challenge of exams. Many are willing to tolerate them, but quite often would rather be somewhere else.

Since there are distance MBA programs that follow a variety of academic models, it is often wise to choose one that matches your preferences with regard to exams. European degree programs are often based largely or entirely on examinations; that is also the case with many MBAs, where the only requirement is passing a series of course exams. American Master degree programs are often graded based on an array of factors, including ability, including writing term papers, interaction with faculty and other students, quizzes, and exams. Since some schools put a lot less weight on exams than others, this could be a factor when shopping around for the ideal MBA program.

You need to decide: How do you feel about exams?  How much other work are you up for if you choose a program lighter on the exams and heavier on other assignments.

Thesis or Major Paper: Yes or No

Master degree programs of all kinds traditionally require a major paper, called a thesis in America and a dissertation in Britain, as a means of demonstrating that you have a certain level of mastery of the field. But there are programs that offer a choice, such as ten courses plus a thesis or thirteen courses without a thesis. Some allow some sort of other major project, such as implementing and testing systems at the workplace. There are also those that do not offer a thesis option. Some students feel that a thesis is not only a good opportunity to do significant work in one's field, but also the thesis itself can make a good addition to one's resume or portfolio of career experiences. Others, especially those with less experience doing a single major project, may feel that a wider array of course work is just as satisfactory.

You need to decide: Whether or not you want to do a thesis or final project.

Degree Title: MBA vs. M.A. or M.S. or Others

Not all schools award the MBA degree, while others offer both MBA's and other Master's degrees in business subjects, such as an M.A. or M.S. in business administration, or business studies, or just business. This might be just fine, or it might even be better than an MBA for your purposes, depending on what your career goals are and how you plan to use your degree.

You need to decide: Exactly what degree title you want or, at least, whether an equally useful degree with a different name would suit your purposes. The listings in our MBA book make it clear what degree(s) each school awards.

Time Involved: 8 or 9 Months to 3 or More Years

Most academic degree programs have a pretty standardized length. A Bachelor's degree in the U.S. will require about 120 semester hours, which typically will take four years to earn. A Bachelor's in the U.K. will require three years or a bit more. An American Master's degree in most fields is from 30 to 36 semester units in length.

The MBA alone seems extremely variable in this regard. While European MBAs often take one year (which can mean anything from 8 to 12 months), there are others that are designed to require 18 to 24 months. While many American MBAs take two academic years (16 to 20 months), there are some that require a year and a half, and some as little as one year. Many distance programs offer part-time options, allowing you to stretch the course of study out so as not to conflict with work and family or, conversely, to do many courses at once to finish more quickly.

You need to decide: How long you'd like the program to take. Whatever you decide, within reason, you can probably find a program to suit your needs.

Going on for a Doctorate: Yes, No, or Maybe

Many, but by no means all, doctorate programs require that the student have earned a Master degree first. There are a moderate percentage of such schools, perhaps one-fourth to one-third, that do not consider an MBA degree as meeting their Master's degree requirement for entry into a doctoral program. They argue that the MBA is a professional degree, not an academic one, and that the main reason for earning a doctorate is to enter the academic world. Accordingly, this minority of schools says that people planning eventually to earn a doctorate should do an MA or an MS in finance or marketing or economics or other business field, but not the more general MBA. But the remaining two-thirds to three-fourths of doctoral programs do consider an MBA as meeting their Master's requirement. Accordingly, if going on to a particular doctoral program is a possibility, it would be appropriate to learn the policy of that doctoral school in this regard.

You need to decide: Whether you plan to go on for a doctorate. If so, you need to be sure that the degree you get will suit your needs. If you have any questions, ask an admissions counselor whether holders of that degree have gone on to doctoral studies, and at what schools. If you know the school at which you intend to earn that doctorate, ask them whether the MBA is acceptable.

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