Will your career in management suffer if you don't have those three letters after your name? Although there's no guarantee that having an MBA will be a one-way ticket to a telephone-number salary, on the whole, the feedback from readers who've followed the MBA route is extremely positive. However, deciding to bite the bullet is just the beginning.
In this guide we talk you through all the tough decisions: full or part time; correspondence or not; where to study; when to study and how to choose an affordable yet credible MBA.
How to do study towards an MBA
While there are no hard-and-fast rules, full-time programmes tend to be chosen by those planning a radical change of direction, such as a move away into general management. Under these circumstances, jacking in your job to study intensively for a year or two can make a lot of sense, particularly if the course involves a work placement that could help to launch you on your new career.
Part-time courses, on the other hand, tend to appeal to those who aim to stay put but want to increase their upward mobility. "If you're happy with your current organisation, there's a strong incentive to do your MBA part-time or by distance learning," says Richard Wheatcroft, MBA programme director with the Open University (OU).
"Juggling a master's degree, a family and a business is not easy, but this way it's achievable."
If you opt for a part-time course, you are then faced with a further choice between a reasonably local programme, where you can attend weekly, for example, or a distance-learning course such as the OU's, which is based mainly on private study with periodic tutorials and residential schools.
Distance-learning courses, in particular, can have the advantage of flexibility; when you study is largely up to you. There's a trade-off for the flexibility, however. With a part-time or distance-learning course you lose out on some of the networking benefits of an intensive full-time course. Summer schools provide some essential face-to-face contact, and there are also collaborative study groups available for people who can afford the time.
Some employers offer to send groups of selected employees on sponsored courses. IT consultant Gary Hinson had this option with a former employer, but declined the offer. "I didn't want to do a course with only people from my own company. I thought it would be too introspective," he explains.
A number institutions now offer online MBAs, although there are doubts as to whether an exclusively internet-based MBA can work.
"There's no substitute for interaction with other students, and even on a part-time programme regular attendance at meetings is a very useful discipline," says Andrew Lock, chairman of the Association of Business Schools and dean of the Business School at Manchester Metropolitan University.
"If you're learning how to manage a group, sooner or later you have to come together in a group."
Even prestigious universities such as Cranfield and Henley are adding significant online elements to their courses, and there are practical reasons for doing so. Not only can distance learning materials be exchanged more efficiently via the internet, but chat rooms and online conferences allow students and tutors to interact more frequently than would otherwise be possible.
Where to study
The pedigree of an MBA is very important, although not always as much as is sometimes suggested. Choosing a course that's accredited by the Association of MBAs is one way to ensure you go for something that most employers will recognise.
Most European schools offering an international MBA have also been accredited by the association. Other accreditation schemes include EQUIS (European Quality Improvement System) and, in the US, the AACSB (The Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business).
Some newspapers publish league tables, but that's not really enough to give you a true feel for the differences beyond the superficial. Doing some homework is critical, such as reading up, attending MBA fairs and talking to alumni. Ultimately, you need to make sure that the course you choose suits your personal needs, aspirations and learning style.
If flexibility is important, it's a good idea to check the school's attitude to prolonging the course. On paper, a school may allow you to extend a course over five years, but in practice it may not be keen on allowing people to spin their studies out that far other than in cases of financial or personal hardship.
Courses vary in work intensity. Make sure you're willing to put in the work the course requires. If you're trying to change direction in your career, choosing a course that involves a placement with an employer could count in your favour.
However, many UK-based programmes include opportunities to study in the US or continental Europe. And UK MBA programmes attract massive international participation, so you're likely to encounter the business diversity you're after even if you stay at home.
When should you do an MBA?
What's the ideal point in your career to consider an MBA? In the US, there's been a tradition of bright young things heading straight off to an MBA after their first degree. In Europe, it's more usual to wait until you have substantial work experience under your belt, although many schools will accept a quota, perhaps 10 per cent, of people with nil or limited experience.
"Two or three years of management experience tends to be expected, and it should be a role that gives you experience of managing people, budgets and finance," says Jonathan Slack, chief executive of the Association of Business Schools. "An IT person who's been managing significant-sized projects might well be in that category."
What about funding?
Tuition fees on accredited programmes in Europe can range from £16,000 to more than £25,000, according to figures from the Association of MBAs. Loans are available from various sources.
If you go full time, the opportunity cost of not having a salary has to be added to fees and living expenses. Bear in mind that full-time courses can be as long as 21 months, although a year is more typical.
Employers may foot at least part of the bill for a part-time course (and, very occasionally, for a full-time one). Figures from the Association of MBAs are encouraging: around 80 per cent of part-time students get at least some funding from their firms, and 50 per cent are totally funded.
Some companies will refund the fees on condition you pass the exam. If you change jobs, you may end up having to pay some of the money back. The tax status of fees may be different depending on who's paying: check with your tax office for the latest status.
So, will it help your career?
An MBA isn't for everyone. Business schools offer a wide range of alternative courses, combining management and technology in different proportions and at different levels, so there should be something for everyone who fancies a spot of 'lifelong learning'.
If you think you'd like to do an MBA but aren't 100 per cent sure, one option could be to try a less intensive management course that could count towards an MBA later. Those with a clear insight into what they want to do seem to find an MBA helps them towards their goals, although it's just as likely to be the insight as the MBA that makes the difference.
For would-be entrepreneurs, the advent of MBA courses with a New Economy slant is a significant development. The Association of Business Schools lists City University, Manchester Business School, Leeds University, London Business School and Buckinghamshire Business School among those with e-commerce-specific elements to their programmes.
"Places like Henley, Cranfield and the London Business School all have business incubators, so MBA people can develop their idea for a new business while they're studying," explains Slack. "They would have better access to professors, research resources and the ideas of other students, plus sources of venture capital."
So while you're taking a year out to plan the launch of your new business, why not pick up an MBA at the same time?
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