When Computing reader Sahar Rehman completed his MBA from Edinburgh University in 1998, he was confident that it would give a huge boost to his career prospects.
"I already have a BSc in Computer Science. I studied for an MBA so I could combine my technical skills with business skills, and get a better-paid management position," he says.
Two years and 25 interviews down the line, however, he's still doing a systems analyst job given to him on the back of his computer degree - and his salary hasn't gone up. "I've not used my MBA, and I feel quite disappointed. Edinburgh University built up my expectations that I would get a better-paid job, but that was never the case," he complains. "MBAs have become very commercialised. Universities don't really give the true picture."
The Sunday Times recently reported that 30 per cent of the founders of Europe's top 100 ebusinesses were MBAs. And today, there are an estimated 45,000 MBAs in the UK alone, according to the Association of MBAs. The question is: will your career in IT suffer if you don't have those three letters after your name?
MBAs are of most obvious benefit for those aspiring to senior, non-technical jobs, according to Anne Bruton, HR director for IT with Ernst & Young. "It's only when we're recruiting at director level that we're concerned if someone has an MBA," she says. "At that level, it would definitely be an advantage because it suggests a person with a broader management perspective, and a greater ability to communicate and participate at senior level. That said, not having an MBA wouldn't rule out an otherwise well-qualified candidate."
If you're an entrepreneurial type wanting to raise capital to finance your latest brainchild, an MBA can add credibility. Some of the dotcom failures such as boo.com were blamed on a failure to grasp basic business concepts such as cashflow management, so an MBA could be a way to demonstrate that your ideas are grounded in reality.
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.
Read on for advice about finding your way through the maze of choices confronting you.
Choice one: How to do it - full-time versus part-time, local verses distance
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 from IT 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, since when you study is largely up to you. Richard Dance, IT business enablement director with Ernst & Young, is nearing the end of a distance-learning MBA at Warwick, a course he describes as "interesting, challenging and very valuable".
"The course can be done in four years, but you can stretch it out up to eight years. When you have a full-time, highly-pressured job within IT you can't just say to the business 'I'm sorry, I have to leave now', so I've appreciated having some flexibility built into the course, especially as I have family commitments."
There's a trade-off for the flexibility, however. Dance admits that 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. Dance used these at first "mainly to bolster my confidence," but now relies to a large extent on tutor-guided private study supplemented with participation in online discussion boards.
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."
Hinson took a part-time MBA at Bath from 1997 to 1999. "The fact that we were all part-timers, doing a different day job, meant that it was firmly rooted in the real world. We were sometimes able to bring the lecturers up to speed on what worked and what didn't."
In his current role as a consultant for Corporate Computer Consultants, Hinson's recently been involved in launching a new internet recruitment company, IT-sourcing.com, a far cry from his background in computer audit. "I didn't have any direct experience launching a new company, but the MBA gave me the confidence to sit straight down and get a marketing plan together, sort out a website, and so on."
Some institutions now offer online MBAs, although there are doubts as to whether an exclusively internet-based MBA could ever 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," he adds.
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.
The attitude towards 'virtual' MBAs may change in the future as the value of the internet is more fully exploited. Julian Wills, director of the global centre for credit mapping at the International Management Centres Association, is already participating in a pilot of an MBA that is largely delivered online and based on the concepts of 'Action Learning' (www.action-learning.com).
"You can't just plonk people in a chat room and tell them to get on with it," he explains. "If it's not facilitated properly, it doesn't work."
Wills believes a lot of distance learning establishments see the internet as mainly a faster version of the post. "They don't realise the potential of putting online management tools and tools to assess learning style, or of playing online management games that contribute to the learning process."
Choice two: Where to do it
The pedigree of an MBA is very important, although not always as much as is sometimes suggested. "If an MBA is from a good business school, and we like the way that particular course works, that's advantageous," Ernst & Young's Bruton says. "But the most important thing is for the individual to show that they know how to translate the management theory into practice."
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. Today, 60 per cent of people graduating as MBAs in the UK have followed one of the 35 programmes it has accredited. Most European schools offering an international MBA have also been accredited by the association. Other accreditation schemes include Equis (European Quality Improvement System) and AACSB (The International Association for Management Education).
Some newspapers publish league tables - the Financial Times' is highly regarded. 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.
At the end of the day, 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.
"That was the worst thing about my course at Bath," says Gary Hinson. "It was lots of work - about 25 hours a week. I decided to drop my social life completely." 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. According to the Association of Business Schools' report Pillars of the Economy, business education contributed £531m to export earnings in the UK last year, with 17 per cent of students of business and administrative studies coming from outside the UK.
Choice three: 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 MBA-wards 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."
Choice four: How much should you expect to pay, and what about funding?
Tuition fees on accredited programmes in Europe average £10,000, but some places may charge as much as £26,000, according to figures from the Association of MBAs. Loans are available from various sources, as Nasir Khan found (see case study). 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 (and, very occasionally, for a full-time) course. 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 what's the best way of to persuading your employer to cough up, or at least give you study leave? "I wrote a business case explaining the costs in terms of time off, the benefits in terms of bringing a broader outlook and applying what I was learning to my job through the assignments, and managed to justify it that way," Hinson says.
Your chosen school should be able to provide some ammunition in terms of benefits.
Will it help your career? The verdict
An MBA isn't for everyone. John Evans, principal of corporate psychology specialist Human Asset Development International, advises against doing an MBA just for the sake of it. "If someone is a real techie and wants to go on applying themselves in that capacity, I wouldn't necessarily assume that spending two years in purgatory is going to add value. They might be better off doing an MSc in an area that really interests them," he says.
"Having an MBA isn't going to turn a wholly unpromising individual into a star overnight. It's a question of being sensible about your long-term prospects, and also about whether you're likely to get on a particular course," advises Lock.
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. It proved to be a blessing for one project manager, who completed a couple of distance-learning management courses a few years ago.
"I'm glad I did them, because they were of practical help in my job, particularly on the people management side. It's also been helpful in understanding management speak - I now no longer blank out when someone mentions Maslow's hierarchy of needs. But by the time I'd finished, I didn't feel I could take any more management theory, so I was really glad that I hadn't signed up for a full master's."
You may, like Khan, treble your salary over a period of five years after graduating, but there are no guarantees. 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.
"I'm now really involved with strategic solutions, which is what I was looking for," Dance says. "I don't think it was my MBA that got me this job, although the MBA probably helped me show that I was a well-rounded individual," he adds.
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 having added ecommerce-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," Slack says. "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?
Case study: The part-time student
By the time Will Thornton-Reid hit 40, he'd already spent several years in various IT-related roles, culminating in a job as head of IT for internet development with Thomas Cook.
Now was the time, he decided, to develop his business skills to complement his knowledge of IT. A career development consultant, told him: "You have a specialism, IT - now you need a generalism. An MBA will round you off, and give you the pieces of business that you don't have." He hasn't looked back since.
Doing a part-time MBA doesn't mean it has to drag on for years. That was important to Thornton-Reid, now a programme director with Rapid Travel Solutions. He's currently halfway through a part-time MBA at Leicester De Montfort University.
"I knew if I was going to do it, I would have to do it in two years." This is an important motivator for anyone who likes their targets reasonably close, he says. "I would have found it difficult at the stage I'm at now to think I was just starting on the first of three similar 'middle' years."
By the time Thornton-Reid started studying, he'd joined his present company, and as part of his package he negotiated the requisite study leave (the weekly session at De Montfort kicks off at 2pm, lasting until 9pm, so a whole afternoon off a week is necessary). The support of his company has encouraged him to stay firmly put. "Finishing this is very important to me, and for an employer to discourage it would be very short-sighted - the skills you learn from a course like this are phenomenal."
So how applicable is the course to his current job? For Thornton-Reid, the fact that the course covers disciplines outside the normal remit of IT is a definite bonus. "For me, IT needs to be part of the business. I'd started to get more involved in the business side a while ago, and I saw the MBA as an extension of that."
Assignments vary from analysis of imaginary scenarios, to tasks where the student is invited to relate a theory to a past or current project or situation at work. He also values the mixture of people he's studying with. "They range from people in their late 20s upwards. Some run their own businesses, some work for BT, the council, waste management companies... they all come at it from a different point of view, and the exchange of experiences is one of the things that makes it worthwhile."
Case study: The full-time student
With a degree in computer science and a job as a systems analyst with a high street bank, Nasir Khan found that his aspirations to learn about business simply weren't being fulfilled. "My career direction was getting very technical, even though I'd joined the bank in the hope of learning about business," he explains. "I had actually planned to do an MBA later on, but I saw that it could be a way to move my career back into a business direction. At that point, I didn't have any dependants or mortgages to worry about, so I thought I might go ahead while it was relatively easy to afford it."
Khan began his MBA at 28, opting for a one-year, full-time course, at Imperial College Management School. "With a part-time course, the cost isn't any different, but the length of time you're studying can triple. I felt it would be hard to juggle work and study for three years and put my social life on hold. I decided it was better to get on and do it."
The course represented a significant investment. Khan supplemented his savings with a loan arranged by the Association of MBAs, plus a government-sponsored career development loan. Five years after completing the course, the investment has paid off - his salary had trebled.
Despite his new qualification, however, Khan's ambition of working in the middle office of an investment bank has yet to be realised. "Most of the banks wanted to offer me straight IT jobs, presumably because of my background. But that would have defeated the object of doing the MBA."
Eventually, he took a sideways route into banking via consultancy, working first for IBM, and then for a big five firm. "I've worked for several top investment banking names on a wide selection of projects, so it wasn't a bad move, but to know the nuts and bolts I think you do need to work directly for a bank."
Now he's interviewing for his next job, hoping this time he'll be joining an investment bank or ecommerce consultancy.
Since completing his MBA, Khan's not lost the habit of studying, and has since qualified as a certified project management professional with the Project Management Institute. He was also the first person in his firm to qualify as a certified management consultant after the firm joined the Institute of Management Consultancy.
If you're doing an MBA as a means to change career direction, Khan's advice is to choose a place with links to employers in the industry you're interested in. "A school may rank highly in the league tables, but whether a director in a bank is aware of those ratings is another question. It might be worth checking if a school regularly undertakes research for your chosen industry, or perhaps it does a couple of MBA projects a year in that area."
Khan also advises MBA hopefuls to start looking for a job in their chosen field as early as possible, rather than wait until the end of the course. It's quite common for people who do projects with an employer to be offered a job with that employer at the end of the course. The project can be a low-risk way for an employer to let a potential recruit prove themselves in a new field.
Case study: The distance learner
When Eamonn Finnerty left a foreign exchange trading job in New York to take up his first managerial position for the Bank of Ireland's offshore activities in Jersey, he began to consider doing an MBA.
Finnerty is operations manager for Fsharp (www.fsharpbank.com), the world's first offshore internet bank, and part of the Bank of Ireland Group. Despite working in the thick of ecommerce, Finnerty is the first to admit that he's not Mr IT, but he's gained the confidence to tackle new areas by graduating with an MBA from the Open University.
One reason for choosing the OU was location-independence. Finnerty only expected to be in Jersey for a limited period, and knew he would have to continue his studies elsewhere (he now works in the Isle of Man). He also liked the fact that the OU approach allowed him to progress at his own pace, and to approach the MBA incrementally - particularly as he hadn't done a first degree, and was reluctant to commit to the whole MBA at the outset.
It was only after he'd completed the Professional Certificate in Management and the Professional Diploma in Management, that, two years later, he signed up for the Masters' programme, committing to a further two years' study.
Finnerty also valued the OU approach to course material, designed to be relevant to students' day-to-day work. "I was delighted to find that I could apply what I was learning to my job straightaway - the way the assignments are designed means that the course makes a real difference to what you do each day. That was fantastic, particularly as part of me initially begrudged the time I had to give up to study."
As a result, studying didn't get in the way of work, and the amount of home study wasn't, as it turned out, overwhelming. "You do need commitment from partners at home, because you have to spend several hours a week studying, although, in my case, it was probably more like six to eight hours than the eight to 12 hours that the OU says you should allow."
Support from your family can make all the difference to your motivation. "MBA needn't stand for Marriage Breakdown Accelerator. I made a conscious effort not to shut down my social life the way some MBA students do." Finnerty's wife is now also studying.
There were financial incentives to do well in exams. "The Bank was kind enough to sponsor me, and the way it did it was to offer to refund the fees after I had passed each stage. With a couple of thousand pounds riding on an exam, you're well motivated to pass!"
Finnerty emphasises he didn't do the course just to get letters after his name, but he's fairly sure he wouldn't be in his current job if not for his studies. "It gives you an extremely useful framework for tackling unfamiliar tasks - whatever you're asked to do, you can pull out a relevant tool. And, as much as anything, it's increased my confidence. Fsharp is only a year old and I've been able to take a real hand in shaping it, which is probably not something I would have felt able to do four years ago."
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