The workload is arduous, the costs daunting and the repercussions on home and social life considerable. Is an MBA really worth it?
"For a minority the MBA can offer a step change in the level of role and responsibility," says Chris Sale, director of Prism Executive Recruitment. "But for the vast majority an MBA should be viewed as a string to a bow - never a minus, usually a plus - which will help them in some way in their career."
An understanding employer who sees the value of an MBA is vital. Many of the big consultancies already sponsor employees to do such courses.
According to one recruitment director, such is the awareness of the qualification that "a high proportion of our graduates coming on board are asking us for that MBA further down the road".
Sale thinks fostering the MBA is of value to the business in a number of areas. "It enables us to have a larger network, a greater conceptual capability within the organisation," he says. "MBAs show an ability to think outside the box- but it can make them arrogant."
Nicolas Mabin, director of resourcing at Cap Gemini Ernst & Young, says: "We tend to encourage people to do an MBA by distance learning rather than taking a year out. Part-time courses are not offered because of client demands. They would not understand a part-time consultant."
And how do those clients view the MBA itself? "It has to be backed up by experience," says Mabin. "They are less impressed by lots of theories."
Generally, the motivation to do the course comes from the consultants themselves, and this seems to be the case at most of the big consultancies. Says one MBA graduate: "As an IT consultant intending to move into strategy, I wanted to learn how to handle clients with more complex issues."
He found a partner who would act as sponsor and prepared a business case to persuade his firm to allow him to do an MBA. Although he gained a full-time place at LBS, he opted for a part-time course at Cranfield. His firm paid half the fees and all the ancillary expenses.
"I considered the full-time course but dismissed it on the grounds of cashflow," he explains. "I did a break-even forecast and reckoned on an eight to 10-year payback."
He would advise anyone considering a full-time MBA to do the same. "The two important figures are how much you are earning while you are doing it and how much you'll be earning at the end of it," he says. "It's a high-risk strategy."
But he still believes that his MBA was worthwhile, although tying in the work with his fee-earning duties was, at times, a nightmare. "It has given me the wherewithal to get to the next plateau of my career - and an understanding of lots of areas."
But for those doing part-time courses there can be disappointment in store. "Employers don't acknowledge your new skill base in terms of salary and use of those skills. To gain a step change in responsibilities and salary more often than not you would have to change firms," he warns.
A predominant issue for consultancies who sponsor MBAs, then, is making sure that graduates stay with the firm after the course is finished.
Says one recruitment director: "You must have an infrastructure to support them, otherwise they will get frustrated because their new skills aren't being used."
So what are the attractions of an MBA for employers? For Dr Sabri Challah, director responsible for MBA recruitment at Deloitte Consulting, there are a number of dimensions.
"First, an MBA provides a very good general business training. Second, it is acts as a maturing process for people who have had some business experience." This, he says, probably comes from interaction with students from a wide range of backgrounds and cultures.
"This is very valuable for consultancies because of the need for interaction with clients."
There are also operational benefits in recruiting MBAs, according to Challah. "You are hiring an individual who, depending on the school, has a brand recognised by major clients as a measure of quality and talent," he says.
The employer also benefits from the networking between business school alumni, he adds. "An individual may have perhaps 100 colleagues who will go on to become leaders; that is an incredibly valuable network."
The rigorous screening criteria of the business schools also gives the employer some quality guarantee, while an established relationship with a business school is also valuable.
CGE&Y's Mabin thinks it is wrong to encourage people to switch career tracks on the back of an MBA. "Moving from engineering into finance, for example, is incredibly difficult," he says.
"People do make that switch, but an MBA used to reinforce a current career path is more effective and more powerful."
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