MBA options on both sides of the Atlantic

Whether you choose to study your course in Europe or the US, think about the long term
Click to follow


When Jennifer Kerr asked colleagues at Credit Suisse for business school recommendations, the response was unanimous: head across the Atlantic. "I largely made my decision based on word of mouth because everyone was recommending US schools," recalls Jennifer, now in the first year of a two-year full-time MBA programme at Chicago Graduate School of Business.

Although daunted by the prospect of spending two years off the career ladder and away from London, the option of picking a one-year programme at a European business school was quickly dismissed. "I did have to stop and think because I had been working in Hong Kong and now I would be away from home for another two years," says Jennifer. "But because I work internationally, I know the importance of having a truly international education and the global rankings are dominated by US schools. Two years is a big commitment but having made the decision I had to grasp the best possible opportunity."

It helped that the cost of the two-year Chicago programme was partly offset by a $50,000 (£27,800) scholarship from Deutsche Bank. "The cost of living is also significantly lower than in London," says Jennifer. "I spend about half as much here as I do in the UK."

Yet for many the costs - both in dollar signs and time off the career ladder - of the typical two-year programme are insurmountable. Stacey Kole, deputy dean at Chicago, says students should take a long-term view of their MBA investment. As she points out, this is not a one-off business transaction but an educational experience that should pay dividends throughout your career.

"On a two-year programme, students get time to test what they have learned, reflect whether they are taking the right career direction and build a real affiliation with the institution," says Kole, adding that the paid summer internship at the end of the first year helps offset second year costs.

Yet the one-year programme favoured by many European business schools (but by no means all: IESE in Barcelona and HEC in Paris offer two-year programmes) is not a function of cash restraint. MBA students in Europe tend to be older (around 29 or 30 years of age compared to 25 to 27 in the US) and this means they have sufficient business experience to grasp concepts quickly.

This older demographic also influences the teaching method. US business schools rely heavily on case studies to illustrate theoretical points, and with great success. European business schools tend to take a slightly different approach.

"We don't use case studies in every single class because we can draw on the experiences of our students to put things into context," says Caroline Diarte Edwards, director of MBA admissions at Insead, based in Fontainebleau just outside Paris. "They can illustrate points with the challenges they have faced and that really enriches the learning experience."

A more youthful class has its advantages too. "Our students usually have three to four years of work experience, which is enough to learn from but not enough to be fixed in their way of thinking," says Dawna Clarke, director of MBA admissions at Tuck Business School at Dartmouth, New England.

Perhaps one of the biggest differences between the US and European schools is the international student cohort. HEC in Paris, for example, boasts 55 nationalities on its MBA, of which one-third are from Asia, one-third from the Americas and one-third from Europe (only 12 per cent are French). Insead heads the league table when it comes to the international diversity of its alumni. This can create an exciting classroom dynamic, as students with different backgrounds and mindsets exchange ideas.

Classes in US business schools are dominated by home students. International students account for 33 per cent of the MBA class at Chicago, 30 per cent at Tuck and 34 per cent at Wharton. This doesn't mean the experience is insular - Steven Little, a former City trader now nearing graduation from Tuck, says he has been surprised by the international outlook of the programme - but it will influence the diversity of the learning experience and the alumni network.

Those looking to work internationally would do well to pick a business school with an alumni network that mirrors their professional ambitions. Those seeking to work in the US may find a US business school, where the teaching, careers services and alumni are skewed to the home market, more useful.

The key to picking the right MBA is not one of geography, demography or duration. It's about understanding what you want to get out the qualification over the next 10 to fifteen years.

"An MBA stays with you for the rest of your life," says Diarte Edwards of Insead, "so people need to think carefully about the school they are associating themselves with, the network they will have access too and how it will help meet their longer term career goals."

This is echoed by Jeanette Purcell of the Association of MBAs, who says it's the quality of programme that really counts. "In both Europe and the US you should narrow your choice of business school to those that meet international accreditation standards," she cautions.

'Wherever you go, the costs are eye-watering'

Charlie Hill-Wood left his City job in London to study for an MBA on IESE's two-year programme in Barcelona. He is due to graduate in May.

When I started researching schools, I naturally thought about the US because that's where it all started and where the big brand names are. But I'm very familiar with the States and I knew I wanted to work in London after the MBA so I decided that Europe would be just as good. I had Insead, London and IESE on my list and I picked IESE because it looked the most interesting option. I wanted to do something different and spending two years in Spain ticked that box. I'd lived in London for 29 years so there was nothing especially stimulating about staying there and Barcelona was a clear winner over Fontainebleau.

For me it was really about picking the right place to be rather than looking at the costs because wherever you go the costs are eye-watering. But it is a fact that the cost of living here is cheaper: I pay €400 (£285) a month for a pretty decent place.

One of the real bonuses of being at IESE is the people. I've made good friends with people from Argentina, Portugal, Spain and I can also speak Spanish reasonably well, which is a definite plus. It's really lived up to my expectations and the course has been excellent. But the real deciding factor will come in a couple of months when it comes to getting a job; that's going to be the real test of its usefulness.