Education: Thinking of an MBA? Start reading here

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The Independent Online
Before embarking on the heavy workload of a master's degree, research your topic.

Philip Schofield recommends the most helpful and informative books in print.

Choosing a master's degree in business administration (MBA) course is becoming increasingly difficult. At the last count there were 111 institutions offering MBAs in the UK, with around 1,500 world-wide.

Since the first two-year full-time MBA programme began at Harvard in 1908, the MBA has evolved into a range of programmes of varying lengths, content and methods of delivery. There is also an increasing range of specialist programmes to meet the needs of particular occupational groups. Adding to the difficulty of making an informed choice is the fact that standards are not consistent. A good MBA is a major asset to a manager, but a poor one is virtually worthless.

Fortunately there are publications that make it easier to winnow the grain from the chaff. For someone unfamiliar with the MBA, a useful starting- point is the short paperback How to choose your MBA by Katherine Lea, published by Trotman. The book starts by answering many of the basic questions: what is an MBA? How important is a management qualification? Why choose an MBA? Will I be able to cope with the course? When is the best time to do an MBA? Are women at a disadvantage, and should more women consider studying for an MBA?

Later chapters look at the benefits of taking the degree, employer attitudes, types of course, the best methods of study, costs and how to fund an MBA, the application process and other topics. The commentary is illuminated by direct quotes from MBA students, business schools, employers and graduates. There are also more than a dozen case studies describing student experiences in the UK and overseas.

Though the book was published in 1997, the speed of change in the MBA world means that some information is already out of date - notably that relating to the Graduate Management Admissions Test (GMAT).

If the latter book is a useful introduction, The Association of MBAs' Guide to Business Schools is essential reading for everyone seriously thinking of embarking on study. The association is an alumni association, an accreditation body for MBAs, and a clearing-house for enquiries from intending MBAS.

The Guide, published annually by the association and Pitman Publishing, is in two main parts. The first section, written by the management writer Godfrey Golzen, gives comprehensive guidance on whether or not an MBA will be of benefit in anyone's particular circumstances; the various types of course and which to choose; choosing a school; applications; financing a course; what it is like doing an MBA; and how an MBA is likely to affect your career. The second part gives detailed information on all UK schools offering a UK university-accredited MBA course, as well as 13 selected business schools in Europe, 21 in the US and two in Australia. Much of the information is tabulated, making comparisons easy. Courses that meet the strict accreditation standards of the association, a third of those listed, are clearly indicated.

The Guide also has useful appendices listing the research assessments on each school, carried out by the Higher Education Funding Councils, the schools offering specialist MBAS, sample questions from the GMAT, and starting dates for the various programmes.

The Guide is primarily UK-oriented. More international in outlook is Which MBA?, described as "a critical guide to the world's best programmes". Written by George Bickerstaffe and published by the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) and Pitman Publishing, it, too, offers advice on what an MBA is, the reasons for taking one, choosing a programme, the diversity of courses, choosing a school, applications, job search, financing an MBA, and the MBA experience. The text is illustrated with more than 50 tables. There is information on how students finance themselves, listings of financial aid by school, and schools by the percentage of foreign students.

However, the author says that caution should be used in interpreting some figures. Student and graduate ratings are given, for many aspects of the courses - such as the quality of the student body, internationalism, programme content, and faculty. But ratings can be based on as few as 10 completed questionnaires. Moreover, as these are returned to the EIU via the school's administration, it seems possible that poor rankings could get lost in the process.

There are also some inconsistencies in the data. One table ranks schools by student perceptions of programme content. Johnson (US) heads the list with a score of 96 per cent, with Kellogg (US) and Nimbas (Netherlands) as joint runners-up with 93 per cent. Cranfield (UK) is rated at 85 per cent. However, the ratings listed under the individual schools, cited as the source for the table, give Kellogg 90 per cent and Cranfield 89 per cent, while Johnson and Nimbas are both rated at 83 per cent. Similar discrepancies occur in other tables.

Which MBA? also contains listings. There is a selective list of 32 business schools in the UK, 25 in Continental Europe, 43 in the US and another 15 in Asia, South Africa and Australasia. These listings are more detailed, and provide critical comments and a section on the structure and content of the courses on offer.

These books contain much valuable information but give little idea of what it is really like to experience the rigours of an MBA. The human aspects are well covered in the MBA Casebook 1998, an annual published by Hobsons. There is some excellent editorial with a strong international flavour, followed by case studies of almost 150 individual MBA students on various courses world-wide. Although entries are paid for by the business schools, they are based on interviews conducted by independent careers writers, and give a genuine insight into student experiences.

`How to choose your MBA', by Katherine Lea (Trotman, pounds 8.99 from bookshops, or call 0181-332 2132). `The Guide to Business Schools 1997/98' (Association of MBAs, pounds 25, from the association at 15 Duncan Terrace, London Nl 8BZ). `Which MBA?' ninth edition, by George Bickerstaffe, pounds 29.95 (from bookshops, or Jan Frost at EIU, 0171-830 1007). `The MBA Casebook 1998'(Hobsons), is available free at MBA Fairs.