Anne-Marie Martin: Honesty is the key to choosing an MBA

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The Independent Online

There are 3,000 children in China under the age of six studying for an "early MBA". Their parents believe that MBAs bestow advantage in the job market. This is yet another twist in the history of the Master of Business Administration - a qualification that has courted controversy since its introduction in the US in the early 1900s.

The original American MBAs were academically focused two-year courses. In the mid-Sixties, business schools, modelled on the US example, were opened in London and Manchester. There was some debate as to whether a degree created in response to the US economic situation bore any relevance in the Western European market, and not all schools copied the American model. Places such as Henley and Ashridge were established by groups of companies and concentrated more on practical training. The debate about the relative values of academic or industry-leaning business schools continues to this day.

The pedagogy of management education has undergone a number of shifts since its beginnings. All schools now include training in soft skills, such as interpersonal skills, ethics and leadership. There is an emphasis on globalisation, and all courses contain project work and practical instruction in the full range of management functions.

MBAs are expensive and extremely hard work, so it makes sense to choose wisely. Full-time, part-time, modular, project-based, function-based, sector-based - you name it, there will be an MBA structured and themed to suit your circumstances and aspirations. But the true value of the MBA is not the piece of paper or the formal learning. A good MBA allows you to understand different approaches to business by providing an opportunity to interact closely with fellow students from a range of companies, functions and countries - a ready-made network of useful contacts for the rest of your career.

Are MBAs worth it? If you have no work experience and expect an MBA to fast-track you into a high-level management role, you will be disappointed. But with experience and an MBA chosen carefully to complement your existing skills, you should get a good return on your investment.

There are 532,630 people studying postgraduate qualifications in the UK, of whom considerably fewer than 100,000 will be undertaking an MBA. Postgraduate study, whatever the subject and regardless of whether you are conducting research or learning through lectures, can help you switch careers, improve confidence or simply enjoy yourself. But it is imperative that you are honest about why you want to do it and then research the options to ensure that they will help you attain your goal.

Admissions officers are a fantastic source of information but they are biased. They are keen for you to purchase their courses. Use them to gather information about course content and structure but also access impartial sources. Careers services, relevant professional bodies and places like the higher education statistics agency can help put information into perspective.

The number of scholarships and bursaries remains small but the persistent do find funding through charities and trusts, and almost two-thirds of postgraduates are studying part-time.

The Postgraduate Study and Training Fair and The MBA Fair are taking place at the Business Design Centre in Islington on Wednesday and offer help and advice on every stage of the journey. I'm thinking I might learn Chinese.

The writer is Director of The Careers Group at the University of London

education@independent.co.uk

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