"We're like The Apprentice, only nicer," says Terry Kendrick, MBA director at Norwich Business School. During the course, students find themselves pitched in competition with each other in a way that resembles the popular television series: in teams, they create an event to make money for charity. "But we give them a couple of months to do it, rather than a day, and we're not Sir Alan Sugar," he says.
Typical of many courses, Norwich's emphasises group work, collaboration and, crucially, experience- and skill-sharing – the hallmark of a good MBA. "Half of what students learn is from us, and half is from their fellow students," says Kendrick.
In the current economic climate, MBAs have never had it so good. Their appeal is counter-cyclical, with many applicants taking the chance to polish skills, build networks and look at alternative careers during hard times. "They give a chance to look at theory behind business practice in an atmosphere of calm and self-reflection," says Paul Forrester, director of MBAs at the University of Birmingham. "You develop skills you might not have discovered." Business schools across the country are reporting a rise in numbers of applicants for full-time courses, and a huge range are now on offer, both flexible and full time.
In essence, an MBA gives a solid grounding in general management, and is targeted at graduates with several years of management experience.
"You emerge with an appreciation of all angles of business," says Kendrick. "You might spot if an accountant is pulling the wool over your eyes in a board meeting, identify a problem with a supply chain or recognise when a marketing department isn't delivering."
Graduates of MBAs also say one of the most useful elements is coming into contact with individuals destined for global managerial careers. "This ready-made network of influential contacts tends to outlast any of the knowledge gained," says Anne-Marie Martin, director of the Careers Group at the University of London.
But be warned, says Jeanette Purcell, chief executive of the Association of MBAs (Amba), which accredits courses in the UK. With fees for the cheapest course starting at £10,000 – and exceeding £40,000 at the top end – MBAs are a significant investment; that's before you've even accounted for costs such as loss of earnings, books and living expenses. Typically, people apply for three reasons, says Purcell. They might want to use redundancy money to retrain; they might want to secure their future in an uncertain climate; or they wish to switch industry or set up their own business. "All these reasons are valid, and the right course exists for each one," she says.
While the reputed rise in salary is legendary, be realistic, says Amba. Graduates of MBAs immediately enjoy a salary 46 per cent higher, and 129 per cent higher three to five years after completing an MBA, according to Amba's latest survey, and the average salary is £72,500.
But these figures include salaries of overseas students who, in relative terms, find better-paid work in the UK. If you aim to change industries, don't expect a pay hike immediately, says Kendrick. "You'll probably go in at the pay level of your previous job, and won't reap the rewards until two or three years into it."
Amid the wealth of courses, some digging will help turn up a course to fit your needs. While the content and framework of an MBA is standard among most courses, focus and methods of teaching can vary hugely. "Look at how the course is textured with guest speakers. Is it self-contained study, or practical group work?" says Kendrick. "Find out what industries and companies the business school has links with."
Most MBAs offer specialist modules or a chance to diversify during the elective – usually a project lasting the final three months of the course. "These electives demonstrate where the focus is. Many are increasingly entrepreneurial; looking at small business and corporate responsibility," says Purcell.
Some established MBAs – from London Business School, Cranfield or Warwick, for instance – continue to carry huge prestige. Many newer courses have added extras or specialisms in order to distinguish themselves. Norwich Business School, for instance, offers an MBA in strategic carbon management and an extra diploma in management consultancy.
This course paid off for Dr James Kazer, 35, who now works for the Carbon Trust. Formerly a software consultant in the automotive industry, he is responsible for maintaining standards of measuring the carbon footprint of goods and services, from a crisp packet to a financial product. "I could tell the [car] industry was a little shaky, but knew it wouldn't be easy to get a job in a new sector. I've always been interested in conservation and the environment, and this job fits really well.
"It's important to know the language, attitude and background of an industry – so you sound like you know what you're talking about. The last six months of the MBA were really valuable – I don't think I'd have got the job without it."
Before committing to a course, visit the business school if possible, speak to former students, and attend some of the lectures, says Purcell. While full-time MBAs are in demand, some companies will sponsor employees to complete an MBA part time. "If it's accredited, it will carry the same kudos," says Purcell.
However, flexible study carries its own problems, with many students reporting the combined pressure of work and study is too extreme. MBAs are demanding, with conscientious students putting in 12-hour days, five to six days a week.
A degree and at least three years' experience is a standard requirement for accredited MBAs, although some schools such as Birmingham ask for a minimum of five. Time in junior and small project management can be sufficient, if you can show you bring skills and knowledge to share with fellow students. The average age of MBA students is 32, though some may be in their forties or fifties. Some schools require a GMAT (graduate management admission test) or similar. Treat your interview as a two-way process; a chance to discover whether the course suits you. "This isn't something to do if you're just hiding from the recession," says Purcell. "It's potentially life-changing."
For more information on the Association of MBAs, visit www.mbaworld.com
'I can look at things more strategically'
Manzoor Hussain completed an MBA at the University of Birmingham in 2007. He now works as category and procurement change manager at Martin-Baker Aircraft Company Ltd.
"I'd been working at Ford and wanted to put academic rigour against some of the stuff I was learning. There were all sorts of business and management theories cascading around me, but they weren't well implemented.
I got a comfortable feeling looking around Birmingham, and the level of detail of the course seemed right – broad but not too broad, and very strong on experience.
My interview investigated my experience [and] what I could add to classroom discussions. You need to be able to understand the context of the theories. At 37, I was one of the older students.
When I finished the course I was broke, and returned on a short contract to clear my debts with the first company I'd ever worked for. They offered me a job at the front end of developing procurement strategy. The MBA gave me leverage to get this; I could show I had potential.
I could think differently around key topics and share thoughts in a different way from the past. It's given me a broad perspective; it's incredibly useful. I can look at things more strategically and add to the day-to-day running. I don't spout academic text."
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