Choose wisely to reap career rewards

Selecting the right business Masters course isn’t as simple as you think, warns Helena Pozniak

Choosing a business Masters is like a marriage, say career experts. It will be on your CV for the rest of your life, so before taking the plunge, reflect long and hard upon your compatibility. Specialist or generalist, research-driven or practice-based, home or abroad - the best place to begin your selection is by asking what you want from the course.

With some two million graduates unemployed, a well-chosen business Masters will undoubtedly give you an edge in the job market. More affordable than an MBA – the cheapest courses begin at £6,000 – some more general courses don’t even require a business degree or prior experience.

Where many students go wrong is in misunderstanding their motivation or needs. Trusting your gut feeling can pay off, as it did for language graduate Clea Baker. She turned down her place for a postgraduate law course after a highly reputed business Masters caught her eye. She was accepted for the CEMS Masters in international management, taught at faculties worldwide. “I’d never been interested in studying business before I saw this degree,” Baker says.

“What made me choose to do CEMS instead wasn’t its reputation, the subject matter or even the chance to work with renowned companies, but the chance to study abroad and make contacts all over the world. I couldn’t resist the allure of studying at elite business universities in exciting locations.” Baker is now working as an account executive for PR firm ING Media.

Research this year by the Association of MBAs (AMBA) reveals that the reputation of the course is far and away the most important consideration for students selecting postgraduate business study, followed by location. Rankings websites give an idea of prestige, academic rigour and employability, but shouldn’t be the only factor, says Nadim Choudhury, careers director at the London School of Business and Finance. “It sounds basic, but you do first need to know whether you like the subject and can study it intensely for one year,” he says. “So many drop out after the first term. You need to define your expectations and needs and research the course content.” Look at options for electives, international study and numbers of modules a term. “Many students go for the name of the university alone,” says Choudhury. Instead, ask whether a course is practice-based or research intensive.

“Can you motivate yourself for long periods of self-study?” he asks. Employers welcome graduates who can put theory into practice, so real experience in the form of projects or placements is important. Accreditations and links with professional bodies are attractive – these can lead to openings for internships and employment. “If a Masters has a well articulated connection with specialist professional communities, then you will get decent value for money,” says Mike Lucas, associate dean of curriculum and learning at the Open University.

A strong alumni network can boost the appeal of a particular course, says Susan Roth, director of the specialist Masters programme at Cass Business School. “A student will be an alumnus for the rest of his or her life. Cass has a strong network around the world that a student can tap into.”

Visit as many schools as possible, career professionals advise. Environment is crucial; you might prefer the social structure of a smaller programme in a town or smaller city, or welcome studying at the heart of a global business centre. Look at the mix of nationalities; business Masters are popular with overseas students, so a broad mix rather than concentration of nationalities will make for a richer programme. It’s worth taking the same level of interest in who’s teaching the course; are they still working in their field, will they use live case studies, or offer contacts for placements?

It was a chance to rub shoulders with industry professionals that drew Sandeep Dighe to Norwich Business School to study their new Masters in brand leadership. “I knew if [brand consultants] Wolff Olins were involved then the course would be good,” he says.

He’d had three years’ experience in advertising in India before being accepted onto the sought-after programme, which guarantees a senior mentor and a one-month placement within the branding industry. This niche Masters was devised by visiting professor and brand strategist Robert Jones. His week is split between his work at Wolff Olins and the school. “We offer very immediate learning,” he says. “I take my experience from the previous week into the classroom.”

Specialist Masters like these lead to a niche employment market and hence appeal to business graduates. But those with a non-vocational degree or without a grounding in business or economics do better to look at more generic business Masters, or take a relevant pre-Masters preparation course. “Graduates at the beginning of their career will find themselves doing more specialised jobs, so specialist conversion degrees are useful,” says Ceridwyn Bessant, associate dean, postgraduate programmes, at Newcastle Business School. Given the fierce competition for jobs, it makes sense to build upon knowledge gained at undergraduate level.

That said, more general business knowledge becomes increasingly important the more senior you become, so it’s important that a course contains a wider perspective. Applications for more generalist business Masters have rocketed by about 70 per cent at Newcastle this year says Bessant, and the school is offering options to combine business with areas such as law and arts management within the wider university. “I can see this trend growing; we are giving non-business graduates a chance to build on their interests.”

Most business Masters are designed for students with little career experience, and often students dive in fulltime straight after their first degree. But taking a part-time Masters will impress the socks off employers, says Choudhury, and soften the blow of the cost. “When you finish the programme, you’ll be able to prove you’ve made a serious commitment to working in that sector, that you can juggle study and work, and that at 21 or 22 you’ve got huge amounts of self-discipline.”