As this year's Student Of The Year shows, MBAs are producing a wide range of highly skilled graduates, says Amy McLellan

This year's finalists - John Farrell, Pauline Hobson, Michel Le Bars, Stephen Koepplinger - studied full-time, part-time, online and through the Open University. Some juggled study with high-powered jobs; others took financial risks, but all were of a very high standard.

"It was difficult to select a shortlist from a field of candidates who are all so strong," says Jeanette Purcell, chief executive of the Association of MBAs, which runs the competition in association with The Independent. "We're looking for a well-rounded person who is making a contribution to the course, to their fellow students and to business society at large."

The winner will be announced at the Association of MBAs' annual gala dinner in London on 10 November. The judging panel is looking for students who contributed to the development of their MBA programmes and drew some specific, preferably unique, benefits from the experience, adds judge Mary Jo Jacobi-Jephson, a vice president of Shell International and an MBA graduate of George Washington University. "The candidates are nominated by their business schools, so they are very high-impact individuals who have made an impression on their faculties."

The short-listed candidates are, on paper, an intimidating bunch. Take Dr John Farrell, who gained his MBA through the Open University while working as medical director for pharmaceutical giant Pfizer in Ireland. John is no stranger to hard work and success, clocking up a raft of scholarships, distinctions and plaudits throughout his career in medicine and the pharmaceutical industry, yet he admits the MBA was a real challenge.

"This job is very busy, with lots of travel and I also have a hectic family life," says Farrell. "The OU programme meant I could do the modules in my own time, so when I was away from home in hotels or airport lounges I could do some study."

He believes this work-and-learn approach lends itself well to the MBA. "I could apply what I was learning to my job as I was going along. You can learn the theory but it's only when you apply it that you learn the most - rather like in medicine."

Michel Le Bars took a different study route, giving up his job to study full-time at HEC in Paris. For him the MBA was a way to move from an operational role in the oil industry to a more general managerial role in manufacturing. And with a wife and two young children, he was keen to find a job that didn't take him to the oil hotspots around the world.

"My wife and I were studying at the same time and with two small children in a tiny university flat, it was quite intensive and the logistics were critical," recalls Michel.

He now works for multinational packaging firm Alcan as global design quality manager and is in line for a promotion to general manager of a production site. "The MBA was critical to this because I got the job through the contacts I made on the programme," says Michel. "It has been one of the best decisions I have ever made."

Since graduating, Michel has not forgotten the advantage the programme gave him and now, in his own time and at his own expense, coaches HEC's incoming students.

Many MBA students use their new qualification, confidence and contacts to change direction. For Stephen Koepplinger, the qualification has proved a stepping stone to a whole different way of life.

"MBAs aren't just about money, money, money," says Keopplinger, who studied part-time for his MBA at the University of Strathclyde's Graduate School of Business. He gave up a well-paid job as a consultant engineer to teach maths at Lochend High School, a secondary school in a socially deprived area of Glasgow, an experience that led him to set up a charity, the After Schools Activities Programme, to widen the horizons of teenagers.

"I always wanted to be a teacher and coach but after working as a professional engineer for five years I started to realise that if I wanted to fufil my ambition I would need to get more education," says Stephen, who describes himself as a social entrepreneur. "The MBA filled this gap and really condensed the time it will take to get this initiative off the ground. I've been working at this for six months whereas it would have taken six years without the MBA."

Last year's competition winner and graduate of Imperial's Tanaka Business School, Kevin Baughan, believes his MBA helped him take a big step forward, moving from an engineering role to become director of network strategy at NTL. The MBA gave him the confidence to set up his own company. "You put a lot in and you get a lot out," he adds. "I was also really chuffed to be named student of the year at the age of 46!"

Portrait of a finalist: Pauline Hobson

Pauline Hobson, a director of business improvement at service company Serco, studied for her MBA through a distance-learning programme at Oxford Brookes University.

This option allowed Pauline to fit her studies round both her demanding role as Serco's finance director and her family commitments.

Pauline often studied for up to 12 hours a day at weekends and squeezed in as much work as she could manage during the week, including morning contributions to online seminar discussions, research during her lunch break, and spending her evenings and holidays revising. "When I told my boss I was going to do distance learning, he said I would miss out on the interaction with the other students," says Pauline. "So one of the first things I did was to set up a group of other distance-learning students and get us together for meetings in London, so we could share our experiences, talk about issues and support one another."

The time and effort has already paid off. "The MBA has given me the confidence to operate outside my comfort zone," says Pauline. "I worked in finance for 30 years but I've now moved into a transformational change role which is heavily project-based and I can put what I have learned into practice."