Get ready for a lesson in the American way

The US was the birthplace of the MBA, so it's natural that students are drawn there. But they do things differently, says Martin Thompson
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The Independent Online

President George W Bush got his from Harvard. There's no doubt that crossing the Atlantic to study for an MBA will take you into the traditional heartland of business education. The United States is where the MBA was invented almost a century ago and where it still flourishes in, many would say, its most prestigious form. If your personal life and bank balance can take the strain of switching continents, there is no doubt that an MBA from one of the top American schools such as Harvard, Wharton or Stanford will gain you respect, wherever in the world you elect to build your career.

President George W Bush got his from Harvard. There's no doubt that crossing the Atlantic to study for an MBA will take you into the traditional heartland of business education. The United States is where the MBA was invented almost a century ago and where it still flourishes in, many would say, its most prestigious form. If your personal life and bank balance can take the strain of switching continents, there is no doubt that an MBA from one of the top American schools such as Harvard, Wharton or Stanford will gain you respect, wherever in the world you elect to build your career.

What then makes the American MBA experience stand out from its European counterparts? For a start, at most business schools, you will be looking at a two-year full-time MBA as opposed to a one-year course which is the norm in Europe. This extra year will considerably affect the cost of your career break, fees at major schools being significantly higher than Europe, even if living costs are similar. You may have ambitions to find a job in the States after graduation, providing you can persuade a company to sponsor your hard-to-get working visa. In that case, you should be able to offset some of the cost of the extended career break, as US executive salaries are often higher than in Europe.

As far the teaching experience itself goes, business schools in the US generally have a strong academic bias and a commitment to the traditional case study method of teaching which originated at Harvard. There may be less emphasis on "soft skills" such as the ability to communicate effectively and leadership training.

American schools tend to attract a younger age group than you will find at many European schools, an average in the mid-to-upper 20s being commonplace. MBA student numbers are generally far larger than in European schools (Harvard has around 800 annual intake) and you are likely to find yourself studying alongside predominately American peers. This means that you will be exposed to the American way of doing business, in contrast to European schools who like to stress their diverse global outlook. Many US schools, however, are increasing their efforts to recruit a more internationally-based student body. To a certain extent, this is being hampered by tighter student visa regulations in the wake of the 11 September attacks.

If you are undaunted by the challenges, and determined to investigate the American MBA options further, here are two contrasting schools to consider for your shortlist.

Silicon Valley's Stanford

Founded in 1925, Stanford Graduate School of Business is based on the spacious Stanford University campus near Palo Alto, California. Stanford's full-time 21-month MBA is rated among the top five courses in the world.

As the school's dean Robert Joss explains: "What is unique about this business school is that firstly we are at based at Stanford, one of the leading research-intensive centres of academic excellence in the world. Secondly we are in Silicon Valley, at the heart of innovation, where the future gets invented. There is a ferment of ideas here in the university, the venture capital community and the corporate world. Stanford's MBA students benefit from our close connections with companies such as Intel and Google. Senior executives from these global giants teach on the MBA course."

The school itself has a large research arm which, according to Joss, feeds directly into the MBA. "We produce graduates and we produce ideas. Although the focus at Stanford is on teaching general management, we also place a strong emphasis on imparting entrepreneurship, installing that bias towards innovation and action that characterises the entrepreneur."

Beyond the core classroom subjects, Stanford has increased the opportunity for experiential learning. Over two days, students create a greetings card company, covering all stages from design through to marketing and distribution. To underline the rationale for this approach Joss cites a Chinese saying: "I see and I forget. I do and I understand".

An MBA from a top-ranking school such as Stanford would seem an obvious choice if you can make the grade. However, if your GMAT score is too low or the cost is prohibitive, it may be worth looking at some of the lesser-known American schools.

Thunderbird, Arizona

One school which has consistently stood out from the crowd as a prime exponent of the international approach to management education is the lesser-known Thunderbird, The Garvin School of International Management. If you want to combine an introduction to the American business scene with what Thunderbird's MBA academic director Olufemi Barbarinde refers to as a "truly global approach to management training", then head south to sun-drenched Phoenix, Arizona.

Fifty per cent of the students are non-US citizens and around 60 nationalities are represented on campus. Students have the option of a 16-month MBA in international management which includes a language component or a 12-month course with no language learning. British Thunderbird alumnus Martin Gasson says that people who come to this niche school do so expressly to learn how to interact with business professionals from many different cultures. Thunderbird combines some of the strengths of the traditional American MBA with the internationally-focused MBA which some European schools offer. "The school enjoys a certain mystique among recruiters from the major US companies who like people with a global mindset," he says.

Students are sensitised to the nuances of business in different parts of the world, according to Barbarinde. "They come here in the knowledge that they are going to live and breathe international business. The international aspect is a fact of life which extends beyond the classroom into the social context. People speakdifferent languages and share each other's cultures. At Thunderbird, we were dealing with globalisation before it became a household word."

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