Stephen Rayfield believes his MBA has had a "transformational" effect on his life and career. In two years, he has gone from being an area manager with Marks & Spencer in the north-west of England to a leading role in the organisational change programme at its Baker Street headquarters in London, a vital position if the chain's current woes are anything to go by.
"I wasn't sponsored. I wanted to do it for myself, for my personal satisfaction. I had been with M&S for 18 years, but I never felt I knew the nuts and bolts of business," says Rayfield, 37, who took a year off in 2002 to do the full-time MBA at Durham Business School. "The MBA gave me the confidence to do something complex and difficult. It gave me new skills and broadened my perspective, both on work and life in general. I'm now much more concerned about value creation than simple task delivery."
Speak to most MBA graduates and you'll probably hear a similar story. Despite continuing concerns that the proliferation of schools now offering MBAs means it is no longer quite the elite business qualification it once was, for most people, having an MBA on your CV will still open doors in terms of career and salary.
Traditionally, the main recruiting grounds for those MBA graduates who don't strike out and go it alone have been the City, accountancy firms, consultancy and IT. Over the past three or so years, however, belt-tightening in many financial institutions had meant the days of fat bonuses and banks snapping up whole cohorts of graduates were gone - at least until this year.
According to the latest statistics from the website run by the recruitment specialists, Reed, (reed.co.uk), the first three months of 2004 have seen a resurgence in demand for MBA graduates in the traditional sectors, with salaries rising 10 per cent in accountancy, banking and IT. The website's annual MBA index, which monitors vacancies requesting MBA qualifications, reports that, in banking alone, salaries for experienced MBA graduates have risen 17 per cent, to an average of £67,000.
What's happening, says Professor Michael Osbaldeston, director of Cranfield School of Management, is that the banks are recruiting again, but they are being much more selective.
"Organisations are seriously concerned at the moment about the recruitment of talent. They're not talking about necessarily having a particular job to fill, but more about refreshing talent within the organisation. It's about taking on suitable people and deciding how to use them," he says.
The other key trend is that a much bigger range of organisations are now hiring MBA graduates or sending existing staff on MBA courses. Supply chain management, logistics, retail organisations and those that service them - outsourcing firms, manufacturing and not-for-profit organisations - require the skills MBA graduates can bring.
The public sector, awash with extra cash from the Government and grappling with huge organisational change programmes, is also now a major market for MBA graduates offering highly competitive salaries.
For the prospective MBA graduate, then, when it comes to ensuring your qualification makes a difference to your long-term career prospects, it's important to bear three things in mind, say the business schools: don't do it purely for the prospect of more money, don't restrict where you think your MBA can take you, and choose your school very, very carefully.
"The sign-on bonus was only ever the case in some sectors," says Professor Rick Crawley, director of external relations at Lancaster University Management School. "What the employer is interested in is not the letters MBA, but what you can do. The MBA should be part of the bigger picture."
If you really want to stand out from the crowd you've also got to have the right MBA, warns Chris Pierce, director of professional development at the Institute of Directors. "The MBA will still open doors, but there are MBAs and there are MBAs," he says.
Thirty years ago, there were just four schools that ran MBA courses in the UK. Cranfield, Henley Management College and London and Manchester business schools. By 1990, this had risen to 76, and now there over 100 schools offering MBAs.
Good business schools will usually be accredited by at least one of three MBA accrediting bodies, the Association of MBAs (AMBA), the European Foundation for Management Development through its EQUIS scheme and the US-based Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB). They will probably also have active alumni, good networking potential and be committed to continuing development, stresses Pierce.
"Getting the MBA from the right school is still important. People sometimes question the amount of money you can spend on an MBA. But they want to be sure they are going somewhere that means something for their future," agrees Paula Glason, director of communications at AMBA.
How the schools rated was a key consideration for Greg Turner when he began his full-time MBA at Manchester Business School last year. Turner, 31, is due to graduate this July, after packing in his job with a recruitment and HR consultancy in London. He already has a job lined up as a business development manager for a consultancy set up by an ex-MBS graduate in the north west of England.
"There are a lot of people doing MBAs, but there is a lot of difference between having an MBA from places such as Harvard, Insead and London Business School or even places like Warwick of Manchester - and the lesser ones. Some employers will only go to what they see as the best schools," he says.
Having a good MBA will get you on the ladder and will mean your CV is taken seriously. Indeed, many high-level positions now require one almost as a pre-requisite, agrees Mary Landen, course leader for the MBA programme at Leeds Business School.
"It is still the case, normally, that you will get a salary boost, and that you will go back in at a higher level. So an MBA can definitely enhance your career prospects, and is still very much in demand," she explains.
But the main thing to remember is that, however good the qualification or the school it comes from, it's still down to you to deliver the goods. The key advantage an MBA brings is less the dry, business skills - although they are important - and more how it changes you, Turner argues.
"It changes your outlook on life, your ability to reflect on your position and to work in diverse groups. It is not just about improving your qualifications, but about your ability to develop as an individual," he says.
'My salary has gone up by £5,000'
Martin Root, 32, completed a full-time MBA at the University of the West of England in May 2003. He is now a project manager with Wiltshire Police, ensuring the force is compliant with the Freedom of Information Act when it is introduced in January 2005
I'd spent my career in the catering industry and by 2002 I was running the front-of-house for a health farm in Berkshire. But the hours were interfering with my family life and I wanted a change.
I had a number of interviews where I kept getting pipped at the post and I realised I needed something to give me an edge. I had done a management diploma and an MBA seemed a natural progression.
I chose Bristol partly because I live in Swindon and so did not have to uproot the family. We remortgaged the house to pay the £10,500 fees.
It is a temporary position, but I would not be here if it was not for the MBA. My dissertation was on the Freedom of Information Act and a fellow student saw the advertisement. I started the job a month after I graduated.
When you are applying for a job and you have an MBA it doesn't matter if it was full-time or part-time, it still has clout. My salary has gone up by £5,000, so that is half of it paid for already.
It gives you the ability to research a subject and research it well. It's about meeting people from other industries, gaining knowledge and then knowing how to use it properly.
It just changes your attitude completely. I am no longer satisfied to let my career trundle along. I see myself getting to a point where I am in charge of a number of projects.
'In a good school, benefits are immediate'
Vanessa Markey, 33, graduated with an MBA from Warwick Business School in 2001. She is global brand communications manager for Land Rover
I had always known I wanted to do an MBA, but had kept putting it off year after year. I was in strategic marketing for Danish passenger ferry firm DFDS Seaways in Harwich, was turning 30, and just realised it was the right time to do it.
A lot of people use an MBA to change sectors or industries. I wanted to remain in marketing, but get a better overview of business as a whole. I wanted to think more creatively and hone my existing skills.
The fees were £19,500 and I went to the bank and got a loan. On the first week of the course I won the Warwick Women's Prize, which gave me £4,500. Then, when it came to doing my dissertation, I won a scholarship from Ford, which paid around £8,000.
That project, looking at the marketing strategy for Land Rover's Heritage Motor Centre, immediately turned into a full-time job there, as commercial services manager.
I have no doubt that for most people, having an MBA means they will certainly improve their career. If you go to a school with a really good reputation, then the benefits can be immediate and have long-term value.
It is like a mind change - once you have it, you do not lose it. It gives you an edge and a tool-kit of skills that makes you more flexible and adaptable. You have a language that businesses understand and need.
There is the alumni element too - you meet some great people and make good contacts socially and professionally. It focuses your mind and makes you more of a team player.
How a scholarship could help you achieve your dream
Whether you go full or part-time, there's no doubting that MBAs are expensive. Fees will, of course, vary from business school to business school but, for most MBA graduates, £15,000 to £17,000 for a full-time MBA is not unusual, with some schools charging upwards of £30,000. And that's before taking into account living expenses.
Students who fund themselves will inevitably pay through a variety of means - savings, remortgaging the house, using a redundancy pay-out and bank or career development loans are all common. Being sponsored by your company is also not unusual, although this is more common for part-time, flexible or distance learning MBAs, because it means students can continue to work while studying.
For those who don't want to go the loan, sponsorship or self-funding route, scholarships are another useful source of funding. Scholarships will normally, but not always, be for full-time MBAs and generally pay either the entire fees or part of them.
The first thing to bear in mind when applying for a scholarship, argues Professor Ian Turner, director of graduate studies at Henley Management College, is to choose your course and then see what scholarships are available, not the other way round. "You need to make sure that the institution matches your philosophy. Then think about how you are going to fund it," he says.
It's also wise to apply early, advises Rachel Tufft, director of admissions at Manchester Business School. This is particularly important if you are coming from a non-European Union country.
For overseas students, the British Council offers advice on studying in the UK and awards scholarships to international full-time students under the British Chevening Scholarship programme. Applications for these scholarships will normally need to be in a year in advance, so forward planning is essential. A 31 March deadline for the next year's scholarships for both UK and overseas applications is also relatively standard. Most schools will outline details of the various scholarships available on their websites (some details of which follow below).
Scholarships will often be company-sponsored. Lancaster University Management School, for instance, offers ones sponsored by Heinz, United Utilities and the Institute of Directors. Cranfield School of Management runs four with the London Stock Exchange.
Cass Business School, meanwhile, has begun offering scholarships for black and ethnic minority students through the Black MBA Association, while Bath School of Management has introduced a half-fee UK scholarship scheme. At Manchester, unusually, the majority of its scholarships fund, or help fund, part-time MBAs, says Tufft.
"US schools traditionally have more money for funding. UK schools have concentrated on coming up with loan schemes," she explains.
It is vital to do your research, says Melissa McCrindle, director of marketing for the University of Strathclyde Graduate School of Business. "Look at whether a school is accredited," she says. "It's a good way of assessing their quality. We find that students see the expense of an MBA as a necessity to attain their ambitions."
Fulbright Commission: www.fulbright.co.uk
British Council: www.britishcouncil.org
Association of International Educators: www.nafsa.org
International Education Financial Aid: www.iefa.org
Chevening scholarships: www.chevening.comReuse content