Top course, but is it the business?

An MBA will take a lot out of you – and not just financially. So before you apply, make sure it’s what you really want

When she was forced to bring her baby son to lectures asleep in his car seat, Heather McGregor knew it was time to leave her MBA. "I just could not carry on. I was beset by problems, such as child care. I'd advise dropping out if you know you are going to jeopardise something very important."

McGregor, columnist and director of executive headhunters Taylor Bennett, had a baby in the middle of her part-time business degree.

Combined with a job, it proved too much. She returned the following year to finish the course but felt forever on the back foot as she was starting out with a new cohort. “It was tough to miss a year, but at least I didn’t drop out altogether,” she adds. She believes she’d have fared better borrowing money and taking the course full-time instead.

Business schools are coy about publishing drop-out rates, and top schools say it’s extremely rare for a student to leave, especially on fulltime programmes. More students left during the dotcom boom of the 1990s, but that was a short-lived exodus, business schools say.

However, official figures point to a slightly different story. Out of 28,350 students on MBA courses in the UK during 2009 to 2010, some 3,500 left without gaining any qualification, says the Higher Education Statistics Authority. If students are going to leave, they usually do so during the first few months of the course.

Louisa Osmond, an Edinburgh alumnus and head of Eulogy!, a PR agency, is studying for a business doctorate. She recalls that the sheer volume of work, rather than its difficulty, floored some on the course.

“[An MBA] is essentially like taking nine undergraduate degrees in one or two years. I clocked up over 2,000 hours over two years while holding down a full-time job.”

Others, daunted by re-entering education, “simply ran out of steam”, she says. “A lack of motivation can be a killer.” And of course, with lack of earnings and course fees of up to £50,000 or more at top schools, funds can run dry sooner than expected. “I made the mistake of not factoring in travel, accommodation and subsistence,” says Osmond. “This racked up a £7,000 bill that I hadn’t even considered.”

Students often underestimate the cost of an MBA, agrees Désirée van Gorp, academic director of the MBA programme at Nyenrode Business Universiteit in the Netherlands, which has a graduation rate of nearly 100 per cent. It’s not just the tuition fees that have to considered, she says; it’s the visas, textbooks, travel and loan fees on top.

Full-time, immersive, campus courses are obviously better at hanging on to their cohort – not least because students have spent so much time and effort to get there.

Cranfield, which ranks highest among business schools outside the United States for student satisfaction, estimates just one person has quit the full-time course in the last five years, though a few have deferred in extreme circumstances: this year a student was called up to Afghanistan. “Doing an MBA is like doing a marathon,” says David Simmons, executive director of Cranfield’s full-time MBA. “The energy required to get there means your commitment is strong and you have no illusions.” As well as working intensively in tight-knit groups, cohorts bond over wine-tasting and ski-trips; these provide the social glue that helps hold the year together.

“So much of the work is collective and collaborative; you’re in a bubble.

It’s not like any other postgraduate degree,” says Simmons. Most schools say if students do quit, it’s because of a big change in circumstances: a new family, a break-up or a job opportunity they can’t refuse. “For some students it may simply be that it wasn’t quite the experience they were expecting,”

says Jane Delbene, director of marketing at the Graduate Management Admission Council, which administers the GMAT tests. Good schools, she says, sound students out thoroughly before accepting them, and selection processes are rigorous.

Prospective students should be equally meticulous in their research.

At Nottingham University Business School, one of the first questions admissions tutors will ask is: “Why do you want to do an MBA?” As John Colley, MBA director at Nottingham, notes: “how a student responds… and their general level of motivation… has a direct impact on whether they are accepted.”

“Groupthink” pushes many into applying when they shouldn’t, says Omid Aschari, senior lecturer at the University of St Gallen in Switzerland. “Too often those who apply are merely following the herd and basing their decision on common wisdom rather than their individual situation,” he says. Students would do well to ask who they’ll be sitting next to and who’ll be teaching them. Will they be making the right contacts? Do the right employers recruit from the school? Do specialisms match students’ chosen field? And is the alumni network strong enough?

Institutions such as Durham Business School offer a 10-day comprehensive induction programme, giving a taste of the work to come, with a team-building residential weekend thrown in. These schools say it’s rare for a student to quit once they’ve committed.

Schools such as Cranfield encourage students not to defer, believing it interrupts collaborative learning.

Others allow more flexibility. Bath Business School takes a modular approach, enabling executive MBAs to take a breather between chunks of study. Nottingham University Business School allows its executive students to suspend studies for short periods to cope with work demands.

And at the Open University, students can romp through the MBA course in two and a half years, or pace themselves and take up to seven.

“Most good MBA programmes allow students to drop out and come back in when ready,” says Nadim Choudhury, head of careers at London School of Business and Finance, where the drop-out rate is less than 2 per cent. When a student is tempted by a dream job, he advises the student to “think long and hard about the payoff” – but the door would always remain open to them.

“An MBA who has the opportunity to pursue a start-up and become successful in his or her own right is always worth keeping in contact with,” he explains. However, some schools specify a period after which they won’t refund costs.

If it feels wrong, shout early, say business schools: staff might be able to support students through rocky patches, be they financial, emotional or intellectual.

 Better still, ask yourself the searching questions before you apply, says Suzanne Lucas, an HR professional and writer. “Sure, every programme is going to have a class that isn’t your cup of tea… If it all sounds boring to you, why get a degree to be qualified in order to do work you find boring?”