MBA research quirks can better your career

 
Tom Welsh
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WHY SHOULD an MBA student care how John Maynard Keynes picked his stocks? Or how hospitals can be redesigned to prevent infection? Or how farmers’ markets could attract new customers? To many, the research interests of business school professors will seem abstract, narrow, even irrelevant. And MBA students may not be all that bothered whether that research earns plaudits or falls into obscurity.

These are reasonable viewpoints. But as a criticism of business school research activity, they miss the mark. As part of its methodology, the Financial Times global MBA ranking attributes a weight to the number of research articles published by a school’s faculty in academic journals. The number of tutors with doctorates is also highlighted as important, alongside more obvious factors like average student salary increases after graduation and the percentage of students who achieved their career goals.

There is a kudos attached to a school’s ability to churn out forward-thinking research – a reputational benefit linked to the quality of its professors and the noticeability of their studies in peer-review circles. Employers look favourably on an MBA graduate with a degree from a school that is well-known for its wider role in studying and improving business best practice.

But MBA students can benefit even more directly from their professors’ research activities. Choosing a school that is keen to develop its own role as a business leader can pay dividends in your own career progress.

BUSINESS BEST PRACTICE
Not all business school research can be caricatured as ivory tower pondering. Matt Gitsham is director of the centre for business and sustainability at the Ashridge Business School. Despite its name, with its allusions to boring environmental stewardship, the centre is broadly focused on the connections between private sector organisations and the socio-political context they operate in. This can include accommodating marketing strategies to population trends, working in corrupt societies, and the conduct of business in war zones.

Gitsham says that most professors are actually quite sensitive that those that invest in their research see practical results. “Pretty much all the research we do is in partnership with companies,” he says. Corporate sponsors don’t want to wait decades for their investments to bear fruit, so many schools will work hard to ensure that their faculties deliver quickly on their commitments.

This immediacy also transfers to the classroom. As well as his research activity, Gitsham is co-head of a sustainable business MBA module at Ashridge and he credits his research with making his teaching more fresh and relevant. “It’s particularly useful for MBA students to understand what new business practice is looking like in reality,” he says.

Gitsham has recently focused on interviewing senior chief executives and chairmen on how their roles have changed in recent decades. He presented his findings – which concluded that business leaders are increasingly required to be “political actors” as well as commercial figures – at the Rio+20 conference in June. Flying immediately back to Britain to teach, he believes his broader research work has “stark implications on the content and material of the MBA course.”

The curriculum is more contemporary, and therefore relevant to his students. But his studies also allow him to offer them first-hand insight. For Gitsham, the school’s research base helps ensure Ashridge’s MBA curriculum is not 20 years out of date.

TEACHING INNOVATION
Gitsham’s studies are relevant because they are so directly linked to management and practical leadership. Many schools, however, pursue more esoteric lines of research – specific or abstract inquiries into theories of organisational structure, or the future of laboratory-designed foodstuffs.

Gitsham cautions against deriding these efforts as irrelevant. “There are plenty of stories of individuals pursuing a very narrow line of research and something amazing comes out of it,” he says. The creative process is cloudy, and difficult to predict.

And strange and wonderful research projects can bear directly on the ability of a school to provide opportunities to MBA students.

Cambridge Judge Business School, part of the University of Cambridge, is well-known for the breadth of its interests – particularly in connection with the technology and bioscience industries.

Situated in the Silicon Fen, a cluster of small start-ups and more established firms around Cambridge, ongoing research connections between the private sector and the school provide students with an early understanding of how firms innovate to survive and prosper.

Conrad Chua, head of MBA recruitment and admissions, at Cambridge Judge Business School, says these contacts “give students a glimpse into the entrepreneurial space, with particular exposure to private equity and venture capital.”

Potential MBA students should realise that many programmes aren’t seeking to turn them into identikit corporate ladder-climbers. While the quirky interests of tutors may seem outside your immediate concern, an exposure to these interests may provoke a business idea or skill that could fundamentally change the nature of your career.

RESEARCH NETWORKS
The value of an MBA, however, lies in its ability to foster and provoke your career progression. This is where the status of your professors among large corporations or smaller businesses can leave you in good stead. Many of their research projects are conducted in conjunction with the private sector – and many tutors or professors have consulting careers outside the classroom. The ability to latch your own career onto the reputation of your professors could prove useful when you reach graduation.

Gitsham says that the contacts he made among business leaders when conducting his research increased those leaders’ willingness to come directly into the classroom, to talk honestly and frankly to his students. “It’s the start of a relationship,” he says. And the relationship is only there because of “the platform of trust built through our reputation as a research centre.”

And many of his former students have gone on to work with those companies – for Coca-Cola, for Heineken, and Skanska among others. His students are given the chance to make early contact with firms that may later hire them.

There is, therefore, a value in doing some research yourself. Find out whether your potential school values its research output, where its particular interests lie, and how its professors are greeted as thought leaders in their areas of expertise. You could give your post-MBA career a sizeable boost.

2012 GLOBAL MBA RANKINGS

TOP 10 MBA PROGRAMMES

Stanford Graduate
School of Business
Harvard
Business School
University of Pennsylvania: Wharton
London
Business School
Columbia
Business School
Insead (France/Singapore)

MIT: Sloan

IE Business School (Spain)

Iese (Spain)

Hong Kong UST Business School

TOP 10 RESEARCH SCHOOLS

University of
Pennsylvania: Wharton
Harvard
Business School
University of California at Berkeley: Hass
Duke University:
Fuqua
University of Michigan: Ross
University of Chicago: Booth
MIT: Sloan

Northwestern University: Kellogg
New York University: Stern
University of Maryland: Smith