Timing is everything when you choose to study for an MBA

Timothy Barber
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RESOLVING to take significant time out of your career to study for an MBA is one of the biggest decisions you can take, and one that involves a whole host of other choices &ndash; what kind of MBA to take, what school and even what country to study it in, and, perhaps most importantly, when the right time is to take it.<br /><br />One factor affecting the latter is the economic cycle. This year, business schools around the world have reported sharp rises in applications. Many candidates have seen a stagnant economic and recruitment climate as a good time to break away from their careers and up-skill, while others have decided to do MBAs having been made redundant, investing their pay-offs in studying to increase their employability.<br /><br />But experts say that plumping for an MBA simply on the basis of external factors is the wrong decision. It has to be the right time for you and your career too.<br />&ldquo;We always ask people why the MBA, and why now, in the admissions process,&rdquo; says Anna Farrus, director of admissions for the MBA programme at Oxford University&rsquo;s Said Business School. &ldquo;You have to be able to answer that very specifically, it can&rsquo;t simply be that you see other people doing it and decide to follow suit.&rdquo;<br /><br />MBAs are different from other masters programmes in being post-experience rather than post-graduate, and most business schools require candidates to have at least three years&rsquo; professional experience before considering them for a programme. <br /><br />According to a survey of 2009 applicants produced by website TopMBA.com, 48 per cent of 2009 applicants to European courses had up to four years&rsquo; experience, 37 per cent had 5-9 years&rsquo; and 15 per cent had been working for a decade or more.<br /><br />&ldquo;You don&rsquo;t necessarily have to have been in a leadership position yet,&rdquo; says Farrus, &ldquo;but you have to have had considerable development, to have taken on diverse responsibilities, and gained experiences you&rsquo;d consider unique.&rdquo; These might also include experiences gained outside the office, such as volunteer work.<br /><br /><strong>NO RULES</strong><br />One of the rules of MBAs is that there are no hard and fast rules about who does them, and when. The whole point is to bring together able people from extremely varied professional and cultural backgrounds to share their experiences. Veronica Hope Halley, director of the MBA programme at the City University&rsquo;s Cass Business School, says that people from a banking background tend to come from vice president level upwards, but they will benefit from being in the same class as (say) doctors, army veterans and engineers.<br /><br />&ldquo;The top schools are looking to deliver a learning experience partly delivered by the faculty and partly by the cohort itself &ndash; that&rsquo;s what makes the MBA a unique form of study. The academic leads the teaching, but a great deal of the learning comes from the discussions and exchange of ideas based on the experiences of those in the room.&rdquo;<br /><br />Michael Sanderson, a chartered accountant who has just begun a full-time MBA at Cass, says he wanted to use the programme as a way of revitalising his career options after six years with one of the Big Four accounting firms.<br /><br />&ldquo;I&rsquo;d gone into a more specialist role than I wanted to do, and it seemed like something of a cul de sac. You have to specialise relatively early in accountancy, and even though I could become a partner it&rsquo;d be harder to move into other areas.&rdquo;<br /><br />Sanderson hopes to join a management consultancy firm after completing his MBA, with the long-term ambition of moving into the non-profit or public sectors in a strategic role, something that would be impossible to do directly from an accounting background. He is one of the large number of students who use the MBA as a way of switching careers completely, rather than simply to accelerate themselves up the pay ladder.<br /><br />At 30, Sanderson is slightly older than the majority of his classmates. According to the TopMBA.com survey, the average age for 2009 students from Western Europe is 28.8 (globally it is 28.4). By this age candidates have accrued significant experience, while often reassessing the career decisions they made after university, like Sanderson. However, there is also the consideration of getting the qualification done before it is too late.<br /><br /><strong>PEAK AGE</strong><br />&ldquo;You have to think about the age you are when you get out,&rdquo; says Sanderson. &ldquo;There&rsquo;s definitely the sense that in some jobs you won&rsquo;t be as employable in your mid-30s as when you&rsquo;re 29 or 30.&rdquo;<br /><br />Sean Rickard, director of the MBA programme at Cranfield School of Management, reluctantly agrees. &ldquo;It&rsquo;s a sad truth that ageism still exists, and employers want someone in their early 30s when looking at MBA grads. They need to show they were making progress in their prior career, but that they&rsquo;re still in a position to offer valuable years to a company, and still able to be moulded by the organisation they join.&rdquo;<br /><br />In the USA it is more common for business schools to accept candidates with much less experience, or even straight from undergraduate degrees &ndash; though Rickard points out that this is down to the sheer proliferation of courses and competition for candidates. Internationally, there is a slight trend towards younger candidates, but in Europe the percentage of students with 10 or more years experience has risen in the past few years. This is linked to the rise of part-time MBA courses in Europe, which tend to attract older candidates, but leading European schools are wary of the general turn towards youth.<br /><br />&ldquo;If you&rsquo;re in your early 20s, or you have less than five years experience, it&rsquo;s not the right time for you,&rdquo; says Rickard. &ldquo;There is a real danger that lesser schools are taking people with too little experience onto courses, and then it becomes little more than an internship programme.&rdquo;<br /><br />There is also a practical consideration &ndash; does it really fit into your life right now? Does it suit your family or personal life, can you afford it, and can you spare the time? Diverse types of MBAs, from fulltime to part-time, distance learning to blended learning, have been developed to cater for people with all sorts of different requirements, and you can discuss with admissions offices what is most suitable for you.