Getting an MBA: When and Where

This fall, I am traveling extensively, reaching out to prospective applicants to the Darden School of Business at University of Virginia. Though my trips entail a lot of public speaking, I am listening too. The people in my audiences voice concerns about the recession—and international applicants are worried about visa problems that could affect job prospects, and capital market conditions that could affect the ability to get student loans. I respond that many observers in the U.S., including the head of the central bank, Benjamin Bernanke, declare the recession over; growth has begun. And as for visa problems, the quota of work permits in the U.S. went unfilled last spring. Finally, Darden managed to arrange special loan programs for international students—we aim to do so again this year, and will confirm such a program by early winter.

Still, these prospective applicants remain tough-minded, as they should be. They ask, is now the time to get an MBA? Where should I consider applying? These questions require careful reflection, since a considerable expenditure of time, effort, and money is at stake.

This is a good time to get an MBA degree. It would be easy to say this on the basis of exploiting the economic recovery that is just getting underway. Presumably the recovery will create a demand for MBAs that in two years will buoy job prospects. But betting on the economic cycle is always risky, as MBA graduates in the Class of 2009 discovered.

I think that the stronger argument is based on the long-term view: we are in the midst of a great industrial revolution, fueled by growth in global trade, productivity, innovation in information technology, social liberalization in civil and political rights, and the rise of a middle class in emerging countries. I’m not alone in this view. A couple of weeks ago, I hosted visits by George David, Chairman of the Board of United Technologies Corporation, and Paul Laudicina, Managing Partner and Chairman of A.T. Kearney—both of these leaders are bullish on the long-term future of the U.S. and global economies. This cycle of advance seems likely to take the better part of this century to run its course. And it will require new supplies of trained administrative talent to sustain the path of growth. Getting an MBA degree now prepares one to participate proactively in this industrial revolution: inventing new products and services, founding companies, solving problems, and leading large and small enterprises. From the perspective of the long term, this is an excellent time to get an MBA.

The decision about where to apply would be best informed by the answers to four questions:

1. In what theatre are you ambitious to work? Local? Regional? National? Global? My advice is to pick the broadest scope possible, since the competitive trends of the past and future suggest that the traditional geographic barriers of operation are dwindling. The most consequential problems and opportunities in business will transcend borders.

2. What do you need to learn to operate on the stage to which you aspire? Certainly, there is the canon of business ideas—the core knowledge of tools and concepts. Thanks to the diaspora of Ph.D. graduates from leading schools, the teaching of this core curriculum is by now widespread. Among the best schools, one’s choice doesn’t depend very much on differences in the content of the core curriculum. But schools do differ widely in the sense they make of the core tools and concepts: are these interpreted in a purely local light? Or are they considered for application more broadly? Do the schools focus on deep theory or best practice for application of the tools? Who are the exemplars in their application—are they local firms or global leaders? Significant differences in business practice persist across regions: the world of business is not perfectly “flat” or global; rather, it is at best curved. The chief implication of this is that business students need to understand how to apply business tools and concepts across many different localities. MBA aspirants must get out of their comfort zone. Go where you encounter a diverse student body and faculty; go where you can broaden what you know; go where you will be challenged rigorously.

3. How do you need to learn? Part of our comfort zone consists of familiar styles of classroom teaching, typically lectures combined with problem sets and the occasional test. Unfortunately, the real world of business isn’t so forgiving in the way it serves up challenges. Recognizing this, a number of business schools are adopting the use of case studies, simulations, and team-based projects to better mirror the processes of discovery, analysis, and resolution that occur at the best firms. But learning by these methods isn’t for everyone; you must be ready for it. Generally, my advice is to choose the approach that best fits how you need to grow. When in doubt, get out of your comfort zone. My take on the buoyant interest in the Darden MBA as I travel around the world is that talented young people are looking beyond their borders for promising new ideas around which to make a meaningful contribution with their lives.

4. How do you define “best”? With over 11,000 institutions in the world that grant degrees in business, an applicant has plenty of choice. My strong advice is not to settle for what is easy, cheap, or convenient. Reach for the best school you can attend—not just out of attraction for that glittering notion of a brand. Rather you should reach for the best schools because as the saying goes, eagles flock together: talented teachers and students tend to go to those schools where they are likely to find each other, challenge each other, grow together, and form a lifetime bond as the important basis for a personal network. You must define “best” in your terms and not just settle for the opinion of an impersonal ranking. Factors such as size, location, teaching style, diversity, culture, and special strengths of the school should figure into what’s “best” for you.

My message is that MBA applicants have a lot of choice and must do their homework before making a decision. I advise applicants today as follows: go anywhere in the world to study with the best and then apply your knowledge where your impact is likely to be greatest.

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One Response to Getting an MBA: When and Where

  1. Interesting advice for someone who

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