As I speak to audiences of prospective applicants to MBA programs, a frequent question concerns the relative merits of one-year versus two-year MBA programs. The two kinds of programs are radically different and the choice depends fundamentally upon what one wants from an MBA educational experience.

The case for the one-year program is simple and straightforward: cost, as measured in cash outlay and foregone salary. My chief caution about the one-year format is that there is little time to reflect. You have barely begun your studies and find yourself in the midst of your final job search.

In contrast the two-year MBA offers:

  1. Added intellectual deepening in areas of interest to you. You get more choice in your second year with opportunity to drill into topics for which you have an appetite. I see this starkly in my area of expertise, finance. Most first-year courses cover the entry level of competence. It is in the second year that you gain expertise in areas for which you can command a really high salary: derivatives, trading, private equity, venture capital, and investment banking. The two-year format offers you much more choice and deepening.
  2. Time for reflection, more coaching., staged and thoughtful career planning and research, and networking.
  3. Time for luck: more chance to let serendipity have its way.
  4. Leadership development through courses, individual and group projects, clubs, and social outreach.

All of these can be summed up in the phrase, personal transformation. A two-year program is likely to have a deeper and more lasting impact on your technical mastery, self-confidence, communication skills, and leadership strengths. If you think you are just fine the way you are, then transformation is perhaps unimportant—but if you think you are fine the way you are, why get an MBA at all? I believe that the education market is fairly efficient. By and large, you get what you pay for. This means that though the price tags may differ, so does the experience and fundamental impact.

Education is not a race, a goal line to be crossed ahead of the rest. It is a journey. And even if it were a race, it would be a marathon, not a sprint. One-year MBA students rush through their programs without savoring the valuable transforming ideas and experience.

Why are you in such haste? With modern medicine, you face the prospect of a 50-year career after graduation—the added year of study represents a diminution of only 2% in the total professional journey. This career probably will span between four and ten employers and will pose increasing levels of challenge that take you out of entry-level specialties and into broad-ranging responsibilities of general management and leadership. Perhaps you will buy or start up your own firm. And it is very likely that your administrative skills will draw you into work with charitable organizations, political groups, government, and so on. It takes a fair amount of hubris to believe that one year of study will adequately prepare you for all this. Whether two years will suffice is a matter of your own determination and hard work—but it has to prepare you more effectively than one year.

What do you think about this question?

Bob Bruner
Dean, Darden School of Business

Posted by Robert Bruner at 09/14/2006 11:21:08 PM