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Choosing the right business masters program
Your decision to get a business masters degree is an important one, and one that you want to get right. The starting point is knowing what you want to accomplish by getting a postgraduate business masters qualification.
Choosing a business program is an iterative process – as you research business programs and visit business schools, you will learn more about your own needs; and as you learn more about your own needs, you will refine your criteria regarding which programs will be best for you.
Few people will consider all of the following criteria to be (equally) important, but they are included here to spur your thinking about what you would most like in a postgraduate business program. The most important criteria will depend upon your specific needs.
Is the school particularly well known and respected in the type of company or area where you would most like to work? In your chosen field? Pay attention to the opinions of those in charge of hiring at companies of the type you wish to work for.
Some programs are aimed at people making a transition into a field; others look to train those with substantial prior experience in the field.
Words of warning
• Start the process early because you need to gather a lot of information and have time to reflect on what you learn at each step.
The appropriate location for you is likely to depend upon a host of factors including, of course, personal preference. Do you prefer a small town or global city?
The business school’s location helps determine its social environment. Schools in large cities tend not to foster the degree of social bonding among class/course mates that schools located in small towns do, largely due to the lack of other entertainment options in small towns.
Consider attending a school abroad if you intend to work in the country where the school is located, wish to learn a foreign language or culture, or can get into a better-quality school than is possible at home.
Small programs often engender a friendly, family atmosphere. Large programs, on the other hand, are able to provide more elective/specialised courses to their students.
Teaching quality is remarkably uneven and hard to assess, especially from a distance. Besides sitting in on classes/study sessions, ask students how they rate the instruction they are receiving. Note that formal course evaluations by students, which are published (often online) at some schools, offer a chance to judge the teaching in courses of greatest interest to you.
The more highly employers regard a school’s graduates, the more job offers will flow. Specific offers depend upon more, however, than just a business school’s general reputation. Check whether people get jobs that you would like to have. In addition, check what credentials/qualifications they had. In general, distinguish between the job prospects of those at the top of the class/study group and those at the middle and the bottom. The differences among business schools become more marked as you work down their class/study group rankings. To assess whether a school’s degree ‘travels’ to whatever area is of interest to you, consider both where on-campus recruiters come from and where graduates end up working.
In addition, examine the activities of the careers service. A good careers service will certainly offer workshops about the job search, CVs or résumés and cover letters, online job applications, interviews, and so on. It will also provide individualised help in these areas. Moreover, its efforts will take account of the limited experience of many of the students in the program. This means, for instance, that it will devote resources to helping students better understand their own skills, values, and interests – and the implications for their careers.
A shorter program is generally more appropriate for those who already have a good business background and want either to add (further) specialisation or a fancier university name to their CV or résumé. Thus, someone finishing up a bachelors degree in business administration (a ‘BBA’) might decide in her last year that she’d like to specialise in consumer marketing. Having already taken several marketing courses in addition to courses in other key aspects of business, she is unlikely to need more than a one-year program to launch her into a consumer marketing career.
Someone who has done an undergraduate degree in psychology and now wants to work in finance, however, is likely to need more than one year to become a credible finance specialist. Lacking the usual underpinnings in mathematics and economics, as well as finance and accounting, he should ordinarily opt for a course that provides training from the ground up. This will almost surely be a multi-year program.
Consider the extent to which cases and courses focus on international management issues, whether students and professors come from a variety of different countries, the ease with which one can do projects and exchanges abroad, and the degree of emphasis placed upon language learning.
Part-time programs Vs full-time programs
Choosing a part-time program is necessarily somewhat different from choosing a full-time program. Your choice will probably be limited to those within your immediate area. Therefore, some of the criteria used for determining the most appropriate full-time program, such as available housing, will no longer be relevant because you will probably not be moving. Similarly, the career services office may be unimportant for you if you intend to remain with the same employer after you complete your degree. Other criteria are likely to become more important. For instance, a program’s schedule needs to fit with your own.
In spite of these differences, choosing a part-time program follows the same selection logic as the choice of full-time study. The courses must be of value to you, with an academic atmosphere suited to your needs. When you are choosing among several schools that offer what you want, reputation is still likely to be the most important criterion.
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Some programs allow you to opt out of, or substitute advanced courses for, any core courses about which you are already knowledgeable. Some schools do not permit waivers of introductory courses, in order to keep a cohort together.
Consider the extent to which you will need to take elective (or specialised) courses geared to your specific interests to be able to find appropriate employment. Then make sure the programs you target offer these electives/specialised courses. Ascertain whether the courses listed on the website are given annually. Some schools list all the courses they have given at some point in recent years, or hope to give, rather than those that will indeed be offered.
The composition of the student body will have a major impact upon your learning experience and your enjoyment of the program. The large amount of teamwork undertaken in most programs guarantees that much of your time will be spent discussing classroom/study issues with other students. The other students should be strong enough that you can learn a great deal from them. On the other hand, they should not be so skilled, relative to your own level, that you will be unable to compete with them.
You risk being isolated and miserable if you do not fit in with the typical students at a school. Make sure you have spent some time with current students or those who have recently graduated to make sure you will feel comfortable at a school.
Many programs provide extensive data about the backgrounds (age, gender, nationality, prior degree, standardised test scores, etc) of their current students on their website. Many also provide the CVs or résumés of those currently on the program. If they do not do so, contact the admissions department.
Although most students would prefer an atmosphere that emphasises co-operation rather than competition, that is not true for everyone. Some people are inspired to work harder and perform better in a competitive environment. Competition tends to increase with program size (larger ones are more competitive), using a mandated grading curve, awarding grades on the basis of individual (not team) performance, displaying grades and class/study group ranks to potential employers, and failing large numbers of students.
Some schools have a traditional closeness between students and the faculty: faculty members routinely invite students for coffee or drinks, join them for lunches, and so on. Schools that are isolated tend to have closer faculty-student relations than those in the midst of major cities. Smaller schools also tend to have closer relations than do larger schools.
Visiting business schools
Visiting a business school is an extremely important part of your research. The visit brings to life a school (and a program) that has hitherto been only an imaginary place fashioned by rumours, hearsay, website information, statistics, and the like. School visits also offer you opportunities to improve your admissions chances: having a good knowledge of the school to which you are marketing yourself and showing yourself as interested enough in it to have undertaken a substantial visit are two ways in which you can distinguish yourself.
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To get the most out of your visits:
• Visit a range of schools, especially if you are not yet certain what you are looking for. Visit large and small programs in major cities and small towns. Also, be sure to visit programs that represent a range of selectivity, not just your dream program.
• You will learn about business programs – and school visits – as you tour schools. Therefore, do not plan to visit your top two choices first. Instead, try to visit several programs about which you are not certain as a means of familiarising yourself with the visiting process.
• Visit schools when they are in session, so you can interact with students, not just administrators, and understand what daily life is like.
• Arrange meetings ahead of time with individuals in areas of interest to you, whether professors, career services professionals, or financial aid officers.
• Gauge the extent to which students are engaged and happy. (Remember, however, that the timing of your visit – such as during exams – can affect how students act.)
• Pay particular attention to those students who most resemble you in terms of backgrounds and goals. Whenever you encounter someone who reminds you of you, dig in. Pump them and all of their friends for as much information as you can regarding what they think the school does and does not do well.
• Expect to spend a full day, not just a few hours, on a visit. Work with the admissions office to schedule classes/study sessions to visit, students to meet for lunch, and so on.
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