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Mastering MBAs
AMP reveals new group general counsel:

Mastering MBAs

MBAs can provide both a stepping stone and a milestone in a legal career, but choosing the right MBA is as important as finishing the degreeMost industries have been affected by the global…

MBAs can provide both a stepping stone and a milestone in a legal career, but choosing the right MBA is as important as finishing the degree

Most industries have been affected by the global financial crisis in some way or another. A number of MBA schools have been heavily impacted by the GFC, because MBAs are seen as a prohibitively expensive training option in tough economic times by both organisations and individuals. Many people are happy just to keep their job, let alone think about career development and progression.

As a result, MBA schools around the world are re-examining their foundations, from the subjects they are teaching and the way they teach them, to the very philosophical underpinnings of their view of the world, says Roy Green, dean of UTS:Business.

While the crisis is not as acute in Australia and UTS is doing well by all measurable indicators, Green says the school doesn't have to worry too much about next year, or even the year after. "But we do need to look further ahead - towards 2013, 2014 and beyond," he says.

Jennifer George, acting dean of Melbourne Business School, says there's nothing like adversity to generate innovation, and her advice to MBA students is that they must understand quantitative elements of financial information, such as how to analyse financial statements, management accounting and financial risks. "Not many programs in Australia require this. They tend to concentrate more on soft skills, HR or marketing and leave the more difficult financial subjects out. If students do not understand the financial risks in the companies they manage, they risk repeating the mistakes that contributed to this credit crisis," she says.

John Edwards, acting director of executive education for Macquarie Graduate School of Management (MGSM), says the school has reviewed the focus of some of its MBA subjects to take into account the more volatile and uncertain economic climate. Outside of this, he says there has been an increase in interest in postgraduate study from potential students (both domestic and international), with more looking to enrol in full-time programs to up-skill and prepare for the upturn in business confidence.

Pause for thought

MBAs require a significant financial investment, so it pays to do your homework in researching the school and course that will provide the most personal and professional benefit.

Tony McArthur, national secretary of the Graduate Management Association of Australia, says to consider first and foremost whether it's the right time to do an MBA. "Some people in the early stages of their career might be focusing on the technical issues of their industry or profession. A better option for them might be to do a masters in their specific area, such as an accountant doing a masters in commerce," he says.

"Later in their career, an MBA is ideal for getting away from the technical expertise and building on management skills to prepare for a leadership role that requires a broad management perspective."

In considering where to study, McArthur says the quality and reputation of an MBA school are critical. "You don't want to spend a lot of time and money getting an MBA from a school that a prospective employer is going to say: 'Never heard of them. Where are they and what's it all about?' If you go to a recognised school your MBA will be more readily accepted as a business credential," he says.

Julia Connell, associate dean of postgraduate programs and the director of the MBA at UTS:Business, says that in addition to the reputation of the MBA school, potential students should also consider the strength of the links between school and industry, and the program itself. "Does the program have a strong core that is applicable to their career aspirations? Does the program offer the opportunity to study overseas through exchange programs and gain international experience," she says.

"A person only does one MBA in their lifetime, so students should look to the school that will provide a transformational experience - one where they will come into contact with teachers and fellow students who will change their lives for the better."

There are also a number of practical considerations, and Connell says potential students should research whether the course fits their lifestyle in terms of:

Location (proximity to work or home or transport)

Cost (fits the budget in terms of value and quality for money and length of program - i.e. one year full-time or up to six years part time depending on the number of units or credits given from either undergraduate or other studies)

Time (work and/or family commitment will dictate whether full-time or part-time and whether weekly classes or intensive weekend or weekday classes are most suitable)

Work hours and/or travel (work travel commitments will determine whether online or face to face and, possibly, mode of offer - i.e. weekly or intensive)

Making the most of an MBA

During the actual degree it's helpful to be involved in activities offered outside the classroom, according to Melbourne Business School's George. This might include networking with other students and industry groups, doing internships or simply taking advantage of options that allow students to reflect on and apply their learning outside the classroom context.

"For example, an internship, whether it's for two or ten weeks, enables students to apply what they have learnt in the classroom while offering them opportunities that are radically unlike their previous work experience. It puts them into an environment where they're applying their learning in a completely new domain. It opens new possibilities, stretches them and helps them to see things in the material that they might otherwise not see," she says.

A lot of the benefits students get from an MBA are not realised until after they leave, she says, and some students extract more value than others because they more consciously reflect on their course years afterwards.

"I've noticed the students who are successful in doing this consciously reflect on the different areas they studied and think about them in the context of the problems they are solving. They almost go through a checklist in their head when they are faced with a problem and say, 'How can I think about that from a marketing perspective, from a finance perspective and from an operations management perspective?'" she says.

What to watch out for

One of the most common pitfalls with MBA programs is making a quick decision about which institution to apply to, according to MGSM's Edwards. "Listening to advice from others who have completed postgrad study is important, but do your own research as well. Visit the various institutions on your list, see what the learning environment is like, attend an information session and don't be afraid to ask questions," he says.

Managing time is also crucial when combining work and postgraduate study, and Edwards says juggling work and study is challenging but that learning to be disciplined around time management will make things much easier.

Many programs also require students to work in syndicates to complete both a written report and prepare a verbal presentation. "These are usually positive experiences, but can occasionally be challenging. Approach all syndicate work in a positive way and embrace the experience as part of the overall learning," he says.

Lastly, before selecting electives course units, Edwards recommends talking to as many fellow students as possible and discussing any doubts about elective selections with lecturers.

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