The Best Isn’t Always Best for You
Top-Ranked MBAs May not Match Your Needs
June 6th, 2014
There are 3,000 MBA programmes offered worldwide. Yet the top-ranked MBA programmes keep attracting thousands of candidates every year. In reality, there are myriads of excellent top quality yet lower profile programmes throughout the world that could turn out to be a better fit for those 99% of candidates that will not make it to the top ten.
Since the end of the crisis, things have changed for both job candidates and employers around the world. Due to the sweeping cuts and the practical absence of physical boundaries, employers now have a much greater choice of talent to choose from. As a result, candidates are pushed to add more and more assets to their CVs in order to be noticed and ultimately hired. An MBA from a top ten university certainly places you in the ranks of the very select few that companies are actually fighting for, instead of the other way round. The rest need to be creative and practical in their education choices in order to impress employers. Combinations of a specialised master’s and an MBA, or two specialised master’s, or first an MBA and then an MSc, are becoming more and more common, with candidates often needing to switch industries and/or roles across different companies and markets. This has broadened the horizon and enabled lower profile schools to enter centre stage and become attractive to candidates with their narrower specialisation, industry focused curricula and excellent faculty staff with hands-on experience in the fields of interest. Harvard, Stanford and Wharton will keep attracting the crème de la crème of brilliant minds from all over the world. But with Europe and Asia offering so much already, it would be a shame to overlook some of the obvious credentials many of those less visible programmes have to offer.
An MBA should suit your personal interests, ambitions and circumstances. While top MBA programmes certainly offer spectacular quality and access to top-end facilities and pools of knowledge and information, they are more often targeted at finance and consultancy businesses. If you are looking to fill a niche that you know will bring you success, or are targeting a particular industry, look among the less well-known but more focused programmes that could end up being a better fit for you. For example, ALBA Graduate Business School in Greece offers an MBA in Shipping and a host of MSc programmes for the shipping sector, which makes the school unique for that niche yet highly profitable industry. Similarly, Robert Gordon University of Aberdeen offers an MBA Oil and Gas Management with specialisations that could be attractive to candidates with various profiles: engineers in the oil and gas sector, managers, financial managers, bankers, and even lawyers specialised in oil and gas or energy. It is exactly programmes like these that demonstrate how flexible some non-branded schools are in developing their programmes and staying tuned to the needs of business and of the modern postgraduate student. It is exactly this kind of flexibility, creativity and adaptability that allow the Maastricht University School of Business and Economics in the Netherlands, for example, to develop customised learning programmes and matching training-coaching services to meet the needs of specific business and non-profit organisations. A well-designed programme that you know specifically targets your needs and those of your business, and accommodates your personal circumstances, will serve you superbly well, regardless of the b-school’s ranking.
While that only adds to their glamour, the top MBA university programmes are certainly an investment worth making in most cases. Although financial aid is available in the form of various scholarships and grants, competition there is fierce and the selection rate is relatively low. Today, it is assumed that times are difficult, and they will continue to be so for the next decade. So being comfortable with your ROI is an asset that many lower profile programmes provide. A common myth is that a degree from a prestigious business school will net you the best and the highest salary package in the industry. Salary is a complex figure that depends on a number of factors, and education is just one of them. The Financial Times’ 2014 ranking of business schools clearly shows that all schools in the top 60 would secure you a pay increase of at least 72%. Going to Columbia for example, which the Financial Times ranked as #5 in 2013, would give you a value-for-money ranking of 96, and would have brought you a salary increase of 123%. Tilburg University, TiasNimbas in the Netherlands, ranked by ft.com as #64 last year, would potentially put you in line for a pay rise of 90% and is ranked tenth in the value-for-money category. This type of comparison is too simplistic of course, but it aims to show that better pay is not necessarily a distinguishing point between branded and non-branded schools.
Top MBAs are spectacular, stellar, overachieving and very, very competitive. Graduates face enormous expectations and are often subjected to immense pressure by employers, peers and even society. You really need to be a particular type to appreciate and to be able to sustain and survive that kind of intensity. If this is not the way you wish to spend two years of your life, but you are determined to make the most of that time, you should really look inside yourself and reflect on the kind of environment that would make you thrive and achieve, in addition to making you happy.
Diversity is no longer directly related to size or ranking. If you have the impression that you need to go to a top-tier school to be able to mix and mingle with people from various countries and with diverse backgrounds, then you are mistaken. Many European schools boast a diversity of up to 90%. The same goes for Dubai or Tokyo, for example. In fact, it is exactly in those “off centre stage” places where diversity is felt most tangibly, because they are smaller and have a more intimate atmosphere.
Non-branded programmes often provide a very versatile experience to students, as the number of visiting professors is generally high and their selection is more diverse. European programmes might have visiting professors or experts from all over the continent. They would be speaking English with different accents; would have dramatically different stories to tell; and would have had experience of working with and managing a very diverse crowd. Schools are proud of their diversity, so they would be more than happy to provide you with information on their student body’s cultural and international diversity. Their websites provide detailed information on their efforts to promote and encourage diversity, including clubs such as Asia Business Club, Black Business Students Association, Jewish Business Club, etc. You can see them at the #12 ranked University of California at Berkeley-Haas as well as at the University of St. Gallen in Switzerland, ranked #82.