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 the second great industrial revolution, fuelled by growth in global trade, innovation in information technology, social liberalisation in civil and political rights, and the rise of a middle class in emerging countries. So, which programme should you pick?
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.
Certainly, there is the canon of business ideas the core knowledge of tools and concepts. Thanks to the diaspora of PhD 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.
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. Recognising 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.
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 young people today as follows: go anywhere in the world to study with the best and then apply your knowledge where your impact is greatest.
Robert F. Bruner is Dean of University of Virginia's Darden School of Business and is currently visiting India in an effort to advise Indian students on US MBAs.