A full-time MBA should be treated as a business proposition. It is after all an investment in arguably the most important human resource of all – yourself.
Potential MBA students traditionally seek the most famous European and American universities as their first choice, no matter where they intend to work eventually.
But does this make sense for someone who wants a career in China? What are the opportunity costs of not participating – if only for 12 months – in an economy that shattered growth records again last year?
Chinese students, for one, are mulling their choices. It used to be that Chinese students were going abroad for their MBA in ever-increasing numbers. Not anymore.
The number of Chinese MBA students at England’s Birmingham University, for example, is now dropping after years of rising enrollment, according to Dr Paul Forrester, director of its full-time MBA program. “We have seen some distinct changes. A lot of Chinese students are [now] taking their MBA [in China], but additionally we’re seeing people doing more specialized MSc courses, such as in marketing and investment,” he said.
Although Chinese students are still Birmingham University’s third-largest group of MBA full-timers by nationality, Forrester noted that marketing the program in China is now necessary just to maintain enrollment numbers.
A mercurial market
Chinese students are not the only ones reconsidering an MBA in the West. Foreigners planning a career in China might be better off studying here in the first instance.
“If [a candidate] has taken an MBA abroad, not only will it have taken two or three years out from [his] career, something might have developed in China, which will have to be adapted to. An employer might well take this into consideration,” said Vivienne Sheng, a senior consultant at executive search firm Search and Staaffing International.
Indeed, China’s mercurial marketplace can be a problem for foreigners working in China who want to take a year or two out for study. Foreigners with China experience can be more employable, but that edge can go blunt very quickly. Sheng gave the example of a banker working in China who leaves for a two-year MBA. When he returns, his knowledge of the industry will have been rendered obsolete by China’s ever-changing regulatory environment.
Still, an MBA from abroad can be valuable for the right candidate. A young Chinese professional, for instance, would gain an awful lot from studying and living overseas.
“If you’re 25 years old, you’ve never lived outside of China, your undergraduate degree isn’t in a business subject and you’ve got a promising career, then spending some time overseas will be beneficial,” said John D Van Fleet, a former director of the University of Southern California’s executive MBA program in Shanghai.
Issues with age
Van Fleet thinks the situation is different for older professionals.
“If you’re in you’re in your early thirties and you’ve been working for a multinational for a few years, you’ve had an assignment overseas, then giving up your career for two years doesn’t have the same benefits,” he said.
Instead of going abroad to study full-time, it can be more beneficial to continue working and do a part-time MBA on the side.
It can also be the case that an MBA can be done at too young an age.
“Some people only have a year or two of experience and they go and do an MBA. What kind of management experience do they have?” Sheng said.
“What’s useful about an MBA is that it provides you with case studies which you can apply to your earlier experiences. If you don’t have much experience then everything is hypothetical.”
Assuming a candidate fits the profile, studying abroad can confer other intangible benefits as well. According to Birmingham’s Forrester, a program like his school’s, which claims students from 38 countries, would give a student the chance to acquire a robust international network. For Chinese students, this networking comes with the extra inducement of constant exposure to an English-speaking environment.
One Chinese manager who reaped the benefits of an overseas program is Qi Zhang, who graduated from Birmingham University four years ago.
Since then, Zhang has been working for a Chinese firm, setting up its European office in Frankfurt, work he believes he would have been unable to land without his British MBA.
“Before I went to the UK, I had some doubts. But if you ask me now, I think it was definitely worth it,” he said.
A cultural bridge
Zhang added that Chinese holding foreign MBAs are especially sought after to act as a bridge for a foreign company entering China, or a Chinese company entering a foreign market. For him, being enrolled in a university outside China also meant he could do internships and job placements in foreign firms while studying, which he found invaluable.
Despite the success of foreign MBA holders like Zhang, it is important not to mistake the degree for a passport to career success. An MBA might be a powerful addition to a resume, but a candidate must never forget that an employer is looking for someone who comes with a complete package. If a candidate lacks the requisite experience or communication skills, then an MBA is just a piece of paper, no matter how prestigious the institution that conferred it.
Employers in China want well-rounded people who can multitask and grow companies. If a program has trained the candidate to do that, then an MBA – whether from China or elsewhere – is surely worth the time and money invested in it.