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March 10, 2009

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Now that you've started exploring your business school options, it's time to decide what programs are right for you. And, yes, I said programs, not program. At the end of the day, there will be several schools that meet all of your criteria. Even though you may have a favorite, you will end up applying to multiple schools and probably be just as happy attending any of your top choices. To determine what programs are best suited to you, there are several factors that should be taken into account. This article will discuss the different kinds of MBA programs out there, but realize selecting a school is a very personal experience, so make sure to find out what is important to you.

What Type of Program is Best for You?

MBA programs can be as varied as the people pursuing the degree. An MBA can be pursued full or part time. They can last for as little as one year but usually no longer than three.

Full-time programs

The most traditional is the two-year, full-time MBA program. This type allows for a first year of study, followed by a free summer to participate in an internship in the industry of your choice. After their internships, students return for a second year of study and then enter or re-enter the work world. Most often, students either return to their summer employer or pursue a different full-time opportunity after graduation.

There are several advantages to a full-time program, the first of which is the academic experience. During your two years, you will be in a class of students who are, like you, committed to school full time. The student body is likely to be more cohesive in a full-time program, as there is more student involvement because students don't have to balance school and work as they would in a part-time program. This involvement can take many forms, such as more academic events, lectures and symposia, student clubs and social events.

A second advantage is that the traditional program is generally where companies recruit. Most companies enjoy the opportunity to test drive students over the course of a summer before they commit to a full-time job offer. Moreover, most part-time students are committed to their current employer, and as such aren't the most tempting employee candidates. More attention from companies also means more attention from career services. Full-time students are the focus of the career services department because they are usually looking for new full-time employment after graduation and need the most help re-entering the workforce. Career search workshops and other events are usually organized according to a full-time student's schedule, limiting the opportunity for part-time students to participate.

These benefits aside, it should be said that pursuing a degree full time can be extraordinarily expensive. In looking at the total cost of the degree, you should not only consider the traditional expenses of tuition and room and board, but also the cost of lost wages from not working for two years. All included, the cost of the degree can be in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Part-time programs

As the MBA degree became a respected credential with the power to advance a career, more prospective students emerged, creating a demand for part-time programs aimed at students unwilling or unable to leave work to commit to the traditional full-time business school experience. Schools developed part-time programs that offered courses in the evenings to allow people to pursue their education while also continuing to work.

Companies have recognized the benefits of a part-time program. Many large companies encourage their employees to pursue part-time degrees, often paying for the degree through tuition reimbursement as a way to keeping talented staff. This additional benefit not only produces employees with the management skills companies need, but also reduces the risk of losing those who may have otherwise pursued a full-time degree.

The primary advantage of a part-time program is the flexibility allowed for its students. If you can only attend classes in the evenings or on specific days, most schools have courses that will fit your schedule. Additionally, the cost of a part-time program can be much lower than a traditional full-time program. The cost is minimized by lower tuitions and absence of room and board because students usually live at home, coupled with the fact that you are still able to work during the degree. This eliminates much of the cost, which reduces the need to borrow money to finance your education and living expenses during your time in school.

The drawbacks of a part-time program include limited career services and opportunities for recruitment. Student using an MBA to switch careers may find themselves limited by the lack of recruiting opportunities available in a part-time program. However, if you are committed to staying with your current company or within the same industry, this weakness is minimized.

A second drawback is that part-time programs generally offer less camaraderie because students are less involved with the school. Between work, school and home life, students just don't have the time to participate in things like student clubs and associations. The lack of camaraderie can also be traced to the flexibility of the degree program. In most full-time programs, you will get to know your classmates because you are a part of the same class, taking the same core and elective classes. As part-time programs can stretch for several years, each class may greet you with new faces of students at different points in their business school careers.

Another thing to consider is the perception of the part-time program. Just because a school's full-time program is well regarded, it doesn't mean its part-time program is. Many schools create part-time MBA programs that have little or no reputation for producing talented graduates. If you decide to pursue an MBA part time, make sure that your degree will be well respected. The best way to research the reputation of a degree program is to find out where recent alumni are working. Another approach is to look around your current employer or a company you want to work for; if there are no alumni of your prospective program working there, you may want to look for a different program.

Executive MBA programs

After the evolution of the part-time program, business schools searched for the next group of potential students. With the knowledge that part-time programs still do not work for people whose jobs leave them little time during the week to pursue an MBA, the executive MBA program was born. In its simplest form, the executive MBA program is like a part-time program with classes held on Fridays and weekends once or twice a month. To have professors and staff available on weekends, schools generally charge premium prices. With the cost of executive programs being so high, they only really cater to students who are sponsored by their current employers.

The advantages for the executive MBA program begin with the same flexibility provided by the part-time program. While pursuing an executive MBA, you are able to continue your current career, though you will have to take off some Fridays to go to school. An additional benefit of the executive program is that most schools have included room and board—and sometimes even meals—in the price of tuition, just in case you live outside of the immediate area. So the typical traveling executive will travel to school on Thursday evening, taking classes on Friday, Saturday and Sunday morning before returning to his home city. This feature allows you to choose an academic institution that caters to your specific needs, rather than just selecting the school that is near your home.

The primary drawback of the executive program is the expense associated with the degree. In addition to tuition, you can be faced with the cost of traveling to and from the school frequently. These high costs make it necessary to be sponsored by your employer. This sponsorship is likely to be much more selective than for a part-time program because of the expense involved in the executive program, and often includes a period of commitment of three to five years after graduation.

Accelerated MBA programs

Another type of nontraditional MBA program that has become increasingly popular is the accelerated MBA program. These are in demand because students can avoid taking two years off from work, thereby reducing the opportunity cost. Accelerated programs condense an MBA curriculum into a period of 12 to 18 months. Most U.S. students thinking about accelerated programs also consider schools overseas because European master's programs only last one year, so we will lump European programs into this category.

While students who pursue an accelerated degree will benefit from less time away from work, they must carefully consider what they must give up in order to achieve a shorter program. In some cases, this may mean taking fewer courses or eliminating specialization. What’s more, most accelerated programs exclude any time for an internship. If you are a candidate trying to change careers, this lack of an internship may be enough to shift your focus to a more traditional two-year degree.

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