On the way with an MBA

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How can you ensure spending 40k on an MBA is worth it?

Splashing out on an MBA is a) costly, b) obliges you to immerse yourself in studies for at least one year, if not two, and c) could leave you no better off. Here's how to ensure it works out.

Be realistic

Recognise that three letters after your name are not going to take you straight to the top. Ronil Bavishi, an associate in Asian equities with Lehman, took his MBA at London Business School. He points out that you still have to work very hard to land a job: "The first summer I didn't put enough effort into preparing for interviews, and I ended up without an internship."

Ellen Miller, managing director at Lehman Brothers, backs this up. "MBAs are not the only pool we hire from. You're still up against Masters students, PhDs and the top of the undergraduate pools. MBAs shouldn't be complacent and rest only on their MBA laurels."

Have a plan

Know why you're going to school and what you intend to achieve. Mark Horrox is a current MBA at LBS. He went back after five years in the City "to broaden my skill set, particularly in marketing and strategy". This clarity served him well and culminated in a job offer.

Bavishi suggests looking at the culture of the school in relation to what you want for your career. "If you pursue an MBA for the sake of education, but don't have a plan, you'll only get more confused," he says.

Choose your school

Don't go to the educational equivalent of Wal-Mart. If you want to go into banking, think London Business School, INSEAD and IESE in Europe, and think Harvard, Wharton and Columbia in the US.

The best schools not only offer thorough training, but their alumni network is much stronger. As Horrox puts it, a degree from the right school "opens doors for a cold-call". The right school name on your CV means busy people are suddenly willing to talk.

Choose your moment

Go after two years of an analyst contract. This was traditionally the time that US banks trotted analysts off to do MBAs, and it's catching on in Europe.

David Schwartz, former head of HR for Goldman Sachs' European investment banking division, says this way you'll already have experience of the industry that will serve you well when you come out with your degree. Schwartz adds that, when he left Goldman in 2002, "All of the leaders in the division had MBAs." (Whether they went off to study after spending two years as an analyst is another question.)

Choose your moment (2)

Make sure you graduate as an MBA at a time when banks actually want to hire MBA graduates. In the downturn of 2002 several banks cut their intakes severely. But right now they seem to have stepped on the hiring throttle again. Helena Fernandes, a finance careers advisor at London Business School, says recruitment's strong for both summer and full-time positions: "Not only has there been good demand from the traditional recruiters, but we have also seen a wider range of recruiters - for example, boutiques and retail/commercial banks - targeting our students through on-campus recruitment."

Will this still be the case when the class of 2008 graduates? Your guess is as good as ours.

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