Sunday, November 7, 2010

The MBA Project: Choosing the Schools

One of the first questions anyone asks me when I talk to them about my ambition to go for an MBA is, "What schools are you looking to go to?"  Excellent question!  Right off the bat, I can tell you that they all have one major thing in common: nary a one of them are in the United States.  As an American citizen, the world is my oyster when it comes to choosing an MBA program on my home soil.  Most of the top ranked programs in any MBA track or specialization can be found here, and there are people overseas dying to get in.   However, there is one thing that they cannot give me: immersion in another culture.  My overwhelming specialized interest when it comes to business is sustainability, and I believe that it is crucial to the world economy that we stop trying to work at it within the four walls of our respective countries.  As proud as I am to be an American, I don't think it should limit me to a prescribed set of ways of thinking and living.  Living in a culture different from my own and studying and working alongside dozens of others would give me that kind of perspective.

Of course, I've had suggestions that I go go an American school and take an opportunity to participate in a foreign exchange program that many of them offer.  I consider that to be Plan Z.  I simply have no interest in studying in my home country.  To me it feels like, "Been there, done that".  I've lived in literally all 4 corners of the continental US plus a stint in the middle.  I haven't been to every state, sure, but I've had an itch to go live in Europe that I have been dying to scratch for the last 7 years at least.  When I returned from a brief visit to Germany last spring, I decided that Europe was the only place I could ever leave California for.  I include the United Kingdom and Continental Europe in this statement.

Without further ado, and roughly in order in which I discovered them...

London Business School
London, UK

One of my co-workers happens to be a graduate of LBS, although that's not how I came by the school name.  Like many people, I went straight to the Internet and started looking at school rankings, and London Business School overwhelmingly appears in the Top 10, and in some cases, #1 ranked for non-US schools.

  • Highly renowned program with a strong alumni network in the UK & Europe.
  • Club listings include a Responsible Business Club and Consulting Club, both of which appear to be active, and the latter of which hosts regular speaker series with top consulting firms, such as McKinsey & Company.
  • Flexible program that allows you to finish in 15, 18, or 21 months.
  • almost goes without saying and sometimes it's the first thing that springs to mind, but it's in London.  LONDON.  It sends shivers down my spine just thinking about it--in a good way.

Imperial College
London, UK

Arguably a second tier alternative to LBS with about a 25% lower price tag.  I met one of the recruiters at the MBA fair I attended in September and got a good, friendly vibe that I hope is representative of the Imperial College reputation at large

  • Solid program with electives that I like.
  • Also has a Net Impact chapter, which relates to sustainable business.
  • Less expensive than LBS and still makes respectible appearances in rankings
  • Still in London. :-)

Vlerick Leuven Gent Business School
Leuven, Belgium

In addition to finding schools by the more traditional rankings (e.g. Bloomberg, Financial Times, etc.), I found this site called Beyond Grey Pinstripes, which looks at business schools in the context of corporate social responsibility and sustainability, two of my favorite topics.  Neat, huh?  Out of all the schools in my list, Vlerick placed the highest.  Actually, there was only one other that did--London Business School, and it was ranked near the bottom!

  • The aforementioned sustainability recognition goes a long way with me.
  • The least expensive school on my list at € 28,500 for the 12 month program, which is around $39,000 USD.
  • Very well located in Europe in terms of relative distance to major metropolitan areas.  For instance, it's only half an hour from Brussels, home to the UN.  How cool is that?  Also close to the Netherlands--one of those obsessions with places I've never seen--as well as to France and Germany, and a stone's throw from England by air.  I wouldn't mind learning Dutch either, as Leuven sits in the Dutch-speaking region of Belgium.  (As opposed to the French-speaking south.)

University of St. Gallen
St. Gallen, Switzerland

I only really stumbled on this a couple weeks ago, but I was immediately intrigued when I heard it has one of the best reputations of MBA programs in the German-speaking countries.

  • Well, first of all, I see Switzerland as this cool guy at school that everybody seems to get along with and wants to be around because he's a pretty successful guy, but he definitely does his own thing.  Switzerland is famously neutral in world conflicts and it's not part of the EU.  Switzerland, like Belgium, is a small country that has a few distinct language-regions.  St. Gallen happens to be in the German part.
  • Wonderful school to be an alumni of if you want to stand a chance at getting a job in Switzerland post-graduation.  And, I gotta say, for as famously expensive as the country is, you also stand to make good money and enjoy a host of benefits if you live/work there, and that's very appealing.

Mannheim Business School
Mannheim, Germany

When this whole revelation came upon me back in April, the friend that I had the good and long talk with suggested schools in Germany.  Not a surprise--he's German!  And why not?  They have a great university system that is pretty affordable. At first when I was just looking at Master's degrees in subjects like Information Systems, I had a few options in Germany noted.  But when I realizeed it was an MBA I wanted, I was disappointed to discover that business schools in Germany were a fairly new concept and that the programs on the whole haven't quite gained the footing that schools in the UK, France, and Spain have.  For most of this year I didn't challenge that assumption much until I re-considered and found Mannheim Business School mentioned in a few publications.  Then I found out that it's actually considered one of the best--if not the best MBA program in Germany, and is quickly gaining recognition in the rest of Europe.

  • Great school with a sterling reputation in Germany!
  • I happen to speak some German, and this, as with St. Gallen, would be an opportunity to learn it fluently outside of the business classes, which are all in English.  (Note: Most MBA programs are in English.)
  • Well-situated between Frankfurt and Stuttgart, and very close to Heidelberg, a city I visited last spring that I adore.
  • Very reasonable tuition at € 29,000, or $40k USD.  Mannheim also has the lowest cost of living of all the schools I've chosen, which can only be a good thing as I start to scrounge up sources for money.
This came to me as very good news indeed, for I have been a self-professed Germanophile ever since I sat and watched Europe Through the Back Door with Rick Steves in German class as a high school junior.  I had actually been taking German classes since the 7th grade, but when I was introduced to the affable tour guide, I really got bitten by the bug.  I have a long-standing history with the country that began before the classes, in fact.  In 1995 my Mom, who was at the time active-duty military, received orders to go there.  The whole family picked up and went across the pond, and we lived in an old Gasthaus in the tiny village of Kottweiler-Schwanden.  Now, I'm not going to lie: at the time I was devastated.  I was miserable about moving away from my tight-knit group of friends in Virginia and being so far from my father back in Pittsburgh.  It was not an easy transition for me in the least bit, and with the exception of fun trips to a few nearby castles and to the local Schwimmbad (swimming pool), I did not appreciate the fact that I was living in a foreign country.  I moved back to the States within a few months and made visits back every summer while my family was still there.

I didn't have the burning-hot desire to go back to Europe until a few years after Mom & Co. returned Stateside when hordes of my friends in college started studying abroad and coming back with amazing stories to tell.  I didn't have the confidence to consider actually living there until just last year when I visited my sister-in-law and newborn nephew for a week in Germany, and I spoke as much German as I could muster to anyone who would speak it with me!   Visiting with the appreciation of an adult as opposed to the petulance of an adolescent was a completely different experience.  I wanted more.


There were a few other schools that I heavily considered throughout this process, but didn't quite make the cut.

HEC Paris - Incredible school and I was in love with the idea of living with Paris...until I learned that not only is the school not really in Paris, but is a pretty self-contained campus separate unto itself.  That was exactly the type of school I was looking for as an undergrad, but it doesn't appeal to me now.  I want to live in the city among ordinary people--not in a dorm.  I didn't find any French schools that were actually in Paris.  And if it's not in Paris, enh, there are other places I'd rather live.  (Sorry, Ma, I know you'd love for me to go there.  Perhaps we shall when you come overseas to visit!)

ERASMUS Rotterdam - Now this one was a toughie to cut, because it was one of the first schools I looked into and I loved everything about it.  The school was into sustainability before it became so cool and popular.  I am obsessed with getting to the Netherlands as well.  However, they don't start their intake until January of each year, which for me would be January 2012.  Also, I've heard that attaining funding for this school can be more difficult than other European schools, and Rotterdam is an expensive city.

ESADE & SDA Bocconi - ESADE is in Barcelona, Spain and Bocconi is in Milan, Italy.  They are excellent schools, but I'd rather go to school in a country that I am more likely to want to stay and work in after graduation, and neither Spain nor Italy quite grab me in that way.

The Cons of Going to School Abroad

Now, with all of these options, there are of course drawbacks.  For one, working is more than likely not an option.  I'll likely be too busy managing the concentrated courseload of the 12 month European MBA programs, and as a foreigner I will probably only have a permit to study and not to work.

And, as an American, staying on to work post-graduation would certainly require some deft hoop-jumping that other EU-nationals probably wouldn't have to go to.  So, if I was to stay, I would probably have to work a lot harder than my classmates to secure the job with a company that would sponsor a work permit.

Going to London would be cool and in some ways a lot easier on me in light of the fact that it's in another English-speaking country.  Yet at the same time, I see that as a downside.  I'd love to become fluent in another language, and it would make me a heckuva lot more marketable.  I've already got a 15 year head-start in German...

Not all of these programs really grab me to the same level, but at the same time, I would be thrilled to be accepted to any one of them.  At the aforementioned MBA fair, I had a long and candid chat with the recruiter from SDA Bocconi in Italy (who happens to be American), and he gave me this advice: make sure that of the schools you choose, you like them all equally and that you would be just as happy to get into any one of them.

When I told my boss about my plans--she herself being a huge proponent of MBAs--she advised me to work backwards.  That is to say, first figure out exactly what I want to be doing and who I would want to work for, then find out what schools they recruit from.  Excellent advice that definitely helped me sort this out!

My gut instinct is that Mannheim is my best shot and my best fit all-around for its location, the cost, and my familiarity with the country and its language.  St. Gallen is a close second for the same reasons--it just costs almost twice as much.  Then I would say LBS, Vlerick, and Imperial.  I am such a nerd that I have this spreadsheet I keep with stats on each one, as well as my drop-dead application dates.

As I said in my previous post, I'm still studying for the GMAT.  I've never been very good at sitting down and studying, so this has been an interesting challenge for me.  I intend to test in mid-December, and in the meantime it's time to start approaching potential referees and giving my resume--ahem--Curriculum Vitae-- an MBA-appropriate makeover.  Oh, and getting transcripts and writing essays.  Not to mention figuring out how to accomplish a move of epic proportions with a cat who needs insulin every 12 hours.  Whew, this is a lot of work before you even start applying for the loans and, you know, actually being in school...

One step at a time!