Student Advice: Academic Programs

This page is a repository of advice and lessons learned on frequently requested topics, particularly for my own students but also for anyone else who is interested.
NEW: I have added a new section on Canadian universities after receiving a number of inquiries from interested Americans! 

MBA Programs

After four years at IBM Global Services I completed an MBA at the Richard Ivey School of Business, University of Western Ontario with the intention of moving into strategy consulting. I loved the case-based format and benefited greatly from the work experience and enthusiasm of my classmates, all of whom had voluntarily chosen to return to school after time in the “real” world.  I was successful with the transition to strategy consulting but knew upon graduation that I would eventually return to school for a PhD so I could become a business school professor.

  • The term “MBA” is used to refer to an extremely wide variety of degree programs that provide vastly different learning experiences and employment options. Full-time vs. part-time, 2-year vs. 1-year, international (IMBA) vs. executive (EMBA) vs. “regular”, online vs. offline, case-based vs. mixed-format/lecture-based are all key distinctions to be considered.
  • An MBA degree can provide up to three types of immediate benefits – a signalling benefit (“I was deemed good enough to be accepted to this MBA program and have a lot in common with others who have completed this MBA program”), a developmental benefit (the new skills and relationships you developed in the program), and a consumption benefit (your enjoyment while completing the MBA). Whether any or all of these benefits are realized will depend on the match between the MBA program and you. Depending on how you use your MBA degree it will hopefully also provide subsequent long-term benefits – increased income, increased job satisfaction or opportunities, ongoing professional and personal relationships.
  • These benefits come with both an immediate financial cost (tuition and lost income unless avoided through scholarships, employee sponsorship or part-time study) and an opportunity/time cost (what else could you do with the time spent in the MBA program?).
  • Figuring out the relative importance of these benefits and costs to you will go a long way to finding the right MBA program for you (if one exists).
  • MBA ranking publications (and the underlying data they collect and report) can be useful tools for getting to know MBA programs but should not be viewed as a direct indicator of the best MBA program for you (unless you happen to place the exact same importance on all the ranking variables as the ranking editors and agree completely with their assessment of each variable). Figure out your own criteria (location, student profile, size, teaching format, alumni network, career placement success, etc.), create your own ranking and be sure to apply to multiple schools.
  • More so than undergraduate business programs, MBA programs tend to draw students nationally and internationally so the variance in student composition and geographical reach of job placements and the alumni base tends to be much higher. This can affect the benefits and costs considerably. If you have specific geographical-preferences for your post-MBA career you should choose your MBA school accordingly.
  • If you are interested in strategy consulting, investment banking and top-tier technology (e.g. Google) placements your chances will be significantly better at a top-tier MBA school offering the maximum signaling benefit. In fact you would be wise to determine which specific MBA programs your target firms recruit from to avoid future disappointment. If you are not interested in any of these career paths the signaling benefit will be reduced (but not eliminated). Even if you immediately start your own business, the signaling benefit of the degree can still be significant as you deal with customers, suppliers, and investors.
  • If you have completed an undergraduate in business already, the developmental benefit of the MBA may be reduced (but definitely not eliminated). A case-based MBA which covers similar topics in a completely new format may provide additional developmental and consumption benefits (assuming you like cases!).
  • Most top-tier MBA programs require a few years of work experience, although there are a few exceptions or modified admissions processes (HBS has a 2+2 program, Stanford has a direct admit program).
  • Your GMAT score is critical to your MBA application profile and can also be used to compensate for lower undergraduate grades. Because GMAT scores are so critical to MBA school rankings, a GMAT score that raises a school’s average makes you an attractive candidate. A few weeks of intense GMAT preparation could be the most valuable investment you ever make if it pays off with significant scholarship money and potentially millions of dollars in additional career earnings! You can retake the GMAT multiple times although most who retake experience only modest improvements (and some actually score lower!)
  • Some programs offer a variety of formal concentrations or majors within the MBA degree while others do not, even when they provide a similar variety of elective course options. Whether this matters will depend a lot on how you intend to use the degree. In terms of signaling benefit, many future employers will not even notice or care about your concentration, just that you have an MBA. For others, a specialization may be an important signal that you are a good candidate, particularly if you are trying to change industries or have little work experience. If you are mostly concerned about the developmental benefits of the MBA, the content of the courses you take will be more important than any extra details about a major/concentration on your resume.
  • MBA program length can vary and is an important characteristic to consider. There are pros and cons to each format – from the traditional two-year MBA with a summer break that allows for a summer internship, to 16-month, 12-month or even shorter programs. Obviously the shorter programs reduce the opportunity cost of foregone income but it would be foolhardy to choose an MBA program just because it is cheaper in terms of immediate financial or time cost. Think of the long-term!
  • Many schools offer joint MBA-JD, MBA-MD or MBA-Public Policy degrees that typically require less time in school than if the two degrees were taken separately. Given the significant time and cost of such degrees they warrant additional due diligence including learning how past graduates have used their combined degrees.
  • Many business schools offer non-MBA masters degrees geared towards specific student populations or employment paths. These are worth considering if you do not fit the profile of the typical MBA student at your preferred school or are keen to go straight from an undergraduate degree to a masters program. If you are graduating with a non-business undergraduate degree, a one-year Masters in Management (MSM) may be better choice to expand your options for a first post-college job. If you are set on a career in Accounting, Finance or Marketing a Masters degree in one of those specific fields may be of value.
  • As stated below, MBA programs are not necessary or particularly useful preparation for Business PhD programs.

Useful MBA Links

PhD Programs

  • Completing an MBA and having business work experience are not prerequisites for a pursuing a PhD in business nor are they particularly useful in preparing you to be a successful while you are in a PhD program. A strong mathematics, statistics and either economics or sociology background can be very helpful during your PhD studies as is a genuine research interest and the willingness to immerse yourself in the academic literature. MBA, work, teaching and other worldly experiences are useful again to some extent once you become a professor but of lesser value during your PhD years.
  • Using MBA rankings as the primary criteria to choose your preferred MBA program is not a good idea and using the same rankings to choose your preferred PhD program is even more foolish. Academia is an incredibly small world and the specific people at each school have a huge impact on PhD programs and their potential fit. Assessing program fit is a challenge for anyone but especially when you are on the outside looking in so seeking input from those already in academia as professors or PhD students is essential.
  • Anyone considering spending 4+ years pursuing a PhD should take the time to consider and eventually define their initial research interests and then look for PhD programs where there are faculty to support and develop those research interests. Your interests may stem a wide range of sources – prior work or school experiences, topics in the business world that puzzle or annoy you, family history – but it is important to be able to articulate your interests as clearly as possible to help find a suitable match. By talking to academics (such as your previous professors) or reading current literature in academic management journals (Academy of Management Journal, Academy of Management Review, Strategic Management Journal, Administrative Science Quarterly, Management Science, etc.) or economics and sociology journals you can start to figure out how your topics are described in academia and which prominent professors are associated with these topics.
  • If you are currently an undergraduate or master’s student, working with a professor on a research project can be a great way to figure out if a PhD is something you really want to pursue.
  • The financial implications of a PhD are also very different from an MBA. At any respected PhD program tuition and a living stipend are provided to each student, eliminating the direct financial cost. However the opportunity cost of spending five or more years as a PhD student rather than working are the most significant and should not be overlooked.
  • Like MBA programs, PhD programs come in a variety of flavors including part-time and distance-learning formats. These formats can offer significantly different opportunities upon completion and should not be viewed equivalently. Considering that a full-time PhD will typically take five or more years the time required to complete a part-time PhD could be decades! When I began my own PhD studies I had intentions to pursue some consulting on the side but quickly realized that the program itself would require my full commitment.
  • PhD programs are only designed to teach one skill – how to become a productive academic researcher. Because that one skill can require many years to develop that leaves little to no time for teacher training or developing skills that are directly applicable to consulting, managing a business or being an entrepreneur. If you don’t want to become a professor there are likely better ways to spend those years of your life! Not all PhDs stay in academia but the reasons for leaving are usually a lack of interest from either the PhD student or the hiring institutions where they hoped to work. Only a few finance or accounting PhDs are lucky enough to find non-academic positions that make direct use of their research skills. When I worked at Mercer Management Consulting the rare PhDs that we hired were chosen for their other skills – most of which they likely had before ever beginning their PhD studies.

Law School

I did not attend law school but considered it and wrote my LSAT at the end of my undergraduate degree, well before I wrote the GMAT. I also have a brother, father and uncle who are all lawyers in Canada and have had many students who are interested in a career in law. A few observations:

  • My perception is that a law school degree is more versatile than a PhD but much less so than an MBA. Why? While some law school graduates go on to pursue careers beyond the practice of law in government, public policy, business, etc. the training received is more specific than that received in an MBA program and focused on a common final skill set as defined by the state/provincial bar exam. In MBA programs the careers paths of graduates are even more varied and there is no default professional graduate exam.
  • There has been much talk of a law school bubble and considerable evidence that graduates of lower-tier and standalone schools have had diminished employment prospects in recent years.
  • Law degrees, like medical degrees, are also more region-specific than MBA or PhD degrees so opportunities to relocate to other states, provinces or countries may be more complicated or limited.
  • This April 2015 NY Times article describes the significant challenges recent law school grads have faced in the job market.
  • My former student, Alison Janecek, graduated from University of Nebraska law school and is now practicing in Nebraska.

Studying at a Canadian University

Canada has 98 universities that grant bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees. In Canada universities are considered distinct from colleges, which provide diplomas and are more similar to U.S. community colleges. The constitutional responsibility for higher education rests with the provinces of Canada, not with the federal government. Compared to US universities, the range in general quality and cost between the top Canadian universities and the rest is narrower since all universities have public funding/oversight at the provincial level. However there is still a very big range in terms of size, type and location. For an undergraduate degree in particular, my personal opinion is that finding the right personal fit with the campus, location and type/size of school (whether located in Canada or elsewhere) is just as important as whether the school has the top program in a certain field. 

  • Cost – Traditionally tuition costs at Canadian universities have been lower than at comparable U.S. institutions. However any comparison between schools in these two countries should be made carefully and account for currency fluctuations between the US and Canadian dollar, student residency status (in-state vs. out-of-state tuition in the U.S. and Canadian vs. International tuition in Canada) and an increase in the number of Canadian graduate professional programs (e.g. MBA programs) that are now charging much higher tuition rates. For Canadian graduate students receiving a tuition waiver as well as a stipend, it is worth noting that these sources of funds are not considered taxable income.
  • Size/Type – Similar to the U.S., Canada has a wide range of sizes and types of universities. There are small liberal arts schools with few graduate programs (Acadia, Mount Allison, St. F.X., Bishop’s, Trent) that could be compared to schools like Swarthmore, Brandeis, St. Olaf’s College, Wellesley, Bowdoin, etc. in the U.S. (but with much smaller endowments!).  As in the U.S. most but not all of these schools are also located in smaller cities/towns. There are also large research-focused institutions serving both undergraduate and graduate students and offering professional schools in medicine, law, and business (e.g. Toronto, McGill, UBC, Alberta, Waterloo, York, Dalhousie, Simon Fraser). Again as in the U.S. most but not all of these institutions are located in larger cities. My wife Heidi and I both came from smaller cities in Atlantic Canada (<25k people) and chose to do our undergraduate degrees at a small school in a small town (Acadia University with ~4,000 students and ~4,000 residents). The quality of the programs there was still very good and we had no trouble advancing to graduate school elsewhere. If we had grown up in a bigger city like Denver perhaps we would have considered going to a larger school right away but we ended up having that opportunity later for our graduate studies.
  • Language – The majority of Canadian schools, including some in Quebec such as McGill and Bishop’s, have English as the primary language of instruction for students while offering French as a second language and as a major. Schools with French as the primary language of instruction for some or all students include Université de Montréal (and its business school HEC Montreal), Sherbrooke University, Ottawa University, and Université Sainte-Anne in Nova Scotia.
  • Intercollegiate Athletics – Like the U.S. (and unlike the rest of the world), intercollegiate athletics has a long history in Canada. In contrast to the U.S., however, Canadian university sport generally does not attract big TV ratings or attendance for football, basketball or hockey, let alone any other sports. As a result there is far less funding for athletic scholarships, coaching, and facilities for all sports. Almost all Canadian universities belong to a single organization (Usports, formerly CIS and CIAU) divided into four regional conferences. Usports regulations on practice time, recruiting and eligibility are not as elaborate and restrictive as the NCAA and student-athletes all receive five years of eligibility. Some smaller universities such as Mt. Allison University compete against Canadian colleges instead of universities in some sports. While no Canadian schools have an athletic department comparable to a marquee NCAA DI school (Stanford, Michigan, Alabama, Texas, etc.), Canadian teams compare quite favorably to smaller NCAA DI or NCAA DII/DIII or NAIA schools. Athletics still plays a major role at many university campuses, some student-athletes go on to play professionally and the experience for both student-athletes and spectators can be a very positive one. Top Canadian teams such as Carleton men’s basketball and most men’s hockey teams are quite competitive with their NCAA DI counterparts. Simon Fraser University in British Columbia actually competes as an NCAA DII school against U.S. institutions in the Great Northwest Athletic Conference.
  • Other Differences – While Canadian graduates are generally loyal and supportive of their alma mater, the degree of that devotion seems to be much less in terms of alumni giving, attendance at college sporting events and displaying school logos/colors on clothing, houses, and vehicles! 
  • Profiles of a few Canadian schools that I am most familiar with:
    • Acadia University – Located in Wolfville, NS (about 1 hour from Halifax), Acadia is small, residential, primarily-undergraduate school that attracts students from Nova Scotia as well as across Canada and beyond. Like peer schools such as Mount Allison, St. Francis Xavier, Bishop’s, Trent, etc. Acadia only offers a few graduate programs.
    • University of Toronto – The largest and most highly globally-ranked school in Canada. U of T has over 40,000 undergraduate students and a large number of residential colleges at its downtown campus, located in the centre of a 2+ million-person city. I completed my PhD at the University of Toronto but had little exposure to programs outside the business school, the Rotman School of Management.
    • Western University (formerly University of Western Ontario) – Located in London, ON (about 2 hours west of Toronto), Western offers a wide range of undergraduate and graduate programs including the Richard Ivey School of Business where I completed my MBA from 2001-2003. Ivey follows a case-based teaching model and has an extremely strong record of placing graduates in top consulting firms and investment banks. Western has some similarities to Queen’s University in Kingston, ON (about 3 hours east of Toronto) which also offers a wide range of programs, has a large and loyal alumni community and is located in a mid-sized Ontario city.
    • University of Waterloo – Located in Waterloo, ON (about 90 minutes west of Toronto), Waterloo has a very strong reputation for both computer science and engineering and for its co-op programs. Google and a bunch of other tech companies have set up offices there for that reason. My wife’s sister attended this school as did a few of my cousins who studied engineering. Waterloo is quite a big school (~35,000 students) with another school (Wilfred Laurier University, 17,000 students) only a few minutes away. In total the Kitchener-Waterloo area has about 500,000 residents spread out over a large area so it doesn’t have a big city feel.
  • Other Resources
    • Maclean’s magazine publishes an annual ranking of Canadian universities similar to USNews does for US schools. I don’t think the exact rankings are that important or accurate but they provide lots of information on Canadian schools: http://www.macleans.ca/education-hub/
    • Universities Canada is the association representing Canadian universities and their website also has extensive information on their members: http://www.univcan.ca/universities/

I welcome your feedback on this continually evolving content!

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