A burgeoning of part-time MBA programmes and growth in the variety of specialist streams in recent years has offered mid-careerists a wealth of valuable study options.
Nigel Banister, chief global officer of Manchester Business School and CEO of MBS Worldwide, says the increase in MBAs has been partly fuelled by company sponsorship, where employers use the qualification as part of its leadership development programme.
"In addition to bringing in new blood, they want to use part-time enrolment in a top MBA programme as a motivator and a retention tool," says Banister, whose school offers full-time and part-time MBA programmes in the UK and teaches part-time MBA courses in Hong Kong, Shanghai, Singapore, Dubai, Miami and Brazil, among others.
The content of MBA programmes around the world is evolving, too, Banister says, with more emphasis on entrepreneurship, the BRIC nations - Brazil, Russia, India and China - and, to a lesser extent, ethics and corporate social responsibility.
Manchester Business School has four MBA programmes in the UK: a general course and one each in finance, engineering and project management, all catering to the needs of students who have acquired skills that are industry specific.
"Employers sponsoring their staff often prefer a more specialised course that they perceive generates a better ROI [return on investment]," says Banister. "People with the ambition to reach the top level of business but who are not sure in which business that is should go for the general programme. But in the end it doesn't matter too much whether you specialise or not. These days none of us is totally sure where the future lies with increasing job mobility."
To help its students tap into job opportunities globally, the school has put in place the virtual recruitment platform (MBS Global Campus) that invites international corporations to make recruitment presentations online, and in real-time.
Lawrence Chan, director of marketing and student recruiting for the MBA programme at Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK), says because of the emergence of Asia, and, in particular, China, more business schools in the region have produced research that commands the attention of academics globally, achieves higher rankings in international league tables and attracts students from different countries.
"We have an edge in the research and teaching of business trends and industry knowledge about mainland China," says Chan.
Entrepreneurship, as one of the four areas of concentration offered at CUHK - others being finance, marketing and China business - looks into the differences between Asia and the West in promoting new business.
The programme has been beefed up with the introduction of electives, such as China finance, managing supply chains in China and luxury brand management.
Chan says not everybody chooses to specialise. "Some students prefer a more well-rounded MBA. But there are advantages to specialising. Students develop an in-depth knowledge of the subject, which will help them pursue career aspirations."
In choosing an MBA programme, Chan says candidates should be clear on where they want their careers to go. Identify the main features, teaching style and research focus of the programme, and don't let brand names skew your decision.
He says the Elite Mentoring initiative at CUHK pairs students with high-flying alumni who help the students in various ways, from offering interview tips to serving as a sounding board for career plans.
Morton Schapiro, president of Northwestern University in the United States, says while some level of expertise is necessary, MBA students should be exposed to as many facets of business education as possible. The university is home to the world-renowned Kellogg School of Management, known for emphasising the importance of group work and mimicking team dynamics in the business world.
"A lot of what happens in the real world is group related. You'd better be able to get around and get along. Cultural literacy and sensitivity is very important," says Schapiro. "People come to Kellogg because they are interested in group learning and we always rank number one in marketing. People also look at where you are going to live for two years. We are in Chicago. It's a different experience than being in, say, New Hampshire."
Kellogg has five campuses around the world, including one at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology that offers the Kellogg-HKUST Executive MBA programme, ranked first globally every year since 2009 by the Financial Times.
Andre Leung, a recent graduate of the Kellogg-HKUST EMBA programme, says executives enrolling in MBA courses usually have less working experience and can consider specialising in a subject area in order to enhance their knowledge in the field.
"It's the opposite with the EMBA. A seasoned professional in finance often does not enrol on an EMBA to learn more about finance. Rather, he expects to meet and interact with people from other walks of life, such as in logistics and law, which will stimulate new ideas. This is what you need to take you to the next level of your career," says Leung, an assistant director at Moody's Analytics.
Obtaining an MBA or EMBA qualification doesn't guarantee a pay raise or job promotion, he adds. "It is the people you have come to know and the friendships you have cultivated that are most valuable.
"With an EMBA, since your classmates are very senior people in their field, you will have more chances of finding a business partner, a resource for due diligence or an expert to help you form an idea from the pool.
"The Kellogg programme has a great mix of people in terms of the industry they come from and their nationality. I made good friends with whom I keep in touch regularly."