If there is one condition that has predominated the educational sphere of my generation, it is the quest for MBA. Started as an innovative and handy precursor to talents that were needed to manage the newly risen concept of large companies with a lot of employees and functions, MBA quickly gained pace over the decades. As corporations began to define our lives in terms of employment or consumptions, this most holistic degree naturally became the default darling of aspirations and growth. However, as with all booming industries, the field got flooded quickly by a crowd of players. How then must one decide which is worth the buck?
In this post, I recount the experience that helped me choose The Stephen J. R. Smith School of Business over other prospects. Given how crucial and sensitive the decision was, the factors listed below may well serve as a scale for every other potential candidate. Before we begin, please note that this is not a subscription to reasons why a Smith MBA at Queen’s University may be the best choice for you. It simply describes the reasoning that made it so for me, and one you may use to ascertain the B-School that best fits your requirements. The views expressed are my own.
Admission cycles start as early as January for the session beginning that month next year. The admissions protocol requires one to submit an initial profile with test scores and other details for consideration by the Admissions Committee. If chosen, they invite you to submit a full application, and also offer a call with one of the members to better understand the program and clarify doubts. Mine was with Geoff Coons (Associate Director, Queen’s Full-time MBA). If shortlisted for an interview, you will have to answer three questions in real time in a video format at the weblink they share, and then have a personal interview. The former gets the most spontaneous answers out of you. But don’t freak out. AdCom doesn’t expect a robotic precision otherwise suited for presidential elections! You are a unique human by nature. Be it. Here are a few tips that may come handy. The PI, on the other hand, is with one member from the AdCom and one from Career Services. Again, if the prospect made you shift in your seat, know that you are in for a surprise. The points below will tell you why.
The very first question in deciding on an MBA is also the most common – and the most fabricated. It goes: Why an MBA? Rest assured you will be asked this, as I was too. But make sure you answer that to yourself first. Let’s face it, most of us today invest in an MBA for a better job. Period. “Better” here may refer to any or all of income, location, industry or function. And these incidentally determine where you should go for that cash cow you’re aiming at. The following paragraphs look at these factors in detail, a good hang of which may also help you put forth a better application.
1. LOCATION: Perhaps the most important criteria, and once again, the most overlooked one. By default, there is an inclination towards certain geographies that candidates tend to prefer, thanks to absolute numbers. For instance, during my recent tête-à-tête with Prof. Shai Dubey (ex-Director, Queen’s Full-time MBA) in Kolkata, India, I saw how an overwhelming majority of students and parents were initially focused on schools in the US. It was a MBA fair and most who had come were only just starting to explore college options. Yet, they had already narrowed their search down to one or two countries based on presumptions, past success stories, general reputation or that online demon of our time - rankings/reviews. The choice of location, however, is a much more critical issue. Why?
- Immigration norms. They change from time to time based on the political climate of a country. Given such restrictions, there are umpteen cases where one can secure a work visa only for a limited time and has to subsequently return. Moreover, sponsoring your stay can be a costly and arduous affair for any company, especially if there are enough replacements at hand already. Sometimes the future can also be uncertain, as is the case with many economies in Europe. It is fair to say that I was attracted by Canada’s stability (despite the ongoing issues in the oil & gas sector) in such a scenario. Moreover, the country recently launched an Express Entry system facilitating Permanent Residency routes for serious and qualified applicants. Sure enough, a classmate of mine already has her spouse and children arriving in March to settle here for good.
- Administrative Systems. How can this possibly be important in one’s choice for a location? It has to do with efficiency. The Citizenship and Immigration Canada (CIC) provided a perfectly clear visa process that allowed me to be done with the formalities unexpectedly quickly once I applied. Everything was online and well-detailed. The other big issue is often that of house hunt. It can normally be a risky and draining task when you are sitting in a different country and can’t physically verify things and have to pay an advance up front. All that was taken care of via verified rent-posts by the Admins in our dedicated Facebook group. Then, it got better. I landed at Toronto’s Pearson Airport in the wee hours of a snowy January morning. At 8 AM, a CIBC branch opened its doors by the exit area. By 9, I had a bank account, with a credit card on its way to my address in Kingston. By the next day, I had a Social Insurance Number, a phone number and a date with internet installation in the house. Meanwhile, another classmate of mine applied for a Driving license, gave the test to clear level G1 and then acquired G in a span of mere 4 days. Information of different types of driving license in Ontario, Canada, is available online. Later at school, when I asked Amanda Higgins (who looks more like a Commander in Chief for all our requirements) from the Program’s management team, about how we could finish with registrations, insurance et al., she smiled with a one-liner: “You are at Queen’s.” (That name certainly has an impact at every step here in Canada.) She asked us not to worry and to just follow the directions as they came.
- The People. Yet again an aspect that is difficult to ascertain from a distance. It can make all the difference when you walk out for a stroll in the morning and are greeted by Good-morning’s from strangers. One of my cab drivers – Joe – told me how people in Canada quickly realized that the only way they were going to make it in a cold climate with little resources, was together. And that spirit of cooperation has lived on, as every little engagement is preceded by a smile and spring in the other’s voice. I had noticed this during the interviews itself, and even when Prof. Dubey invited me to sit with him at the MBA fair, to observe and learn, as he spoke with potential applicants. More on this in a bit. In a foreign country, this humble, hidden phenomenon can be worth gold – both practically and psychologically. You are, after all, planning to spend a life there.
2. INDUSTRY/FUNCTION: To be honest, this is not as important a criteria as it may sound, although it enjoys a fair bit of attention from all candidates. The reason is that an MBA program changes a lot of views and perspectives, and the best suited candidates are often the most adaptable. That said, it is important that you have a framework in mind. What do you want to do in career, and where do you want to do it? Pose that question to people and 90% would make up an answer for the sake of it. They cannot be blamed, for few ever are passionate about an industry/function. During the Queen’s admissions process, I found that it was not entirely a bad thing. How so?
- Assessments. It was startling to find just how deep and how far the MBA staff go to do the hard work for you. To cite one case in point, admitted students receive a series of online tasks that assess their skills, interests, motivation, character, culture and negotiation style. While the last three of those are used to allot you teams (a vital element I will deal with on a different day) and counsel you down the road, the first three provide results immediately, and they may well change half the things you thought you knew. For, these world-class assessments collate data from hundreds and thousands of executives across all functions and industries over the years to give you your best match. That is crucial. After all, motivations can change, skills can be acquired, but interests are inherent to us. And our best chance to succeed is in something that truly interests us. That may easily come as a surprise. For instance, while some of the fields suggested for me were expected (that includes Marketing), my strongest match was one I had never given any serious thought. At first, I dismissed it. But as the test suggested, I investigated further with colleagues and seniors in other companies. Sure enough, many aspects of that function turned out to be exactly what I had wanted to do but never knew about. We simply cannot, because we never have data on a scale wide enough to examine all available jobs out there in our world today. What we know if mostly generic as in the graph above. Right there, Queen’s cleared a fog and allowed me to focus and plan the year(s) ahead with a specific path in mind.
- Past experience. For those who have enough years of experience or specific identified interests, the choice is, and should be, simpler – to continue in that line of work. Your objective to do an MBA then would probably only be a shift in geography and scope of work. I would encourage you to take a look at the specializations Queen’s MBA offers, along with the subjects taught therein.
- Future prospects. This point has a lot of angles to it and gives a good insight into the School.
i) The class size. A smaller class at a reputed school means higher jobs-to-applicants ratio. Do not mistake this for a lower effort requirement. At this level, an employer will recruit you for how perfectly you fit in their job profile, and not necessarily how better you fit in comparison to others. Yet, while most major schools of Canada accommodate 150-300 candidates per year, Queen’s Smith School of Business purposefully limits itself to around 70.
ii) The start date. The class size was a conscious decision the school took as part of a recent revamp, that also changed its session start-date to January instead of the traditional September (Fall) start. What that means for you is that you’d be one of the first candidates in the job market once the recruitment season begins.
iii) The coaches. How about that! From career to teamwork to psyche to fitness, there are dedicated coaches for every aspect of what makes you who you are, and what may stand in the way of who you wish to, or could, become. From all I heard, I found a university course trying to shape me up as a person rather than simply educate me and hand me a degree. That intention on the school’s part had me sold.
3. TIME & MONEY: MBA is going to cost you both. The question is which school serves as a better investment. Many would argue that it is about how much money you make over the long term after you graduate. In an unpredictable future, however, the immediate costs cannot be ignored on that note. The changes I mentioned above were made at the Smith School of Business in consultation with business community, students, staff and alumni alike. But Queen’s MBA naturally had an element that worked in its favor – a 1-year degree. While this obviously cut the tuition and living expenses significantly, the school also tied up with Prodigy loans. These could be your best friend. A private start-up that has partnered with the best institutions around the world, Prodigy Finance has investors who fund part of your education through loans in a process that is amazingly simplistic and transparent when compared to conventional bank loans. It took me a couple of weeks to secure one. And yes, everything was done online, each step detailed and visible.
One year may well be a short time to get hold of a new subject. I belong to the Marketing domain, and Finance remains my Achilles’ heel. The professors at Queen’s perhaps anticipated this. Around four months prior to the start of the program, we received a Financial Accounting Workbook. It was a smart move, for the time we would spend saying farewells and loitering around before heading to Canada allowed us to get our basics right on a subject most face issues in. Likewise, there were a few other helpful readings and hellos in that package, if one chose to indulge.
At this point, I find it important to state that a 1-year program may also mean that your class would consist of mates with good prior work experience. While that is great, that should also bring you to stop and consider another vital question: Why’s MBA now? In other words, would you rather spend a lot more money and time just to get that degree immediately, or rather time it perfectly so that you have professional achievements and experience to show and attract, and are of good use to an employer eventually?
4. THE SCHOOL ITSELF: Much of what can be said about this has already been said above. More information on Queen's is available at its website. So I shall instead focus on two other aspects. First are the rankings. While Queen's MBA has been climbing the charts and is fluctuating too, thanks to their meaningful revamp, I tried to look beyond the numbers.
During my work in the hospitality industry, I found just how important, yet dubious, the system of reviews had come to be. While many excellent or poor feedbacks posted online for institutions or products were often not genuine, the ones that were were often more incidental than generic. For example, a South Korean executive from a leading electronics company once compared his experience with us to that at a global 5-star hotel chain. That same month, a sales agent based out of Mumbai called it a place unfit for any human. Which feedback, then, was trustworthy and accurate? A similar problem exists with rankings. When a B-school scores high on campus placements, say, it may very well be the case for its domestic students rather than the international ones. This is a classic case of misfit rather than a comment on the school itself. Then again, rankings themselves tend to wary widely. So perhaps a more insightful portrayal in my case would be to recount a unique experience I faced during the admissions process.
The Stephen J. R. Smith School of Business offers scholarships on merits. Post the admission, few of us in our batch sent out a collective message to enquire on the prospect of need-based scholarships. Words and actions, however, tend to change meaning when one moves across borders and oceans. As it was, the intention and its eventual interpretation turned out to be vastly different, mainly owing to the cultural differences that every MBA student eventually faces in a new school. It can single-handedly determine your prospects at a job and happy life in a new country. After all, there is no point seeking solace in little pockets/groups of one’s own nationality in a foreign land. Unfortunately, despite its immense importance, schools do little to prepare MBA students on this note. It is not their domain, after all, until they choose to make it one.
So it was that in light of a major cultural misunderstanding, QSB refrained from jumping into a proactive action straightaway. Instead, it once again anticipated our perspective, and – as Director Shai Dubey put it in a conference – used it as an opportunity for us to learn the vitality of cultural considerations. The steps taken were genius in their simplicity and scale of impact, for we picked up exactly the character-ingredient we needed in the coming years.
Today, there is an over supply of capable candidates at top B-schools of the world. More and more schools are choosing to differentiate themselves with a USP. In my opinion, if humility and consideration for your future are part of that list, it creates as fine an atmosphere for study and growth as any one can expect to get. It certainly made a difference to my decision.
If you have questions about Queen’s MBA or The Stephen J.R. Smith School of Business, I’ll be happy to answer from what I know or direct you to someone more suitable.
Update: the following video was produced during my MBA year (2016):
All the best!
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© 2015 Malay Upadhyay