Last update on December 09, 2018

Students from around the world come to Europe to study international MBAs. But what are the benefits and potential drawbacks of studying an MBA abroad?

In February, Joe Felice gave his wife and baby daughter a goodbye kiss at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport and then boarded a flight to Amsterdam. The 38-year-old executive with, an online travel agency, settled in for a gruelling 13-hour trip, including two flights, a train and a metro ride. His final destination: business school at the Rotterdam School of Management (RSM) in the Netherlands.

“I wanted to learn about doing business in other countries,” says  Felice, describing the reason behind his bi-monthly jaunts to ‘modules’ or week-long courses in Rotterdam and other foreign cities. Studying in different countries is an aspect of his ‘OneMBA’ programme, a collaborative effort between five business schools.

In between journeys, he completes school assignments and projects by corresponding electronically with classmates from Mexico to Hong Kong. Yet for all his trouble, he’ll collect a master’s in business administration – a degree he could have picked up at many US universities – at the end of the two-year programme.

RSM’s global MBA scheme is just one example of the growing range of full-time, part-time and executive ‘international’ MBA courses aimed at American students who hanker for a broader curriculum, a global network and exposure to different cultures.

At London Business School, for instance, applications from US citizens rose to 19 percent in 2011 up from 14 percent of the total in the previous five years. For HEC, a smaller Parisian business school and a Grande École(somewhat like a US Ivy League university), the growth in American applications rocketed 240 percent in the same period.

“There’s tremendous growth in MBA programmes [abroad],” says Dan LeClair, a director at the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB) in St Louis.

What’s the difference of an international MBA?

The growth is exciting, but it poses some big questions: exactly what does the word ‘international’ in ‘international MBA’ signify? How does a degree earned overseas differ from a US-based programme? And how does an international MBA affect a student’s future career prospects and networking opportunities?

To start with the most obvious difference: the diversity of the student body. By this measure, many international MBA programmes beat their American counterparts hands down. On average, European schools reportedly boast a roughly 80 percent non-national ratio, while the ratio at their US counterparts is about 30 percent.

Some international MBA programmes are particularly stringent about preventing a so-called ‘dominant’ culture from emerging. In 2011, Swiss business school IMD’s tiny, 90-person MBA programme comprised participants from 35 nationalities, while Americans comprised just 7 percent of the student population.

“By the time you graduate, you can work with anybody,” says Joseph Hartzell, a 2003 American IMD graduate now working for Novartis in Basel, Switzerland.

Preferred backgrounds

But these programmes aren’t open to everyone. Many top non-US MBA programmes prefer students with prior international work experience or – as in case of Insead, a French business school – the ability to speak a foreign language reasonably fluently before applying. This can mean that if you’ve never worked abroad and want to use business school to fill that resume gap, you may be out of luck.

By the same token, other programmes, such as Rotterdam’s, don’t mind monolingual students, so long as they are passionate to learn about international business.

Many international MBA programmes mirror their US counterparts’ structures

The ‘internationalisation’ of a faculty is another tricky measure to pin down. For instance, does the breadth of a faculty’s nationalities or where the faculty members earned degrees determine a school’s internationalisation? It’s a tough call.

On its website, Insead noted that its faculty represented 33 nationalities, but according to Dean of Faculty H Landis Gabel, 80 percent received doctoral degrees from prominent American universities such as Harvard University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of Chicago.

As for the curriculum, many international MBA programmes closely mirror their US counterparts’ structures closely, adding minor tweaks such as cultural, political-science or language training.

“The [London Business School] curriculum isn’t dissimilar to the top 10 business schools,” says Margaret Stewart, LBS class of 2003. She estimates that 75 percent of the school’s case studies were written by Harvard Business School, but adds that the case studies didn’t necessarily provide the international factor. Instead, the diversity of fellow classmates is more important, says Stewart.

Where do you want to work?

Most importantly, Americans need to be savvy about their career goals – both the industry and specific employer – before packing up for an MBA programme abroad. Between 60 percent and 80 percent of London Business School MBAs, for example, remained in the UK for their first job after graduation.

Similarly, approximately 80 percent of HEC’s graduating class started working in continental Europe after earning their degrees. So for Americans who want to work in the US, acquiring an international MBA may not be the right course.

“Your average American employer may not know the name of your [international] business school, and if it’s only a one-year programme, they may doubt that it’s a valid course of study,” says Peter Calladine, accreditation-services manager at Britain’s Association of MBAs in London. Conversely, he adds, “Duke doesn’t ring many bells for Europeans.”

If you’re intent on studying abroad, these tips for ferreting out the right international MBA programme may be helpful:

  • Check the university’s accreditations. The AACSB is a major global accreditation agency. In Europe, look for the European Foundation for Management Development’s Equis stamp of approval.
  • Visit the university, if possible. It may seem expensive to buy a plane ticket to London, but choosing the wrong programme is far costlier.
  • Talk to alumni. Most major international MBA programmes have alumni clubs in big cities worldwide. Programmes for prospective students also may be scheduled near you.
  • Look at historical business-school rankings. One year won’t tell you much; five years might. The Financial TimesQS, The Wall Street Journal and Business Week, among others, rank major international MBA programmes.
  • Study the school’s website. Many international MBA programmes profile recent classes and where graduates are working. Find out if they’re in careers and locations that appeal to you.

Mary Kissel / CareerJournalEurope