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When is the right time to study an MBA?

It is never too early or too late to study an MBA, provided that one is professionally and personally prepared. However, deciding at what period in a career to study an MBA is one of the toughest professional decisions an individual is likely to make, and, as the course requires significant capital and time commitments, it is not to be taken lightly.

As time draws closer for potential students from South Africa and the rest of Africa to make a final decision whether to pursue an MBA in 2014, it is important to highlight the fact that it should only be considered when an individual is at the right stage in his or her life to manage the commitment.

This is the view of Martin Butler, senior lecturer at the University of Stellenbosch Business School and an MBA graduate of this institution himself, who says that currently the average age to study an MBA at the business school is 34-35. He says the reason for this is that typically, at this age, professionals are actively looking to climb the corporate ladder. However, he notes that regardless at what age an MBA is studied, the individual must be ready both professionally and personally.

“MBA candidates are usually individuals who want to gain the necessary knowledge to progress in their career, to prepare for a management or senior management role, or to acquire skills to evolve in a role that he or she may already be doing, but is not yet fully equipped to fulfil.”

Butler says there are many considerations to take into account when deciding at what stage of a career to start with an MBA programme. “While studying for an MBA, a lot of personal time will be sacrificed, especially time away from family. Furthermore, the combined pressure of juggling family, a job and academic work can be very tough. Students need support to help them to cope. Both family and work colleagues need to be prepared to assist and to free up time for the MBA student.”

Butler says there are many pros to studying an MBA full time. “We find that full-time students put a lot of effort into their studies. Studying full time allows students to focus on their studies with fewer distractions.”

He says it is not uncommon to see dramatic career changes for students after completing a full-time MBA. “It definitely allows them to map a career in their area of interest. Having been exposed to all the different management disciplines it becomes much clearer to students which career path they should take.”

He says an MBA candidate should have a hunger to learn, to discover, to question and to collaborate. “It is not a qualification where content is given to an individual who then has to digest the content and regurgitate it when being assessed. The ideal candidate must choose to do an MBA for the learning experience and not only for the status of acquiring the degree certificate.”

According to Butler, an advantage of doing an MBA part-time or modular, later in life, is that the individual knows what others don’t know. “An MBA is as much about learning from each other as it is about learning from the lecturer and the material used to guide the process. By sharing experiences and observing, students are able to learn from each other and the more experienced students often become role models to the younger candidates.”

He says studying an MBA part-time or modular is often the preferred choice as many students cannot afford to take an entire year off to study full-time. Completing an MBA part time means that students are able to earn an income while completing the course.

However, Butler explains that studying for an MBA part-time or modular is certainly not for the faint hearted. “The larger the gap of time since being involved in formal learning, the more difficult it is to get ‘back on the bicycle’ again. Having studied in the previous five to 10 years certainly helps to get the momentum back quicker.”

In addition, he says part-time or modular students are usually at the age when they have a young family and are employed full-time. In many instances, these students face more challenges than, for example, a 26 year old full-time student.

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