Meena Merali had plenty of choices – an MBA among them – when she returned to school for a graduate business degree. After five years in the oil and gas industry, the chemical engineer decided to switch to a career in either health or beauty.
In 2009, she chose the one-year master of business administration at Ivey Business School at the University of Western Ontario over a specialty masters in health policy or health-care administration.
"I wanted a broader perspective, with a broader set of learning, just to round out my skills in engineering," says Ms. Merali, describing her MBA year as "very transformational for me." After graduating in 2010, she spent a year with an international cosmetics firm before joining Princess Margaret Cancer Centre as director of cancer strategy stewardship – a job that fits her career goal to have an impact.
Her decision to pursue an MBA comes as the degree, after a dip in global popularity, regained some of its footing last year. In Canada, 58 per cent of schools reported higher applications to MBA programs last year compared to 2014, with another 11 per cent holding stable, according to the Graduate Management Admission Council.
But treading water in a competitive market doesn't guarantee survival.
In response, business schools are revamping core curriculums, adding subject-specific concentrations and expanding opportunities for internships to attract students and retain employer loyalty.
"They [schools] are fully aware of the need to innovate and adjust curriculum to real-world challenges and to make sure it [the MBA] stays relevant," says Alex Chisholm, senior director of research for GMAC. "Global schools are looking for ways to stay on top of a changing world."
The University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management, which has added specialty offerings, now plans to expand opportunities for experiential learning, says dean Tiff Macklem. "Teaching entrepreneurship and innovation is one thing we have learned you can't just teach in the classroom," he says. "You have to feel the sweat equity and be part of it."
For example, in the school's Creative Destruction Lab, MBA students offer pro bono advice to startups seeking to commercialize their ventures.
"The schools that are having trouble and are going to have trouble are the schools that are not innovative and not providing thought leadership," says Dr. Macklem. "The schools that are basically delivering the same kind of MBA programs that have been delivered for the last 20 years will have trouble and are having trouble."
This year, applications to Rotman's incoming class are up 15 per cent, according to the school, in line with the rebound reported elsewhere.
"I have been hearing for 25 years that this is the end of the cycle for the MBA – that the end is near," says HEC Montréal dean Michel Patry, whose school sees an uptick in applications this year. "Yet in the United States and Canada, and globally, the MBA is still a very strong brand. There is a need for a general purpose management degree."
After a two-year discussion with employers, HEC redesigned its curriculum around themes such as how to be a good manager while incorporating the traditional MBA pillars of finance, accounting and marketing. The school also added opportunities for students to consult to industry at home and abroad.
"If you want to be successful you really have to be in touch with the needs of the market," says Dr. Patry, citing growth in specialty concentrations in Big Data, logistics and security.
Some schools are embracing on-campus relationships to broaden the pool of potential candidates. For example, the University of Saskatchewan's Edwards School of Business recently added a dual degree in business and veterinary medicine.
"We are all looking for ways to differentiate ourselves and we are innovating at about the same rate," says Edwards dean Daphne Taras, who is also chair of the Canadian Federation of Business School Deans. "But it takes the same amount of energy to keep up with that rate of change."
Refreshing the MBA's image as more than a passport to Bay Street was one factor in a recent program makeover at the Telfer School of Management at the University of Ottawa.
"Part of the challenge with the full-time MBA, not only here but across North America, is what is the relevance of the degree?" bluntly asks Gregory Richards, director of Telfer's MBA program. In discussion with employers, alumni and others, the school tweaked its curriculum to identify core competencies (such as the ability to strategize, work with people and data, and deliver results) applicable to for-profit and not-for-profit environments.
This fall, the school plans to add specializations within the MBA and expand internship opportunities.
He underscores the need for continual adjustment. "If we don't do these things, we will start to become irrelevant."
Competitive pressure on the full-time MBA comes from alternative delivery models, such as part-time or online degrees and, to some degree, the growth of specialty master programs.
However, many of the specialized masters cater to those with little or no work experience and eager to gain "traction in the workforce," says John-Derek Clarke, executive director of masters programs (recruitment and admissions) at Ivey in London, Ont. By contrast, MBA candidates are required to have worked for several years.
"I definitely feel the full-time MBA will still be in demand," says Mr. Clarke, citing GMAC data that show one-third of those with a specialty degree would still consider an MBA. "It [the MBA] may not grow but it will be stabilized and still in demand by recruiters."
San Francisco-based Christina Waters, Canadian software leader for GE Oil & Gas, helps her company recruit MBAs from Canada. The ideal managerial candidate, she says, combines technical knowledge, effective communication and a willingness to collaborate – skills typically honed in an MBA.
"The value-added for people with an MBA is that they can be a bit more flexible and can fill a wider [scope] of positions within a company," she says.
At Bain and Co., the MBA "is a really critical talent pipeline for us," says Toronto partner Andrew Edwards. "For more senior roles, we look for people who have some significant work experience and also have a good generalist tool kit."
With her MBA, says Ms. Merali, "I had to reimagine how to take the skills I learned in engineering and apply them to a completely different industry." In doing so, she says she learned to be flexible and adaptable, skills key to her current job working with clinical researchers at Princess Margaret and the hospital's foundation to ensure maximum impact of donor funds in the fight against cancer.
"Now I am in an industry I am very passionate about," she says. "I feel like I am helping people."