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business education report, fall 2011

Katie Gallagher says she started her MBA at the perfect time because she was only two months out of her undergraduate degree.Ryan Enn Hughes/The Globe and Mail

Despite a business degree from Bishop's University and solid GMAT scores, Katie Gallagher walked into her first day of Dalhousie University's MBA program at a potential disadvantage—a 22-year-old with no work experience.

"I just remember I was so nervous," she recalls from her Toronto office at her current job as an enterprise risk services consultant for Deloitte. Luckily for her, she was not the only one there with a thin resume.

Some experts think students such as Ms. Gallagher are the perfect candidates for MBA admission because they are easily moulded and have more flexibility in their lives. Others say work experience is a fundamental part of an MBA program and without it, students are not able to extract or apply the necessary information.

Ms. Gallagher says it was the perfect time for her to take on an MBA because she was only two months out of her undergraduate degree. "I was still going on the momentum from undergrad," she says, "so I was able to pick things up a little bit quicker."

She and her fellow students were the first graduates of the university's 22-month "direct entry" MBA model, consisting of 14 months in the classroom and eight-month work placements, each called a "corporate residency."

Scott Comber, the program's director, says it's designed to get students into higher-level positions more quickly, to narrow the gap left by Canada's retiring baby-boom population.

"Unless we come up with different education models, we are not going to meet the needs of industry," says Mr. Comber. "You're not going to have the luxury of letting people age into positions."

Carleton University's MBA program also accepts students straight from their undergraduate degree, but requires a four-month work internship. If you have work experience you are exempted from this requirement, says Linda Schweitzer, assistant dean of the MBA program at the Sprott School of Business.

One advantage for these students might be the lighter life responsibilities associated with youth, explains Ms. Schweitzer. "They don't have the personal-side obligations and they don't have the pressures of a job either, which allows them to focus on their education."

"The downside is they don't get the experience in which to apply their MBA," she adds, and warns that students with work experience will be a step ahead. "I don't know that an employer would look at someone with an undergrad and an MBA and absolutely no work experience and say 'I'm going to put you in a job of great responsibility because you have an MBA.'"

On the flip side, some MBA programs are more traditional in their application process and only want students who have been in the work force, because of what they can bring to the classroom.

Internships are encouraged, but not required, in the University of Alberta's MBA program because students are expected to have a couple of years of employment under their belts, says director of programs and operations, Christopher Lynch.

"Fundamentally, experience is what makes the difference between an undergrad degree and an MBA degree," says Mr. Lynch, explaining that students who come straight from one classroom go into another may not have the proper insight into the working world to get the most out of the lectures or ask the most telling questions.

But not having employment prior to an MBA does not necessarily make a recent graduate unappealing to prospective employers.

Maureen Neglia, vice-president of global talent management at Manulife Financial, says her company is looking for MBA graduates with a host of skills, particularly in their overseas offices.

"Right now, we have strong growth in countries like Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam, and we are finding when we are on campus right across North America that there are a lot of international students here with the language and cultural background needed," says Ms. Neglia.

These skills can be as important as a graduate's job experience if they are being considered for international positions. But sometimes the problem can be getting applicants to recognize these as valuable skills, she adds.

"I think a lot of students spend so much time focusing on those business skills and what they are getting out of the MBA program, which is important and a critical part of their application ... but I think the diversity and the cultural background and the languages are, too," says Ms. Neglia. "I think a lot of them tend to shy away from really promoting that background and those skills and I'm not sure they recognize just how valuable that is to employers like Manulife."

Work force tips

  • Be aware of your needs: MBA candidates with no work experience should make sure there is a solid work component to the program they choose or they could end up with two degrees and an insufficient resume.
  • Promote the skills you have: Despite not having a lot of work experience, MBA candidates have other skill sets that employers will relish, including language skills, understanding of a particular culture and the flexibility to move around the world.
  • Get involved: Strengthen your employability by getting involved with extracurricular activities while enrolled in your MBA because it gives you a chance to apply what is being taught in the classroom or what's expected from you in the workplace.
  • Know your limits: Employers are looking for work experience on top of an MBA, so accept the fact that you will most likely not be given roles with as much responsibility as someone who has three years experience along with an MBA.