A desire to study business drives many students around the world and business remains the first choice of international students, in particular those who are seeking overseas qualifications. Behind this lies the wish to acquire appropriate skills and insights into the business world in countries, such as the USA, which have the reputation of leadership both in academic studies relating to business and in operating within the ‘real’ business world.
What are the factors that students should bear in mind when selecting a business degree? The ground rules are a little different from the selection of other degree programs. Normally you would advise a student to go the university with the strongest possible overall reputation but other factors can play more strongly when selecting a business program. Some very traditional universities have come late to the notion of offering undergraduate business degrees as they have been reluctant to accept ‘business’ as a truly academic subject area. It therefore makes sense to look to universities such, for example, as those that were originally termed ‘Polytechnics’ in the UK, and are now still sometimes called ‘new universities’, because of their much longer commitment to business education. With a more vocational, ‘jobs-oriented’ outlook, they also adopt a less theoretical and academic approach in their business curriculum and emphasize the need for a more practical and hands-on style of learning and teaching. Most students who study business have a related career path in mind and so it makes sense for them to choose a degree program which adopts this practical approach and encourages them to engage with ‘real life situations’.
This can be taken to a further level in those degree programs which offer students the opportunity to gain work experience for a year or half-year or which provide internships, The ‘sandwich’ course, as this is sometimes called, gives students the chance to put their knowledge of business into practice in a business setting as well as to learn directly from the mentoring they receive from the host business’ own employees. Many international students are initially put off by this approach. They are studying at great expense thousands of miles from home and there is often both financial and emotional pressure on them to complete their undergraduate degrees as soon as they can in order either to move quickly to undertake a higher degree or to go home and seek a job or, more than likely, join the family business and deploy the knowledge and skills they have learned.
This desire to avoid programs with work experience or to spurn the work experience option can be very short sighted. The work experience element is high, to my mind, in the realm of ‘value-added’ elements in any degree program. That type of experience can not only be valuable in itself but also enables students to share their experiences with one another and enrich their learning experience during the final year of their degree program when they have all returned to their lecture and seminar rooms.
Another by-product of the work experience element can be the offer of a job with the company that the student has been allocated to. Most large companies and multi-nationals in particular have training programs which involve their taking on bright young business graduates. These places can be highly competitive and the student on work experience who has made an excellent impression on the senior staff in the company in which he or she has been placed could find him or herself in a strong position to gain one of these trainee positions or, indeed, the outright offer of a job on graduation. I have even known bright students be taken on immediately and then supported financially during their final year of study. Of course, this will be the exception rather than the norm but why rule oneself out of the running by not taking up the offer of work experience.
Another important question which arises in choosing a degree program in the business field, is whether or not to go for a more general or a more specialized degree. It may be, of course, that a student’s family or sponsors have already pre-selected a program so that the returning graduate will be able to fill a perceived gap in the skills of the family business. If this is not a factor, I would urge prospective business students to choose a more specialized program that will allow them to offer particular rather than general business knowledge and skills to a prospective employer. The ideal structure at university anywhere may be a first year which introduces the student to a broad overview of business and its various functions, before allowing students, with that experience to guide them, to choose a specialization for the remaining years of their degree program, for example, marketing, human resource management or finance.
Finally, consider the degree options which carry great weight in the business world because, rightly or wrongly, they are considered the options that attract the brightest students. Economics provides a good example of this type of program. Sometimes within a business program, Economics hides itself as ‘Business Environment’ and, in fact, the study of Economics does give the aspiring businessman an opportunity to learn about those factors which affect the environment within which individual businesses prosper or wither. Similarly, Accounting is a very strong option to choose. Accountants traditionally rise high in large business organizations because they bring with them a close working knowledge of the financial aspects vital to strategic decision making within businesses. Economists and Accountants become key advisers to business leaders and often end by taking those leadership positions themselves.
Some leaders of business may even have studied something quite different in their undergraduate years, such as Engineering, Psychology or another Science or a Social Science and then, having entered the business world with this different skills-set they gain experience at, say, a middle management level, and then enhance their business expertise by studying for an MBA.
As you can see there are many considerations to think about before you apply for that ‘Business Studies’ or ‘Business Administration’ degree. This may well still be the most suitable degree for you, but at least take these other factors mentioned above into account when you make that all-important choice.
Find business degrees in North America