iMahal Interview Series:
Srikant Datar
May 24, 2000

iMahal: Let us now turn our attention to business education in the US and India. What kind of career opportunities do MBA graduates have here in the US?
Srikant: The market for MBA students in general remains very good. Many of the top schools are reporting median salaries for their graduating classes in the six figure range. Up until three or four years ago, about half the class at the top schools went to investment banking or management consulting jobs while others took corporate jobs in marketing or finance. Recently, many more students are looking to start their own entrepreneurial companies, in no small part driven by the enormous opportunities opened up by the Web. As a result, far fewer students are applying for the jobs that were so popular only three or four years ago. The number of job openings in these areas is still high so the opportunities all around seem quite wonderful. In fact, in the last year, many investment banking and consulting firms recruited students directly from management schools in India.

iMahal: What should a prospective MBA student consider while deciding whether an MBA is the correct decision for him/her? Who should choose business education versus, say, engineering? Why?
Srikant: I think the fundamental question any student should ask before considering an MBA is whether the person has an abiding interest in pursuing a career in business or finance. The MBA degree is sufficiently broad that it offers many possible paths to graduates but almost all of them have a strong tie-in to business. The choice between business and engineering is always hard. Given an interest in both engineering and business, I would recommend an engineering degree over a business degree at the undergraduate level. I would probably reverse that order at the masters' level, voting for business over engineering. I think gaining a strong technical background is very important at the undergraduate level, but unless the engineering interest is very deep, the greater breadth of the MBA program is very compelling at the masters' level. Such a combination builds strengths in both technical and business issues.

iMahal: What would you recommend for selecting the right school? What is your view of various MBA school rankings published by various source, such as Business Week, US News & World Report, etc.?
Srikant: The key to selecting the right school is doing the research on each school in which a student might be interested. I think the kind of resources iMahal is providing is very helpful in this regard. For example if you were interested in a more general management orientation, schools such as Harvard and Stanford would be more suitable. If you were interested in finance, Wharton and Chicago would probably offer more advanced courses in this area. It is also likely that other students at these schools would also be more interested in finance. Two other factors to keep in mind are the pedagogical approaches of the different schools and the job placement records. With respect to pedagogy, certain schools such as Harvard use cases that immerse students in real world situations as an important vehicle for building conceptual frameworks. Other schools prefer a more lecture-based approach. Although I sense that these pedagogical differences are diminishing, they may nevertheless be an important consideration in a student's decision. Placement statistics also provide an important input as to how the "real world" views the strengths of the different schools. For example, Mckinsey, the world-renowned strategy-consulting firm recruits more heavily from some schools than from others.

I am not a particularly big fan of the rankings per se of business schools published in various sources such as Business Week and US News and World Report. I think these reviews provide important information about the features, strengths, and weaknesses of the various schools. This is therefore a valuable source of information to prospective students and to the business schools themselves. I am far less comfortable with how this information is then quantified to come up with a final ranking. The rankings by different publications have not achieved any consensus in the recent past. This is due to at least two reasons. First, the criteria for the rankings differ. Business Week, for example has done its rankings mainly on the basis of student evaluations of teaching and recruiters' experiences at the various schools. US News and World Report includes, in addition, evaluations by Business School Deans of the academic standing and reputation of the faculties at the different schools. So my bottom line advice is for prospective students to look at the information and data behind the rankings rather than focus on the rankings themselves.

iMahal: How can one increase one's chances of getting into a top-tier MBA school, vis-a-vis, entrance exams, application, references, essays, etc.?
Srikant: I should start by saying that there is no magic formula for gaining admission to a top-tier MBA program. Schools generally look at a range of factors in making admissions decisions and look at these factors in concert rather than individually. Having said that, however, it is clear that all the various criteria you describe carry some weight. The GMAT scores are obviously important because they are the one common source of evaluation across all applicants. Some schools might use the GMAT score as only a cut-off indicator, others might put even more weight on it. The applicant's past academic performance is also an important consideration. The MBA is a rigorous program and the schools want some evidence of the applicant's ability to complete the program. Work experience matters a lot as well. The key is having work experience that is managerial in nature and experience that has exposed the applicant to the functioning of organizations and businesses. I think the experience of most business schools is that such work experience enriches the learning that occurs in the classroom. I should add, however, that I expect business schools to increasingly admit more students directly after they finish their undergraduate education. Of course, this group will be only a small but very talented minority. The references count for a lot, particularly if it is from individuals who are familiar with MBA programs. I think a weak recommendation is a major disadvantage. It is clearly a negative signal if the three individuals who the applicant has carefully selected to give recommendations do not have positive things to say about the applicant. The essays communicate information beyond the "numbers" about the personality of the candidate, his/her ability to lead and manage, and his/her values. Eventually, it is all these factors together that determine the outcome of the admissions decision.

iMahal: What is the best education/training for entering a top-tier MBA program?
Srikant: Again, MBA programs admit students from very diverse backgrounds ranging from the liberal arts, the sciences, engineering, and in recent times, even medical doctors. I do not think there is a "best" education or training program for getting into a top-tier MBA program nor is there a "best" program for preparing an individual for MBA studies. I view this as good news because it means that one can enter a top-tier MBA program from a variety of pathways. In engineering, for example, one cannot do a masters program in electrical engineering without significant undergraduate preparation in electrical engineering. In terms of what I have described in response to your earlier questions, it is not what an applicant has studied, but rather how an applicant has performed that determines the admissions decision.



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