How to choose the right MBA

Choosing the right programme can be a daunting task. Ask the right questions and you will narrow down your options

What should you look for when choosing an MBA programme?

What should you look for when choosing an MBA programme?


There’s no shortage of choices when it comes to MBAs in Ireland, but which one should you go for?

It all depends on your priorities. The UCD Smurfit School of Business has the highest international ranking, while the prestige of Trinity means that its MBA also has an allure. Other third level institutions such as TU Dublin offer internationally accredited MBA programmes. But this doesn’t mean that other providers should be discounted, and there are other factors to bear in mind, too.

Andrée Harpur
Andrée Harpur

We spoke to Andrée Harpur, an independent and experienced careers consultant who has worked extensively with MBA applicants; Ronan Kearns, an MBA graduate and president of the MBA Association of Ireland; and recent MBA graduate David Conway, regional director at ComfortDelGro, one of the world’s largest land transport companies with a fleet of over 46,000 vehicles.

These are their top tips.

1. Why do you want to do it?

Andrée Harpur: Many people tell me that they want to do the MBA because they feel it will advance their career. But I tell them it won’t necessarily - unless they have a clear plan for where they want it to bring them. Ask yourself: why do I want to do this MBA? I’ve had clients who have done MBA without this plan and then, when it was finished, they weren’t sure what to do with it. Much of the MBA is about leadership and management, so if these aren’t positions you want, it mightn’t be for you.

Ronan Kearns: Some of those I met on the course were doing it out of interest or because they had the time and money to pursue it. For others, it was about progressing in their current career, or transitioning from one career to another. I know of people, for instance, who have gone from technical roles in STEM jobs to finance roles, and the MBA bridged that gap. And MBAs also provide you with important contacts.

David Conway: I didn’t have an undergraduate degree. When I left school I set up a transport business in Limerick but, as the business and its challenges grew, I felt I needed to broaden my skills, so I dipped my toe in the water with a management cert at the University of Limerick, followed by a diploma. Then I decided to take it to the next level with the MBA at UL.

2. What’s on the MBA?

Andrée Harpur: MBAs may link in with different companies and students work with them to find solutions to their real business issues. If you want to work with, for instance, a tech firm but the placements or companies that they work with are primarily in marketing, that may not be the right fit. But if they can link you with the tech companies and you can work with them, it could be useful. I also advise clients to find out who is lecturing on the courses and what is their background and experience.

If you have, for instance, a general commerce degree and you want to focus on finance, they might be able to link you with a finance firm you could do some research with.

Ronan Kearns: MBAs have different course content, so try to find one that fits your interests. Do you go with a (general) executive MBA or a specialist one in an area such as finance or marketing? In the UK, there’s an MBA in football management for some of the Premier League teams. For me as an engineer, however, the general executive MBA was the right fit. But my understanding is that while there are variations on the theme, the course content is broadly similar and all courses accredited by AMBA (the Association of MBAs, widely considered as the gold standard internationally) have specific learning outcomes - what may vary is how these outcomes are delivered. I did two years of coursework across four semesters including accounting, marketing, enterprise, human resources, economics and anything that would be useful in a business context.

David Conway: The course content was broad, varied and included a large amount of material across different modules such as corporate finance and strategic marketing.

3. Where’s your head at?

Andrée Harpur: Some of my clients are married with children and they need to know that it is really time-consuming, so they will need to talk to their partners and bear in mind that they won’t be as available as they have been previously. There is a lot of group work and some courses may require Saturday attendance. So if you live in Galway but drive to Dublin for the MBA, that’s going to take up even more time. You’d need to be really clear as to why you’re driving to Dublin and what part of the course warrants that time, energy and travel. Go back to the initial question: why do you want to do this?

David Conway: Location was a consideration, but it wasn’t the only one. I did consider going to Dublin for a one-year, full-time MBA but the two-year structure, which included block release, suited me a lot more now that I had young children. I also had my own business so a part-time option meant I could step out of it for a few days once a month to focus on study.

Ronan Kearns: Location was key for me. I’m based in Dublin which gave me more choice. Outside the capital, there are more limited options, but they’re still very good.

4. Can you pay for it?

Andrée Harpur: Cost is perhaps the first thing to consider, because the difference is price from one MBA to another can be as much as €20,000.

Ronan Kearns: When I started looking at MBA options, there were the big university options like UCD, DCU and Trinity and then the smaller colleges such as the National College of Ireland. I weighed up the cost against the content.

Ronan Kearns
Ronan Kearns

5. Can you manage it?

Ronan Kearns: I found time management became a key skill as I learned to manage work, course deadlines and family commitments. It was intense but I could see the benefit.

6. Does the global ranking really matter?

Andrée Harpur: The UCD Smurfit School of Business [which is the number one ranked business school in Ireland] highlights its global ranking. If you’re doing an MBA with a view to moving overseas - perhaps to the US, Australia or South Africa - that global ranking may become really important. When they arrive with the MBA, their company may research where they did it. The Smurfit MBA has been around for a long time so they may have built up a lot of contacts, credibility and industry links, all of which count for a lot.

But Smurfit is far from the only option. Dublin Business School runs an MBA too and while it has not been around as long, that doesn’t mean the course content isn’t as good. And if you are someone who is going to stay in Ireland and do the MBA, that global ranking matters less, perhaps.

David Conway
David Conway

7. What do you want to leave with?

David Conway: When I finished the MBA, I felt confident that I had a broader skillset and was able to use the tools I needed to solve a problem. Having an MBA gave me an edge and advantage over others.

* The Irish Times will publish Postgraduate & MBS Options 2020 on Tuesday March 10th. For more visit: