Understanding the basics of an executive MBA

BY Kara DriscollSeptember 07, 2021, 11:00 PM
Martin Laksman

Busy professionals who are focused on climbing the corporate ladder to the highest ranks may not have the time or inclination to take a detour for a degree. Luckily for them, an executive MBA program allows them to do both⁠—and differentiate themselves from their peers in the process.

An executive MBA (EMBA) is designed specifically for senior managers and executives who have goals to serve in C-suite roles. An EMBA program is typically a mix of online, evening, and weekend classes, in addition to workshops, discussions, and group projects.

The degree enables professionals to earn their degree and continue their full-time work simultaneously, making it an attractive program option for those who are looking to juggle busy schedules in pursuit of an advanced degree. Applications to EMBA programs have increased 31.6% since 2015, according to the Executive MBA Council’s annual member survey. The survey gathers data from more than 200 colleges and universities in 30 countries.

If you’re weighing the benefits of pursuing an EMBA, here’s what to know before you apply to a program.

Defining the ideal EMBA candidate

The average executive MBA student is 38 years old and will typically have experience in a managerial role. Ideal candidates already hold a middle management or director position, with a minimum of three to five years of work experience, and are looking to advance to senior management.

In addition to academic prowess, like quantitative reasoning skills, candidates should be able to communicate and reflect on how they can learn from their past experiences. Applicants have dealt with conflict, managing others, and solving complex problems—and their willingness to discuss these experiences will contribute to the overall effectiveness of the program cohort, says Aldas P. Kriauciunas, executive director of Purdue University’s EMBA program.  

“It’s not a program where you can get to the back of the classroom and be quiet,” Kriauciunas says. “You’re interacting with your peers. The person has to be willing to be vulnerable to some extent and share about their own problems and solutions for their organizations and teams.”

Researching program options  

Not all EMBA programs are alike; the curriculum and format can vary, along with the cost and time to complete. The average cost of an EMBA program is $86,000, according to the Executive MBA Council, though top-ranked schools like Columbia University have a total price tag of more than $200,000. EMBA programs typically take 18 to 24 months to complete. 

For some specialized EMBA programs, like Saint Louis University’s Executive Master of International Business (EMIB), admissions officers are looking for candidates who have specific work experience. An ideal candidate for the university’s Boeing Institute of International Business will have at least three years of work experience and hold a job that involves international operations for their company, says Hadi Alhorr, the program’s director and department chair.

“It’s someone who aspires to take some leadership roles or assignments that involve cross-border activities,” he says.

Because different EMBA programs have a unique focus, prospective students should research what each program can offer. Saint Louis University’s EMIB program touts global business mentorship, an international residency program, and affordable tuition prices, says Alhorr.

Kriauciunas agrees that an international component to an EMBA can open the doors to new, invaluable opportunities and broaden the perspectives of future leaders. Even if an applicant’s current position doesn’t have an international focus, he says that experiences abroad will help students relate to the range of people they’ll work with in their jobs.

“One sees the world very differently when you travel as a group to a different country,” Kriauciunas says. “We go to non–English speaking countries to take people out of their comfort zone. That helps people grow as individuals, leaders, and managers.”

In addition to reviewing specialized curriculum options, it’s also imperative for applicants to look at class formats and decide what will work best for your schedule. What’s more, you should weigh various distance-learning options, retention rates for students, and networking opportunities with other program alumni to assess how the program will fit into your life now and benefit you in the future.

Weighing the benefits

In addition to rising to desirable C-suite positions, EMBA graduates enjoy a bump in salary and bonuses, among other benefits. On average, EMBA graduates received a 14.1% increase in compensation—including both salary and bonuses—after completing a program, according to the 2020 Executive MBA Council’s student exit survey.

Graduates gain confidence in their ability to lead, while also securing upward mobility in their companies or the option to shift to a higher-level position at another company.

Ultimately, candidates should view the weight of these benefits through their own lens, advises Bill Chionis, principal consultant at Stacy Blackman Consulting. Depending on your career goals and personal life, some program qualities may be more important than others. Beyond progressing in your career and increasing your compensation, it’s also important to think about the people you will meet, the relationships you will build, and the lasting impacts of the experience, he says.

“The alumni networks in some schools are exceptional,” he notes. “Candidates should look at benefits in the long term: ‘What do I gain from joining this network or community?’ Don’t just look at it as a three- or five-year ROI for your career. Look at it as a lifetime investment.”

See how the schools you’re considering fared in Fortune’s rankings of the best executive, full-time, and online MBA programs.