What Makes an Executive M.B.A. Different

Nontraditional programs for corporate up-and-comers get their due, thanks to graduates.

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About eight years ago, Devang Parikh considered his options: quit his job in Boston and pursue a traditional, full-time M.B.A. or continue working and climbing the corporate ladder. Then, life solved Parikh's dilemma for him.

Parikh, now 32, got a new job with Pfizer, and the salary he was earning, combined with the cost of school, made going to school full time difficult. So, when the itch to continue his education came back, he tried another route—one where he could keep working and still get an advanced degree, an executive M.B.A. With his employer supporting him (and reimbursing him for his education), Parikh in 2008 enrolled in the Yale School of Management's M.B.A. for Executives program, designed for healthcare professionals. He will graduate in May and continue as director of strategic management for research and development at Pfizer.

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While the perception of such programs as somehow less prestigious than a traditional M.B.A. may have been a concern at first for Parikh—there was a time when the "E.M.B.A." was seen as an expedient M.B.A. or "M.B.A. lite"—he has seen no evidence that his future degree isn't as highly regarded. "That was a question I asked when I was looking at [executive M.B.A.] programs," he says. "I didn't want to choose a program that shortened my time in class or cut corners. I wanted the full experience, and I've gotten that."

Paid as you go. The main differences between a more traditional M.B.A.—be it a full-time, one- or two-year program or a part-time M.B.A.—and an executive M.B.A. are job status and program structure. Many executive M.B.A. students, like Parikh, have been identified as potential leaders at their companies. They usually are required to have five years of post-baccalaureate experience (with rare exceptions for "rock stars"). This allows the students to pursue their education while still getting full pay, and a majority of employers will cover all or part of the fees. Furthermore, it's a slightly different approach to education. Raleigh Griffith, enrolled in Georgetown's Global Executive M.B.A. program, gets Fridays off from his job as a Northrup Grumman operations manager to attend classes. Full-time M.B.A. students have intensive schedules, making it tough to maintain a job. "My bosses have been very receptive and supportive throughout this whole thing," Griffith says.

According to the 2009 Global Management Education Graduate Survey conducted by the Graduate Management Admission Council, graduates rate the executive M.B.A. the highest among M.B.A. programs. Of 5,214 students from 203 schools surveyed, the majority said the executive M.B.A. programs at their schools have excellent or outstanding faculty, program structure, fellow students, admissions, curriculum, program management, and student services. The survey rated executive M.B.A. graduates as the most satisfied with their education. That's why such programs grew in popularity from 2004 to 2008, says John Fernandes, chief executive officer and president of the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business, which accredits business schools worldwide.

The executive M.B.A. is not an option for everyone—and it doesn't completely shield grads from the harsh economic climate. John Challenger, CEO of Challenger, Gray & Christmas, an outplacement consulting firm, says all are vulnerable, whether chosen by a company to pursue an advanced degree or not. Job loss "has to do with your performance, your company's performance. [Executive M.B.A.'s] seem to be taking the steps that make better candidates, but again, you're just as vulnerable to job loss as everyone else," he says.

"A lot of people were nervous" when the economic crisis hit, says Michael Desiderio, executive director of the Executive M.B.A. Council, which promotes the programs. "Smart people figured out that things were tanking everywhere, and they decided that the best investment they could make was in themselves."

This much is clear: Griffith and Parikh are satisfied with the returns on their investments, and the firms that identified them as potential leaders in the first place are, too.