MBAs are one of the most sought- after programmes as far as professionals are concerned. Nearly 10 per cent of full-time foreign students enrolled at British universities are studying for an MBA, according to some estimates. As a result of the increasing popularity of MBAs, the options are becoming ever-more complex. 'If you took two identical courses - labelled one an MBA and one something else - there would be 100 times as many requests for information on the MBA course as for the other,' Sarah Barton, assistant director (education promotion) at The British Council, said. 'It's been an incredibly successful branding exercise.' In Hong Kong, nearly all of the tertiary-level institutions now offer MBA programmes - and several offer more than one option. There are Executive MBAs (EMBA), DBAs (Doctors of Business Administration) and iMBAs (interactive MBA offered via the Internet). The acronyms add to the confusion. Full-time courses are usually targeted at those with little or no working experience and can be completed in less time. Part-time courses for working professionals are held either after work on week nights or on weekends and take longer. More and more overseas universities, meanwhile, are setting up programmes in Hong Kong and other cities in the region. Many of these programmes enrol students from the region, allowing participants - who fly in every few weeks - to network on a region- wide basis. Some of these programmes are set up independently and others are in collaboration with local universities. Taking a year or two off to study full time overseas is another option, with both advantages and drawbacks. Whereas some of the best MBA programmes are in the United States and Canada, their focus can be largely North American. This is fine for someone working for a multinational or planning to emigrate at some point. Studying in an English-speaking environment can also help participants brush up on their language skills and gain valuable insight into the culture. Those doing business in a largely Asian context, however, might prefer a course with either a pan-Asian or a China- or Japan-specific focus. With so many variables how can aspiring MBA candidates decide which options are best for them? 'The initial thing to consider is how much money they've got to spend. It's fine to recommend going to a top school - but if you can't afford it you can't afford it,' Ms Barton said. The next consideration is timing. 'Do you want to get it over with as soon as possible or do you want to stretch it out over a few years? Some courses offer more flexibility than others,' she said. Full-time MBA courses in Britain, for example, can usually be completed within a year. A part-time distance-learning course, however, could take three or more years. While distance-learning MBAs are growing in popularity, many professionals believe that studying in a classroom is the best. 'I think this is especially true with an MBA,' Ms Barton said. 'It is as much about gaining experience from other people in the course as what is taught in the course.' Course content must also be considered. While most MBAs include human resources, finance and accounting, IT, economics and a strategic component of some type, they can vary substantially when it comes to their electives and focus. Some programmes, for example, follow a strict 'lock-step' formula, which means students have few - if any - options, with everyone taking the same classes at the same time. The advantage of this approach is that it allows for a greater sense of team-building to develop among participants. The disadvantage is that students cannot emphasise the specific areas that would help them fill strategic gaps in their professional preparation. 'People should look carefully at what's offered in their areas of interest. If you're particularly interested in marketing, for example, make sure they offer a wide variety of choices in that discipline,' Ms Barton said. A final consideration is the school's reputation. 'Students should look at the reputation of the university,' she said. 'I would look to see if they've got any kind of formal accreditation. Some institutions aren't accredited - that doesn't mean they don't offer good programmes. But you do want to make sure your degree will be recognised after putting in so much time and effort.'