Such is the worldwide growth and awareness of the MBA that this icon of career advancement and high salaries has almost become synonymous with postgraduate education in the business sector. However, many alternatives to MBA exist in the form of business masters courses in subjects such as finance, management, marketing and economics and in highly specialised areas such as hospitality management, tourism and travel management, IT management and systems, and even in industry-specific management such as publishing, real estate, digital imaging, design and fashion.

While the total number of MBA programs worldwide is around 2,400, other masters and advanced courses in the whole spectrum of business education total well over 20,000.

Two key distinctions exist in matching what aspiring students want and what the universities offer. First is generalisation versus specialisation, second is pre-experience or post-experience and the two are interlinked.

Carol Blackman of the UK's Westminster School of Business explains the first distinction:

Specialist masters programs are designed either for career preparation in a clearly defined type of job or profession, or to develop or enhance professional competence in individuals who are already experienced.The aim is to increase the depth of their knowledge in the specialist area.

The MBA, on the other hand, is a generic management program which provides practising managers an opportunity for personal development with a broadly based introduction to all management subject areas and the theory and practice of management.

PRE-EXPERIENCE CANDIDATES

Specialist knowledge is not everything when it comes to finding a job, however. Surveys by the UK's Association of Graduate Recruiters (AGR) confirm time and again that what employers seek and continue to find scarce are the personal skills that will make graduates valuable employees. In fact, when recruiting new graduates, these are considered by most more important than specialist knowledge.

What employers seek most from new graduates are motivation and enthusiasm, interpersonal skills, team working and good oral communication. Of the nineteen skills considered important in AGR's 2002 survey, just three require specialist education numeracy, computer literacy and foreign languages and these are low on the list.

Anthony Hesketh of Lancaster University poses the question whether holding a second degree may even be a disadvantage: I have seen many reports over the years suggesting that employers view postgraduates as eminently less employable than those with a first degree. Drive, motivation and career focus, not to mention ability are what employers value and are prepared to pay for. A postgraduate immediately has an uphill task explaining an additional year or three years of study.

The latter view may seem a little cynical but if you are about to graduate and are considering a further degree, you should take the realities into account and ask yourself some hard questions.

Is the qualification I am considering going to impress employers? Is it going to give me the edge over less qualified candidates? If so, which employers? Don't be afraid to identify some companies and ask their recruiting staff in advance.

Am I considering a second degree because I am not sure of my career direction? Will employers consider that I lack drive and ambition because I have deferred my attempts to find a worthwhile job?

Likewise, in choosing your course, be sure that the university offering it can substantiate its claims for career success. Universities in many countries are obliged to publish their records of graduate employment good ones will even have these on their websites.

Many postgraduate options exist that can help you to acquire the personal skills that employers in the world of business are seeking. Take the offerings of Strathclyde and Durham universities for instance.

. . . MBA isn't necessarily the be-all, end-all many alternatives exist for achieving a rewarding and fulfilling business career.

The author, Tony Martin, is organiser of World Grad School Tour, the global fairs for graduate studies and research, which every year visits around 25 cities, starting in Latin America, passing through Europe to Asia and the Middle East.