Should You Do Part (or All) of an MBA in China? A Peking U Professor’s Opinion.


I’ve done six years of teaching at Peking University’s Guanghua School of Management in Beijing. I’ve now seen thousands of MBAs come and go. Some do a semester or a year here. Some do their entire MBA in China. And then they go off to various parts of the world.

One question I get a lot is: Should you do part (or all) of an MBA in China? Basically, does this make sense? What are the pros and the cons? Especially if you are from the US, Europe, Korea or other places?

My answer to this is five points. Note: this is mostly for foreign students.

Point 1: China knowledge is now critical in some industries. But unnecessary in others.

If you are in automotive, you simply have to understand China now. It doesn’t matter where you plan to live or work. China is the world’s auto biggest market by a long ways. Same for agriculture and most things related to mobile or consumer products. In these industries, China knowledge is now required and spending some time in China is a very good idea. How can you understand (or value) companies like Coca-Cola, Nestle or GM without understanding the China market.

However, if you are going into American hospitals or European real estate, you don’t really need to understand China. You can work domestically or regionally your whole career and not really think about the world’s biggest population. Maybe you will have some clients from China but that’s about it.

So with regards to studying and maybe working in China, I always tell my students to think industry first and geography second. The first will mostly determine the second. For example, if you are going to work in gaming, you are going to be in Las Vegas and Macau. If you are going into agriculture, you are going to be in the US and China (and other places). So try to answer the industry question first.

Point 2: You can’t understand much of China business without spending time here.

The days are long gone when you could just read China reports and “Doing Business in China” books. Everything is way too complicated now. And everything is changing too fast. You can easily spend your entire career studying just one part of the Chinese economy. This is not unlike studying part of the US or Europe.

So this is a big reason for doing part of an MBA here. You can learn more in 2-3 months on the ground than in years reading reports. And you really do need a network of people. Most all the good China information comes through contacts, not reports.

Point 3: My MBA students who did the best were focused on a specialty with a China angle.

Looking back, my MBA students who really did well already had a certain focus or specialty in their life. Say a focus on pharmaceuticals, automotive or value investing. And while they were in Beijing studying, they looked at the China angle or variation of that particularly specialty.

So maybe their career was focused on pharmaceuticals in Europe and they used their time in China to look at pharmaceutical development and marketing here. Or maybe they were value investors in New York and they spent their time in China looking at the accounting differences for Chinese or Hong Kong stocks. This “advanced China seminar” approach is very effective.

Point 4: Upon leaving the program, many of my most successful students positioned themselves cross-border.

My most frequent advice for any foreigner in China (or someone from China in another country) is to keep “one foot in and one foot out”. Don’t try to compete 100% domestically, especially in China. Don’t launch a Chinese company, funded by Chinese investors and selling to Chinese consumers. The domestic competition is too ferocious. And foreigners usually have some disadvantages, regardless of the market.

Instead, position yourself with one foot in China and one foot out. Be the one person at your company in Switzerland who has lived in China and speaks Mandarin. Be the associate in Beijing who knows how to find good clients or acquisition targets in the USA or Latin America. Work at an MNC with a presence in both Europe and China. Be the China expert at a NYC hedge fund. And so on.

I have seen students do all of the above examples. And most have rocketed upwards in their careers. Being cross-border can eliminate a ton of career competition. Certain places like Hong Kong and Singapore are basically cross-border geographies.

Point 5: Think about where you want to live your life and what excites you. And it’s ok if you don’t know yet.

The above points all assume that you know what you want to do with your life (what industry, etc.). But many people don’t know that yet. That’s ok.

It’s ok just to try things and see how they feel. And a semester in China business is a totally reasonable thing to try (a semester in Bolivia is probably harder to justify). You’ll know pretty quickly how excited you are about it once on the ground.

Also, keep in mind that enjoying life is a big part of why many of us are here. Asia is an exciting place to live. China is crazy fun. And the business here is fascinating. Don’t undervalue just having a fun life.

At the end of their programs, a lot of my students ask about how they can work in both their home country and in Asia. They want both. And I am the same way. There are ways to do that. Be smart and clever about your career – but also live a life that excites you.

A final point: China is a big deal.

You can’t spend time here and not realize you are witnessing something historic. That a new political economic powerhouse is emerging very quickly. And being on the ground at the beginning of something big is usually a good idea. You may not stay forever. But it’s worth a look and business school is a good way to do that. May you live in interesting times…(which is probably not an actual Chinese saying)

Thanks for reading. – jeff


I write, speak and consult about how to win (and not lose) in digital strategy and transformation.

I am the founder of TechMoat Consulting, a boutique consulting firm that helps retailers, brands, and technology companies exploit digital change to grow faster, innovate better and build digital moats. Get in touch here.

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