Why Get A MBA in Taiwan? Part 2 of 3: Dos and Don’ts of the Taiwan MBA

National Taiwan University Global MBA (GMBA) is an international Taiwan MBA program at the one of the top research universities in Greater China

National Taiwan University Global MBA (GMBA) is an international Taiwan MBA program at the one of the top research universities in Greater China

A MBA can be the best investment or worst decision for your career. The first thing a foreigner should know about getting a Taiwan MBA is there’s only one reason to do it. You plan on working with Asia.

Secondly, people here have different outputs for a Taiwan MBA than people in the West. In fact, most are operated as part-time programs with full-time students. Finally, many programs are still figuring out how to deliver an MBA experience. They’re lacking in areas that go beyond delivering core academics.

This is second in a three-part series. I’m writing this now because recruiting season is underway, so let’s Q&A. I’ve taken classes in Chinese and international MBA programs at two of the top schools in Taiwan. My comments are directed at the international or global MBA programs, which track more closely with western MBA programs in order to create a globalized student body.

  1. The business case for and against Taiwan
  2. Why you should and shouldn’t consider a MBA in Taiwan
  3. Why I decided to go for it, anyway

Before We Continue, the TLDR;

Do Maybe Don’t
Know What You Want From a Taiwan MBA Think of It As A Language Learning Opportunity Get a Taiwan MBA If You Won’t Use It In Asia
Manage Your Time and Make Time You Want to Write a Thesis Come to Discover Your Inner Passion
Embrace Your Core Classes Expect Asian Perspective
Have Your Own Strategy Believe Everything You’re Told
You Want to Change Careers
Expect Career Services

Don’t: Get a Taiwan MBA If You Won’t Use It In Asia

There’s nothing that keeps a Taiwan MBA graduate from getting a job anywhere else in the world. People just won’t know about your school. There are world class MBA programs everywhere else for the regions their students work in. And a lot of Asians getting degrees outside Asia. There’s a lot of competition.

For example, most people in the U.S. don’t know what’s special about St. Gallen, INSEAD, Mannheim, HHL, and other top European schools. They definitely won’t know Asia. Know who you’re marketing your degree to.

Also, Asian MBAs also tend to get a bad rap. In the Far East, having the diploma can be more important than the actual education, since a large portion of the opportunity structure is based on connections. Quality varies and you may have to do more work to compensate. The top schools have fixed their core curriculum, but holes remain.

Take mainland China. Let’s look at what’s going on with the crackdown on their EMBA program, the subject of a recent Financial Times article. There are cultural points for comparison, like how Chinese societies view education and its effects. Something similar can be said about Taiwan.

“I estimate that of  these 64 programmes (in China), perhaps only 15 are performing decently,” – Zou Yufeng, head of EMBA projects at Renmin University of China School of Business

So, only attend a top school, because most of them don’t meet the minimum standard. And put it to use it in the region where people recognize the brand of your school. Maybe for a Western company in Asia, or an Asian company in the West. Either way.

National Chengchi University established the first international MBA (IMBA) program in Taiwan. Courtesy: NCCU

Students from National Chengchi University (NCCU) visit Advantech, a global leader in Internet-of-Things devices (IOT). NCCU established the first international MBA (IMBA) program in Taiwan. (Courtesy: NCCU)

Do: Know What You Want From a Taiwan MBA

Here’s an important question. What do you want to do? A Taiwan MBA presents challenges that you may not have to deal with elsewhere. I’d ask myself:

  • Want to make new connections? You’ll have to invest time and money to bring people together. Many Taiwan MBA programs are small, with 40-60 new students each year. They are operated as part-time programs with full-time students, to recruit local executives. This means very little is done to help people network.
  • If you need the MBA to advance in your local job, great. Classic output. In Asia, some people use it as a credential for taking over a family business. These students may be less interested in networking because they already have their own group, and Chinese societies are made up of insider/outsider groups. For others, socializing (and not necessarily with classmates) is the biggest motivation.
  • Here to learn more language and culture? That’s something to pursue outside the MBA. Students tend to revert to their native tongue whenever they get a chance, so bring your knowledge of their language.
  • If you want international work experience, consider what it takes to get that. “Unlike 10 years ago, employers now don’t care much whether a candidate has studied abroad. Instead, they are more interested in those who have worked abroad or completed internships while studying abroad.” – Fu Yin, a senior headhunter

Regardless, set some goals of your own. Having a MBA is a differentiator, but it doesn’t do as much as it used to. This is especially true in Asia. If you’re on the outside looking in, you’ll distinguish yourself by what you set out to accomplish. How you achieved that.

“It’s crucial to know who you are and what you want.” – 25-year-old Sun Han

Life in Taiwan is pretty good, so a lot of people come here with the idea it’s going to be easy. But they eventually find out whether it’s about classes or not, it’s a challenge — because adjusting to a new environment can be overwhelming.

Define yourself based on why you are here, and do what you can to be true to that. You may have to revise them, but at least you’ll have a North Star. Being able to tell people what your goals are also makes you a lot more memorable when you’re introducing yourself to them.

Also, get this mindset fast. It’s going to happen because you’re going to make it happen. That’s how you find the resilience (or grit) to get what you want.

Don’t: Come to Discover Your Inner Passion

In the top schools, the professors typically have solid credentials. There’s real academic horsepower. Either they are visiting lecturers from other esteemed institutions, or professors with PhDs from prestigious universities. In my program at National Taiwan University, these schools include MIT, an adjunct lecturer who also teaches at Harvard, University of Southern California, University of Washington, and INSEAD.

Lesson Learned in China by U.S. Diplomat William Stanton

“Every U.S. President… Winds Up Toasting China in the End”

Professors are generally experts in concepts, but they’re mostly at the university to do research. Whether it inspires you might not be their goal. It’s still possible, but professors aren’t motivational speakers.

Schools sometimes have interesting guest lecturers, but is the university the only place you can see these people speak?

Here’s a more positive view. Taiwan MBA programs are much cheaper than MBA programs in the U.S., where I’m from. So you get access to professors with elite credentials at a discount price. How cool is that? Somewhere in that pool, somebody will give you a new way of looking at the world. But you also get what you pay for. Naturally.

Maybe: Think of It As A Language Learning Opportunity

I joke that I’m getting a degree in Chinese, with a MBA on the side. Learning any language is hard work, especially Chinese. Whether a class is taught in English or Chinese doesn’t really matter to me because people often speak Chinese to me anyway, and all slides in all classes are in English. Still, you should gauge how realistic it is to get fluent fast, or reach the next skill level.

Locals require 13 years of living and practicing Chinese on a full-time basis to get to understanding 3,000 characters and the words they form… I do think the amount of Chinese a foreigner learns here is proof they’ve learned a few lessons in resilience. And humility. – Learning Mandarin Chinese is Hard

If learning Chinese is your priority, you might want to consider dedicating yourself to it for awhile. Chinese classes move fast, and assume you’re going to spend a lot of time outside class, practicing the material.

International MBA programs often advertise free Chinese classes for some period of time, usually a year. But, these classes have too many students, maybe 30-40, despite saying they only have 10-20 students (let this be a lesson). If you go to a language learning center, even at the university, these classes are capped around 8-10 students. That’s about right.

Chinese Pronunciation Mistake

On the left, what you meant to say. On the right, what she heard. Get it right.

Do: Manage Your Time and Make Time

Aside from taking MBA classes? Schools are generally short on specialized learning opportunities, social activities, career services, funds to go to conferences, opportunities to participate in competitions, which means you have to come up with your own. This goes for anything that has to do with applying what you’re learning while living or going to school in Taiwan.

I actually don’t know how this is possible, given that international MBA programs can cost up to 6x more than local MSc-style programs. My assumption, based on visiting Taiwan MBA programs in-person during the application period, was this situation was the exact opposite (another lesson). This means you need to be the type of person who can create their own opportunities. Program staff is often so busy dealing with internal affairs they may not have a point of view that comes from the outside-in.

Anyway. You can have all these things, but you need to be able to find them on your own — often, in Chinese. Incoming students should know this. If your’re looking for action, then you’ll have to provide the spark. Supporting your student councils will give you a better chance to access these opportunities.

Do: Embrace Your Core Classes

Core classes are meant to give you some direction for what you can do with your interests. Good Asian MBA (and top Taiwan MBA) programs deliver a solid core curriculum. The same core you get elsewhere, because it comes out of the same textbooks. It covers the basics of what you need to work with different functions of a business.

But, core classes are just core, they won’t make you experts in the field. It’s only the start. You’ll need more specialized education if you’re really interested in a particular area. Here’s where we run into some issues. You can get the basics of a MBA education here, but not really a MBA experience (one more lesson).

The key takeaway? Goal setting is most important. Taiwan MBA programs can enhance whatever existing credentials you have, but they won’t transform you into leaders or anything like that, unless you put in the work yourself.

Let This Be a Lesson. Don’t: Expect Asian Perspective

Why the red text? People don’t always say what they mean. A lot of programs advertise this to foreigners, but what they really mean by Asian perspective is:

  • You’re being taught by someone who is Asian
  • “There was a story in the news several years ago…”
  • You are in Asia now. Therefore, Asian perspective

It is generally not:

  • Learning methods and secrets of doing business in Asia. Things are rapidly changing here so it’s debatable how practical this information is.
  • Cultural how-tos, professional etiquette, opportunity structure, etc.
  • Asian case studies, those that are specific to the region. There actually aren’t many of these, period.

There’s no better place to learn these things than being here, but “here” is probably not inside the MBA program. It’s in the city you’re in, the people you introduce yourself to, and your own determination. It really is. Things that are observable are much easier to learn, a crucial factor in education. But sometimes visitors get it wrong if they don’t have the experience of living in a place.

Last summer, I met a student in a top American MBA program who insisted most people in China can’t read, and that’s why menus have  so many pictures. I had to correct them and say, those are actually just the menus they give to foreigners — who can’t read Chinese. Just one example of how people in the West will get the wrong idea of Asia.

Don’t: Believe Everything You’re Told

Tell the t_uth…

This entire bit about ‘Asian Perspective’ brings up another point. Getting people to be real is very difficult, partly because people want to save face.

In fact, the people writing this stuff may just be putting it out there because it sounds good. They don’t actually have some strategy or vision for making any of this happen other than to do things that resembles it, which is very un-MBA. They might not even really understand the meaning of what they write. But of course, they won’t fess up to that, because, face.

But it’s important to assume people are doing the best they can, with the time and knowledge they have. Assume good intentions. Or you will have a very difficult time trying to make sense out of nonsense.

Some of the things schools say they have lots of:

  • Scholarships. How many, how much, and for whom – foreign or domestic? Select countries? Need-based?
  • Resources. Name them, discuss how they’ve grown, and an example of how students use it.
  • Job Opportunities. What companies came to campus and which students in the program went to work for them as a result?

So, don’t just believe the sales pitch. People have a way of saying what they think you want to hear.  Anyone who’s done business in Asia can tell you that. This is not a Taiwan MBA thing. In one case I heard of, the school made up an alumni association (and the administrator who did it was asked to “resign”).

Also, Asian people generally don’t like to be directly challenged. But it’s your time and money, so you deserve an answer. Rather than entirely trust what you hear, or read on the internet, ask questions to a few different people. Talk to actual students in the program about how they make their time in the program work for their own goals. Ask them to share their strategies.

Do: Have Your Own Strategy

M.C. Escher diagrams the path of an entrepreneurial Taiwan MBA student

M.C. Escher diagrams the path of an entrepreneurial Taiwan MBA student

A lot of students, once-in, find themselves inside a box that they now have to solve their way out of in order to graduate, or protect their investment in time.

  • Some people let the small stuff stress them and they give up.
  • Or they clear the table, pick the option that sucks the least, and work with its flaws. This is actually very practical business experience.

It’s also why you see few strong testimonials. The people who succeed are thankful for their credentials, some of the people they met, see the potential of their programs, but credit themselves for their success.

Here’s the thing. If you don’t come in with goals, you may not find what you’re looking for. But when you go looking for something and don’t find it, you have to keep exploring. Find another way to get what you need, even if it’s not exactly what you want. This might mean you have to spend more time and money.

Don’t: You Want to Change Careers (Or Take Great Electives)

Most of the students I talk to in MBA programs around Asia say their core is okay, but electives are often off the mark. So taking electives might not be a solution. There are some great ones, for sure, but not enough to turn you from good to super in any particular area. You’d have to be a particularly motivated and resourceful person to get what you need.

It actually appears to be very difficult to deliver a decent core set. Quality electives and advanced coursework is a long way off for many programs, unless it’s the area they’ve chosen to make a name for themselves.

Last spring, I toured Europe with professors and students from National Chengchi University, who really invest in teaching sustainability across all levels. We visited company headquarters in Italy, Switzerland, France, and learned about leading sustainability practices. It was, an incredible experience.

That's our Bloomberg Terminal and you can't use it.

“Our Bloomberg Terminal and you can’t use it.” (Courtesy: Wikipedia)

Another path is a specialized masters. Like a masters in finance. You can re-brand yourself with just a MBA, but don’t expect a Taiwan school to provide special resources for your quest. This may include a CPA club, or access to CFA Institute study materials.

For example. The masters in (XYZ department) people are busy taking care of their own professors and students. These departments manage themselves. In Taiwan, I’m told that being in these departments is like belonging to a small clan that has their own norms. They may even have their own databases and resources they don’t share with the school, because they paid for it themselves. Yes, same university, same college, but different clans. I mean, teams.

Don’t: Expect Career Services, Either

Unless your Chinese is tip-top, career services for local jobs don’t exist for international MBA students. First, these students are outliers to begin with. Career services serve the college at a broad level. But it’s not from lack-of-trying.

  • There aren’t enough foreign business students to justify creating a new function for them. Global MBA programs tend to be small, only half of which (20-30 seats) are foreign students.
  • Students’ backgrounds and skills are so diverse it’s hard to individually serve them. This is also true of schools in the West. Schools don’t have the know-how for doing this at a multi-cultural level. However, programs in Taiwan don’t seem to teach students how to be self-sufficient in this environment.
  • Finally, staffers may have difficulty having an in-depth conversation about students’ professional goals using English business terms. Similar to how business Chinese is a different skill level from conversational Chinese.

There’s not much help. In fact, because global MBA programs are more expensive than local programs, some professors will talk about how rich everyone in the class must be, and that they don’t need help. It’s a terrible joke in which you’re the punch line, and that’s all it is, a terrible joke. As most parents and professors know, kids succeed most when they learn how to help themselves.

Is all this wrong? No matter what, students expect more from a MBA program, in this regard. This is the way I look at it. People who are special know others may not or aren’t able to recognize this in them. Special talents must be able to use their unique abilities to get noticed.

Finding work opportunity for international MBA students in Taiwan is a team effort in which no one is quite sure how to be a team player. There’s good news, though. A new government initiative called Contact Taiwan helps find opportunities for international students in Taiwan. The fact that the government is needed to create this kind of service gives you an idea of how challenging it is.

Maybe: You Want to Write a Thesis

Writing a thesis (or in some cases, a substitute like a case study or business plan) is a requirement for graduate degrees in Taiwan. Putting out a good thesis can be an incredible asset. It shows how you think and what you’ve learned. It can also make up for other shortfalls.

But, you’re limited to how much time you will sink into this, and the expertise of the professors you can work with. Fact of life. It’s a big world and sometimes your school doesn’t have a professor who has the same interests.

NTU GMBA Professor: "I don't think that an MBA needs to write a thesis"

“I don’t think that an MBA needs to write a thesis”

Many professors might only be interested in writing a business plan or case study. Or that world-famous professor from another department is not interested.

There’s also a perception that students can’t write a solid thesis, because of the time it takes. It does take a lot of time.

From the perspective of someone who’s written a lot of business plans and case studies, you don’t need a MBA to do this. But, you can use your time in MBA to find business partners, ask professors, ask around the university, learn new things, while working on the plan. This is a big plus of being in school.

Summary: Pros and Cons of a Taiwan MBA

Pros

  • You need a regional credential. Something to boost what you already have.
  • The opportunity to network with and explore other areas of the business world, as a MBA student (on your own)
  • You want access to Western-educated professors. But, do not want to or cannot leave Taiwan.

Cons

  • You don’t know what you want. You are not the type of person who already knows how to create opportunity for themselves. This is where a culture of supporting each other becomes very important.
  • According to my own experience, few insights on doing business in Asia can be learned from the classroom. Cultural dimensions and financial management systems at the macro-level, for example.
  • Local career services for multi-lingual, non-native Chinese speakers

Three Things

  • What you get from a Taiwan MBA is up to you.
  • Be driven by your goals. Set some.
  • “Schools are generally short on specialized learning opportunities, social activities, career services, funds for you, opportunities to participate in competitions, which means you have to come up with your own. You can have all these things, but you need to be able to find them on your own.”

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