CLOSE-UP: LIVE ISSUE/PROFESSIONAL RETRAINING - What going back to college can do for your career. More managers are taking MBA courses to boost their skills, Camilla Palmer says

"I've never worked so hard in my life. "I was studying every night for three months. "It forced me to think in ways I never had. No, these executives aren't talking about a tough pitch, they're recalling the times when they took themselves out of their jobs and went back to college.

Publicis' chief executive, Richard Hytner, is the advertising industry's latest high-profile learner, taking time out until September 2003 to complete an MSc at London Business School. Hytner is leaving the running of the agency to a senior team, showing that it is not unusual for companies to fully support key executives who want to learn more.

They're hard work, expensive and ruin your social life, but an MBA or similar will do wonders for your career. For those faced with the bill, they're a good loyalty tool and can be used for effective succession management.

Here, six of Hytner's predecessors recall what they gained from returning to education.

David Muir, group development director, O&M

Previously O&M's new-business director, Muir says he felt increasingly out of his depth when discussing his clients' needs in relation to their businesses, and felt an MBA would change that. "I felt like I needed more robust skills to fully understand and empathise with clients - they were coming to me with problems which were about more than just advertising, he recalls. Muir, then 28, persuaded O&M to let him complete an 18-month MBA, and, with the blessing of the WPP group chief executive, Sir Martin Sorrell (who holds a Harvard MBA), studied full-time at London Business School. "I came back to set up Future Ogilvy, as I'd developed an interest in corporate venturing. That's the great thing about doing a course: it gives you a fantastic insight into business as a whole, and not just into advertising."

Will Orr, marketing director, Leagas Delaney

Orr was a 29-year-old board account director at WCRS when he lobbied the chief executive, Stephen Woodford, about doing a one-year full-time course at Imperial College, London. "Aside from learning more about how advertising fits in with the wider business spectrum, I wanted to check that it was the right career for me, he admits. He started studying but never went back to WCRS, taking his current job when he finished and putting the "pre-nup he'd agreed with the agency into operation. "We had an agreement that I'd pay them back if I left the agency within a year of being back at work. Circumstances changed while I was on the course, and I got the job at Leagas. The MBA definitely helped. And it taught me maths too, he says.

Robin Azis, chief executive and international head, HHCL & Partners

"It's a huge cost and, far from being time off, it's incredibly hard work, Azis says of MBAs. However, he persuaded the agency to send him to Wharton for an Advanced Management Programme course in 1998, claiming that it was essential to get out of the "introspective advertising industry in order to learn more. "There were people there from 25 countries and 18 industries, and I was the only person working in the media - fantastic, he says. The results speak for themselves - Azis returned to London to take on the chief executive role.

Helen Calcraft, managing director, MCBD

Calcraft says it was unintentional that she completed a two-year part-time MBA at the London Business School, and then left Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO to set up Miles Calcraft Briginshaw Duffy. "It was entirely a personal project, paid for by myself, and I had no idea I would be leaving at the end of it, she laughs. She continued working at AMV part-time, running new business, and studied in the evening. "I wanted to keep my hand in and it was exhausting. But I don't regret it at all - it gave me the confidence I needed to set my own goals and be involved in the start-up."

David Pattison chairman, PHD

Pattison found himself promoted to chief executive, just six months after he returned from a three-month AMP at Harvard Business School. "It was a real demonstration of how a period of intense learning and absorption can propel a person on, he says. His course was a "voyage of self-discovery and felt like a sabbatical. "I wanted to learn about business, and I did that, not just from the course, but by being with the other students. And, apart from learning how to read - really read - again, I also realised that the best training teaches you how to think, not what to think, he adds.

Carolyn McCall managing director, Guardian Newspapers

McCall found herself in the enviable position of being promoted from deputy MD to her current role, when she decided to do an AMP at Wharton Business School in summer 2000. "The timing was great - I was able to dovetail the course in with the start of my new job, she says. "The course made you think about everything you do - it's no surprise that one out of three people who do the course moves jobs within a year of completion. I was lucky to be going back to a new job - it would've been infuriating to come home with all those new ideas and be back in the same one."

SHARPEN UP YOUR SKILLS: THE MBA MARKET

All MBA courses cover a wide range of subjects, although emphasis will vary between the schools that teach them. The subjects include the economic and legal environment, marketing, accounting and qualitative methods, finance, organisational theory, inter-personal skills, strategy, IT and the processes of management. Some of the most popular courses include:

Cranfield School of Management

Cranfield's most popular course is a one-year, full-time MBA for those wanting to get into senior management. It costs £23,000. It runs two other MBAs; a part-time executive course and a modular course designed for those who continue to work. They both take two years to complete.

Harvard Business School

A two-year course with 880 places. Cost: $28,500 a year. Shorter, intensive courses are also available.

Imperial College, London

Offers a one-year, full-time course with 150 places, costing £19,500. There's also an Executive MBA course for practising managers wishing to combine an MBA with career continuity. It lasts for two years and is part-time.

London Business School

The LBS's MBA course has been ranked in the Financial Times top ten for four consecutive years and is claimed to be the most international full-length programme around. The 21-month course is run along US lines. Places for 240 students.

Fee: £36,000.

University of Warwick Business School

Offers four flexible full-time programmes taught by leading academics who are consultants to multinational companies around the world. Number of places: 110. Fee: £19,750.

Wharton Business School

Attached to the University of Pennsylvania. A full-time course lasting two years. A total of 780 places available. Fees: $32,122 a year.

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