Executive MBA programs continue to rise in popularity. With so much to consider in terms of the investment of time and dollars, you want to make sure it's right for you.

For those who don't know, an Executive MBA (EMBA) is a program similar to an MBA, however you can work full time while earning your degree. Most programs are about two years with classes usually held on alternating Fridays and Saturdays. There are even more flexible alternatives like Columbia Business School's EMBA program which just introduced a Saturday only class.

The cost of the degree ranges from $70,000 to $170,000 depending on where you go. Fortunately many companies sponsor their employees (i.e., pay some or all of the tuition.) Thunderbird School of Global Management in Arizona indicated that 15% of their students are fully sponsored while the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School said that number is 30%.

Most programs require at least 7 years of work experience, but don't worry if you don't have an undergraduate degree in business. According to Bernadette Birt, COO and Executive Director at Wharton, their students have undergraduate degrees that run the gamut from liberal arts to pre-med and from pre-law to performing arts. Less than one-third have an undergraduate degree in business.

The reasons why so many people are enrolling in these programs also vary. It turns out 20% do so to broaden their reach within an organization. For example, they may have taken an engineering track and have reached a point where they now have to deal more strategically with areas like finance and marketing. A surprising 15% enter the program with the intent on starting a business. The rest want to enhance their global perspective, make a career transition and strengthen their foundation in business.

A small percentage of people get their EMBA many years after receiving their MBA. Don Skeoch, Chief Operations Officer of the California Academy of Sciences, went this route. Fifteen years after getting an MBA from UCLA's Anderson School of Management , Skeoch went back to school and got an EMBA from Wharton. The drivers for him were, "A tremendous opportunity to network with other executives from other industries with comparable work experience." In addition, business practices had changed dramatically since he had obtained his MBA. He cited the advent of new media and technology as one example. A truly global perspective was another.

According to The Wall Street Journal's 2008 survey of corporate human-resources and executive-development executives, 64% of companies saw sponsoring employees as a way of retaining talent. One quarter of the companies witnessed an immediate benefit as EMBA graduates are stronger managers and leaders. Another quarter received the same benefit within a year.

For students the benefits are realized shortly after returning to their companies, with many receiving notable increases right after completing the program. In addition, one third earned promotions which they attributed directly to their EMBA degree.

One of the overarching benefits to students is the creation of a network of high potential people, many whom were "hand picked" by their companies to attend the program. Kathy O'Shaughnessy, an EMBA graduate of Columbia University echoed this, "You have an instant network of supercharged, over achieving friends." O'Shaughnessy enrolled in the program because, having been an English major, the language of business was foreign to her, "One semester solved that." She credits the program for giving her the confidence to start her own business. O'Shaughnessy is co-founder of Yellow Brick Systems and an enthusiastic endorser of the program, "It was the most painful experience I have ever loved."

One of the most common drawbacks is the time commitment that the program requires. EMBA program directors urge their students to get buy-in, especially from their spouses, early on. This effort is sustained over two years and can have an impact on family, friends, and social life. Students have to have a laser focus to balance it all.

If you are seriously considering this undertaking, you'll have many options to choose from. When selecting an EMBA program it's important to consider the reputation of the school, quality of the education (faculty and classmates) and where it can take you in your career. Here is a ranking of the top 25 programs.

If you want to continue learning, expand your network and optimize your career -- without interrupting it -- an EMBA program may be the way to go. Especially, if your company is willing to sponsor you.

Fred & Gladys
Whelan Stone
Executive Search and Coaching
Authors of GOAL! Your 30 Day Career Plan for Business & Career Success

Author's Bio: 

Gladys Stone and Fred Whelan are executive coaches and recruiters with more than 20 years of experience. Their company, Whelan Stone www.whelanstone.com, was founded in 1999 and works primarily with Fortune 500 companies, recruiting high-impact talent and boosting the performance level of management. Their book, “GOAL! Your 30 Day Game Plan for Business & Career Success” http://www.amazon.com/Goal-30-Day-Business-Career-Success/dp/1884956955 delivers a practical, effective solution for reaching any business or career goal. They have been frequently quoted in the Wall Street Journal, Fortune magazine, USA Today and the Boston Globe and author a career blog on The Huffington Post and write articles for the career site Monster. Both live in San Francisco.