MBA or Specialized Degree?

As we recruit prospective MBA students from around the world, a question we hear a lot at The MBA Tour is whether it is better to get a specialized masters degree (MSc in Finance or an MSc in Technology and Innovation, for example) or an MBA.  This is an important question to consider as these are distinctly different degree programs and lead to very different career paths.

The MBA is a professional degree and the program content emphasizes practical application.  The program of study emphasizes general management skills.  MBA programs rarely accept individuals directly after graduation from university as the requirements of the coursework presume that students have faced the practical challenges of the work environment.  In order to participate in class, on study teams, and to complete assignments, students are expected to draw on their own personal experience. 

Learning is often experiential with a lot of the work completed in multi-national and professionally diverse teams.  MBA graduates often comment that they learn as much (if not more!) from their peers as they do from their professors.

People choose the MBA for many reasons.  Most often, people need to develop a range of management skills in order to assume more responsibility within an organization.  The broader understanding of different business functions makes it possible to supervise and coordinate the work of other people and other units.  Many students who enroll in MBA programs have backgrounds in engineering and technology, but it is not uncommon for an MBA class to also include journalists, lawyers, doctors, musicians, bankers, and teachers.  The MBA program develops specific functional skills (accounting, strategic planning, financial management, project management) and critical soft skills (communication, negotiation, human resource management) that senior managers need in any type of organization. 

In contrast, the specialized MS is a very different program.  These programs are very focused and often require a university degree in the same area.  The classes required to complete this type of masters are almost all in a single area such as finance, accounting, operations, corporate communications, etc.  People who enter these programs have (typically) decided on a narrower career path than people who chose to earn an MBA.  There is often more emphasis on theoretical knowledge and research.

The specialized degrees are attractive to some students because they admit candidates directly after university graduation.  It is important to keep in mind that although entering graduate school directly might be very appealing, the opportunities that follow this type of masters program are different than those that follow an MBA. 

The specialized masters is a perfect option for someone who is confident that he or she will remain in the same industry sector and function long-term.  The MBA is a better option for people looking for the flexibility to work in different sectors and different types of organizations.



“You must carefully consider your short and long-term career goals when deciding whether to pursue an MBA or an MS degree.  Are you interested in pursuing a business management career and assuming positions of greater leadership within an organization? If so, an MBA may be your best option. Or would you like to be a specialist within a particular field, gaining in-depth knowledge and perhaps becoming an industry expert within your chosen field? In this case, an MS may help you achieve your goals. Some MBA programs offer the best of both worlds: the opportunity to develop a general management foundation through a diverse core curriculum, and the chance to develop a functional expertise through selection of a major or concentration.”

Jim Holmen
Director of Admissions and Financial Aid
Kelley School of Business MBA Program
Indiana University, USA

“There are two key reasons for the difference in work experience requirements between MBA and MS programs.  First, the MBA program experience not only offers the opportunity to increase knowledge in a specific academic discipline, but it also enables students to develop broad-based business and leadership skills.  Prior work experience provides students with a context for understanding the integrated nature of business, as well as for engaging in meaningful discussions with their peers.  Consequently, MBA graduates are able to define more specific goals while also enhancing their potential for future career flexibility.

The second key reason is that MBA recruiters are looking for a broader skill set. Recruiters have an expectation that in addition to the academic knowledge acquired during MBA studies, graduates will bring several years of progressive, full-time work experience.  This combination allows graduates of top-tier MBA programs to apply their learnings immediately upon entering a new position, and in turn, to add value to their new organization from the beginning.”

Julie Barefoot
Associate Dean and Director of MBA Admissions
Goizueta Business School
Emory University, USA

“When making the decision to pursue either an MBA or an MSc degree, the first - and most important - step is to determine what you would like to do.  If your interests lie in a specific research position or field of study, and can see yourself pursing a doctoral degree, an MSc degree is your best bet as the depth of learning you would receive would far exceed that you would receive in an MBA program.  On the other hand, if you would like to pursue a career in business, then you should take an MBA.  An MBA will provide you with a broad, general management education in all the functional areas of an organization: marketing, finance, operations, human resources, etc.”

Ben Whitley
Assistant Director of Admissions for Queens MBA
Queens School of Business
Queens University, Canada

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