It’s possible to advance to corporate leadership roles as either a specialist within a particular branch of business, such as marketing, or as a generalist with an interest in every aspect of running a company.
Anyone who wants to attend graduate business school in order to increase their marketability for high-level management positions should consider what type of business degree is the best fit, B-school alumni say. Individuals seeking business education at the master’s level should know that there are important distinctions between M.S. and MBA programs, according to business master’s degree recipients.
Because an M.S., or Master of Science degree, concentrating on a domain of business sets the stage for a career spent within that discipline, it’s important for prospective business students to consider whether they care about a single topic enough to concentrate on it for many years, according to B-school grads.
“An M.S. in some ways kind of pigeonholes you into a certain area, and granted, you can do that across many industries, but you’re really kind of deciding that that’s what you want to do,” explains MBA degree recipient Charles Catania III, chief communications officer for Modulus Global, a financial technology company.
Alexa Brachvogel, who has an MBA and founded California-based digital marketing company Blüm Agency, notes that there are pros and cons to both MBA and M.S. degrees.
“With specialized master’s degrees, you get the benefit of a defined career path, but it’s a double-edged sword,” she says. “The specialization also means that you may have less flexibility to pursue career paths unrelated to your specific field of study.”
An application trends survey released by the Graduate Management Admission Council in November 2020 reveals that the number of applications to non-MBA business master’s programs increased by 14.3% that year compared with the prior year, while MBA applications decreased by 0.2% during that time period.
How to Decide Between an MBA and a Business M.S. Degree
Someone who is keenly interested in a particular part of the business world like analytics or finance and who has an obvious talent in that area may prefer a specialized master’s degree that delves into the intricacies of that field, according to leaders of B-schools that offer both M.S. degrees and MBAs. In contrast, a person with a more eclectic mindset may want an MBA that includes a variety of business courses.
“Making the decision between breadth and intense focus is not an easy one,” Jeffrey Buck, dean and vice president of Purdue University Global‘s School of Business and Information Technology, wrote in an email.
“When considering this decision, I would always recommend that individuals ponder their career ambitions and factor in the industry they are considering. My best advice is to investigate positions within the desired industry and consider the requirements that are listed in job postings, and also look at the credentials of individuals who hold positions which the student aspires.”
Buck notes that norms surrounding how much work experience is expected at MBA programs have changed in recent years, with a rising number of MBA options for early-career students. “Today there are a number of MBA programs designed to serve individuals with no or limited work experience. These programs support the student through internships and experiential learning opportunities built into the curriculum.”
Kimberly Hollister, dean of the Montclair State University Feliciano School of Business in New Jersey, says prospective grad business students who are unsure about whether to pursue an M.S. or an MBA should think about what they’d like to gain from B-school and which type of information would help them reach those goals.
Hollister notes that the breadth of an MBA could be particularly beneficial and appealing for someone who lacks an undergraduate business degree. However, someone who is already working within a highly technical business profession such as accounting may be eager to gain hard skills within that occupation; for that person, a specialized master’s would make the most sense, she says.
MBA programs include classes about various business functions ranging from operations to strategy, and the MBA curriculum provides an overview of how all the pieces of a company fit together. Though MBA students may elect to concentrate on an academic discipline, students who choose this route do not generally take as many classes within that area as they would if they had enrolled in an M.S. program that focused entirely on that field.
“While many MBAs do offer the ability to specialize, the number of courses one can take in any given concentration in a two-year MBA program is never equivalent to that of a specialized master’s degree in that same subject,” Esmeralda Cardenal, an MBA and graduate admissions consultant at the Accepted admissions consulting firm, wrote in an email.
John Crossman, CEO of Crossman Career Builders — an organization that helps young people advance professionally — and the owner and president of the CrossMarc Services real estate firm, suggests that an MBA is especially appropriate for future entrepreneurs and aspiring chief executives. He notes that a specialized master’s program can be valuable if it helps someone get deep insight into a particular industry, like real estate, and provides a significant number of professional contacts within that sector.
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