Should You Be a Generalist or Specialist in Business School?

While some master’s degrees are specialized, a Master of Business Administration is a general degree. However, some U.S. business schools, particularly those considered to have top programs, offer multiple specialties in which MBA students can enroll.

Picking a specialization in an MBA program allows a student to gain more expertise in one area, such as data analytics or sustainability.

Here are some things experts recommend that a prospective MBA student consider when deciding whether to be a generalist or specialist.

Being an MBA Generalist

A generalist receives foundational knowledge across core business subjects.

This route “also gives students options to dive deeper and explore their interests via electives, specializations and experiential learning,” says Lindsay Loyd, executive director of MBA admissions at the New York University Stern School of Business.

A generalist MBA degree gives students a basis to be successful leaders in a range of industries and functions, Loyd adds. Going the general route can help MBA grads pivot to a new industry or functional area in the workplace, Loyd says, adding that developing an array of skills usually creates long-term options for students well beyond graduation.

[READ: What an MBA Degree Is and What You Need to Know.]

A generalist degree also exposes students to a broad curriculum that provides the ability to contribute to a productive discussion on any topic, says Melissa Rapp, associate dean of graduate admissions at the Emory University Goizueta Business School in Georgia.

MBA students who are looking for a specialty could benefit from studying as a generalist in the meantime, says Andy Hoffman, a professor of business and environment and sustainability at the University of Michigan Stephen M. Ross School of Business. “If you’re not quite sure, then be a generalist and start to hone your focus either as you go through your degree or as you move into your first job.”

Mary Conran, a professor of marketing and associate dean of academic programs and curriculum at the Temple University Fox School of Business & Management in Pennsylvania, says a specialist is focused on needing to accomplish a certain objective, which is more clinical than a generalist.

“A generalist perspective has a focus on those softer skills, the ability to be critical thinkers, to be more effective communicators, to understand the audience, to understand complexities of decisions involving stakeholders,” she says.

Hoffman and Rapp say generalists tend to gravitate toward management and leadership positions because they have a good grasp of multiple operations in a business.

[READ: 3 Factors to Help Find the MBA Program That’s Right for You.]

Marco Aponte-Moreno, a professor of clinical management and organization at the University of Southern California Marshall School of Business, says an emphasis on critical thinking skills makes generalists more marketable. “The options are open not only in the business world, but it also opens options in other fields because of the stress on critical thinking skills for general degrees.”

However, people who want to be a subject matter expert, have a passion for a particular vertical within business and want to go deep into it may not benefit from a general degree as much as a specialized degree, Rapp says. “There is a really high demand for specialized knowledge in the marketplace.”

Being an MBA Specialist

MBA specialties range across B-schools, but some common concentrations are finance, marketing, strategy, data analytics, international business, operations management, human resource management, management consulting and entrepreneurship.

Being a specialist often leads to an easier time achieving an advanced degree and quicker career development, which generalists might lag in while determining what sector to work in, Conran says.

In fact, specialists often have a jumpstart to their career, Huffman says. “If you are very clear about what you want to do, specialize to avoid wasting time going down different paths you don’t need to go down.”

Loyd says specialized degrees are geared toward those strongly committed to a particular career path, and the hyperfocus of such programs often allows students to earn their MBA in just one year.

Specialists have skills that are usually in high demand, and their salaries could be higher because of this, some experts say.

However, at NYU, specialists generally have fewer internship opportunities than generalists, Loyd says.

[Read: See Which MBA Programs Lead to the Best Return on Investment.]

“For someone looking to make a career pivot, the generalist approach of the two-year program may be more suitable than the specialist approach of the one-year focused programs,” she says.

Conran says specialists are often pigeonholed into a career or job because they’re an expert in one area, whereas generalists may have more flexibility.

Specialists also are more likely to feel an employment crunch if the job market changes and there’s a decreased demand for their area of expertise, Hoffman says.

“Let’s say someone wants to specialize in sustainability,” he says. “Are there enough jobs out there? The recruiters coming to campus, not a lot of them are looking for sustainability.”

The choice between earning an MBA as a generalist or specialist should ultimately depend on the career path a student envisions, experts say.

Aponte-Moreno says he encourages his students to enter business school as a generalist and choose a specialization later if they think it’s a good fit.

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