Conventional wisdom holds that the master’s is the new bachelor’s degree—which is to say, it’s the minimum degree one must hold to qualify for an increasing number of desirable careers. Indeed, graduate study is growing ever more popular. According to the United States Census Bureau, the number of people aged 25 and over whose highest degree is a master’s is 21 million—about 13.1 percent of the population. That number has doubled since 2000.
Naturally, some graduate programs are more sought out than others. Of them, a Master of Business Administration (MBA) has long ranked as the most popular option for all graduate students. For those who seek careers in business, it’s the overwhelming favorite (over Master of Science degrees in various business disciplines).
With an increasing number of MBA options, finding the right MBA program that meets your professional goals, skills, and interests is crucial. The traditional generalist MBA provides a broad skill set that prepares business professionals for success in any industry or job function at any time in their career. In contrast, specialized programs allow students to gain an in-depth understanding of a particular industry, discipline, or field within the business sector.
Landing on the right business field is hardly guaranteed. If you’re contemplating specializing in business school, it’s essential to choose a concentration that stands out, gets you excited to learn, and boosts your career in the long run.
Our guide to the best MBA specializations answers these questions:
Two-year general MBAs—i.e., MBAs without a specified area of concentration—typically commence with a core curriculum that provides foundational leadership, business, and problem-solving skills. Core courses cover such subjects as:
In addition to core courses, students complete additional classes across a range of disciplines. In most programs, these courses are electives; in some, these too are required.
Students in specialized MBA programs typically take the same core courses as students pursuing a general MBA. In some, students in specialized programs may take core courses tailored to their chosen field, e.g., a student specializing in operations may learn economics, marketing, etc. from an operational perspective. Students in specialized programs also take electives; their electives, however, cluster in their specialization area. By focusing their elective work in a single area, these students develop expertise—often called a specialization or concentration—in that area.
One-year accelerated programs tend to be a bit different. These programs are designed to deliver training quickly and return students to the workforce as quickly as possible. Core courses in these programs are completed in the first three months, with the remaining time dedicated to specialized instruction. These programs typically cater to students who already work in a particular area to which they plan to return post-degree. Such students tend to arrive with some advanced level of education or work experience in their field.
The National Association of Colleges and Employers predicted an average starting salary for 2019 MBA graduates of $84,580—provided those graduates found jobs in computer science, engineering, science, or business. (
Students considering an MBA or graduate business degree can choose from varied career paths, including those focused on financial management, data analytics, market research, healthcare management, and operations management. The analytical skills and problem-solving techniques gained from graduate level business degrees are in high demand across business sectors. ( )
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One of the benefits of a generalized MBA—that it provides a broad overview of all business functions—is also one of its downsides. Students leave MBA programs prepared for upper-level management roles in many areas but without an area of expertise in one particular area.
A specialization addresses this shortcoming. It provides both a broad overview (through the core curriculum) and an area of expertise (through concentrated electives). For those already practicing in their field of choice, the experience can represent a fast-track to career advancement.
Completing an MBA specialization can provide graduates with a competitive edge. Although all MBA graduates are well-positioned to add value in professional business settings, those with highly sought-after specific and relevant skills can stand out further in the interview process.
Graduating with a specialization can limit your options upon graduation. If, for example, you pursue a concentration in business analytics, you probably won’t be applying for positions in human resources or marketing. Your declared interest in analytics will narrow your likely range of career opportunities. It will also, however, provide a competitive advantage within that range.
There is also the danger that your area of specialization will fall out of fashion. Ten years ago, very few MBA programs offered a concentration in business analytics. Today, many do. It’s possible that a field that gained popularity so quickly could lose it just as quickly. In the case of business analytics, that seems extremely unlikely; the discipline arose from the ascendance of big data, which does not seem to be going anywhere.
For students unsure of the business field they would like to work in, a generalist MBA program is often the safer choice. It provides greater flexibility to try different career paths, both immediately following graduation and in the long run.
Seeking a specialization may also reduce your chances of admission to a competitive program, particularly if you lack career experience in the field. Programs may limit the number of seats available for a particular specialization, making it harder for candidates to get in.
When choosing an MBA specialization, you should consider how the curriculum complements your career goals. Look also at the program faculty; will you be studying with distinguished experts? Scholars with powerful connections among employers?
Keep in mind, you may also want to give thought to more general criteria that tend to encompass choosing the right business school. These attributes include accreditation, school ranking, and program format, among others.
We’ve listed below some factors to take into consideration as you decide on a concentration.
No matter how much money you make, you won’t be happy in a career unless it provides a sense of purpose and satisfaction. Assess your personality as you draft a basic plan for the pace and the peak of your career. Are you outgoing, energetic, and flexible with a nonconformist flair? If yes, you may be best off seeking out b-school programs that focus on entrepreneurship. If you’re driven by unrelenting logic, precision, complex problems, and the type to crave autonomy, a business analytics specialization may be ideal.
As you delve into MBA specializations, you’ll realize that self-assessment must go deeper than where you want to focus your career. It also needs to address where you want to live and work, and the sort of life you want to lead.
For instance, if your passion lies at the intersection of business and information security, telecommunications, and IT project management, you may want to head straight for the cities like San Francisco, Austin, Boston, and Seattle, where a wide range of well-known tech companies live. If your aspirations center around investment banking, you might want to consider hubs like New York, Dallas, Washington, D.C., and Miami, which are all home to leading financial services companies and corporate giants alike.
What skills will your specialization help you develop? According to a corporate recruiters’ survey from the Graduate Management Admissions Council (GMAC), recruiters identified problem-solving, working with others, and data analysis as the top three most-important skills in 2019. Oral communication and presentation came in fourth, followed by comprehension and logic.
Consider as well the rate at which the job market in your potential specialization is growing. According to Investopedia, computer-related fields are among the fastest-growing. If you’re looking to land in a field with increasing opportunities, consider computer-science related disciplines such as information technology, analytics, and cyber security.
The heath of industries can also be weighed by their role in the national and global economy. In 2020, the industry market research firm IBISWorld reported that the 3D printing and rapid prototyping services ranked first among the fastest-growing industries in the U.S. by revenue growth. It was followed by hydraulic fracturing services, autonomous underwater vehicle manufacturing, and medical and recreational marijuana growing.
On a global scale, life and health insurance carriers took the top spot on the firm’s list of biggest industries by revenue; how does a specialization in healthcare management sound to you? Pension funds followed in second place, trailed by car and automobile sales, and oil and gas exploration and production.
PayScale data notes that on average, MBA graduates can expect a salary of $87,910 per year. Some specializations deliver the potential to pull in even more. For example, according to site data, an MBA degree with a focus on strategy offers the highest average salary of $117,563 per year. We’ll cover the average salaries of a variety of MBA specializations below.
The specializations featured below are among some of the most popular areas of focus for MBA students. Each includes the information you need to find a business school niche that suits your strengths, interests, and career goals.
Entrepreneurship MBA programs are designed to prepare students to identify business opportunities and think critically about how to take advantage of them. Students explore concepts such as incubation, research and development, corporate venture capital, and technology commercialization through practical, real-world projects while learning how to pitch their ideas, conduct research, analyze markets, and make the most of limited resources. Venture capital competitions are also central to this specialization, allowing students the chance to fail without serious repercussions expected outside of the business school environment.
Finance MBAs combine mathematics with management by preparing students for careers focused almost exclusively on dealing numbers in the finance industry. Courses usually focus on theory and analysis in finance, allowing students to expand their knowledge in mathematics, statistics, and economic analysis and cement their skills through collaborative projects, management simulations, and role-playing. Students within this specialization typically complete an internship at a financial organization.
MBA in healthcare management programs are designed to prepare students to oversee operations and services in hospitals, clinics, and healthcare facilities. Within this track, students explore business, marketing, finance, and management principles as they relate to the rapidly changing U.S. healthcare system. In the process, they enhance their understanding of information management, compliance, risk management, policy development, healthcare law and ethics, and related subjects. This specialization often requires an internship or other hands-on experience in the healthcare field.
MBA in human resources (or HR) programs help students build their understanding of how to leverage human resource analytics to improve organizational decision-making and attain organizational goals. These programs offer students a path to gaining reflective and strategic leadership skills that will later allow them to oversee productive and engaged workplace cultures. Common courses within this focus include topics like compensation, corporate recruiting and training, personnel evaluation, and organizational change.
Information technology (IT) MBA specializations combine business classes with courses exploring IT policies and practices. Students learn the best practices of information systems and people management while gaining in-depth expertise of the technology that drives today’s businesses and how it is used to communicate and conduct business. IT-specific courses typically revolve around subjects like information security, software development and management, telecommunications, and IT department management.
International business MBA programs prepare students to enter the complex and increasingly lucrative world of globalization. This specialization tends to cover an intense study of statistics, finance, and accounting within international markets, current events, and language—and often provides students with the opportunities to study abroad and see business done within a particular country or culture. Through classes such as leadership in global markets, international relations, and international business concepts, students develop management and cross-cultural communication skills while deepening their sensitivity to diverse social and cultural situations worldwide.
An operations management specialization allows students to grow their understanding of the strategies and solutions needed to manage and organize companies so that they reach their maximum production output. While MBA programs with this focus vary, most combine the fundamentals of business with an intense focus on operations and logistical studies. Typical classes within this realm include operational and supply chain management, managerial economics, data analytics, project administration, and business forecasting.
Organizational behavior MBA programs examine how individuals, groups, and workplace structures impact the health, sustainability, and productivity of their organizations. By applying research on topics like cognitive and social psychology, economics, sociology, and other related fields in a managerial context, students gain the skills to help organizations manage their workforce effectively, create a positive organizational culture, and foster teamwork at every level.
Risk management MBA programs focus on organizational risk due to unstable markets, fraud, and liability issues. Students learn how to identify potential risks that threaten to undermine operations and value propositions across different sectors and subfields. They also learn to develop and implement efficient, data-driven, procedures to mitigate those risks. Courses in this specialization typically focus on loss prevention techniques, unique accounting systems, and in-depth explorations of labor laws, employee benefits, and derivative risks.
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