Business Administration

What Is an International Business MBA?

What Is an International Business MBA?
With an MBA in International Business, you'll have an edge when applying for jobs with multinational firms. Your grasp of global economic and market trends, your cross-cultural communication skills, and your ability to predict how international audiences will respond to advertising and products will elevate your profile. Image from Unsplash
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Christa Terry November 24, 2020

You don't need to speak a second language or study abroad to earn an IMBA. Top MBA in International Business programs tend to require students to do both, however. We dug into what this MBA concentration entails and why it's often worth it.

MBA/Business Programs You Should Consider

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Economies are no longer bound by national borders, and international business is no longer the sole province of large corporations. In the modern business world, online commerce enables medium-sized and even small businesses to operate globally. Products assembled and sold in one country routinely require components sourced to others. Companies headquartered in one nation can employ customer support staff anywhere in the world. Supply chains crisscross our oceans, international trade restrictions grow ever looser, and companies that want to compete have to keep up with it all.

You can do business across borders without an international business degree, but there are benefits to studying leadership, finance, marketing, information systems, and consumer relations in foreign markets. “Working across countries is a necessity for most firms today,” explains Angelika Zimmermann, senior lecturer in international business and strategy at Loughborough University. “This concerns not only senior managers, but employees at all levels that have to interact with international customers and suppliers, partners, or international colleagues.”

The ability to think globally is hugely valuable for a variety of reasons we’ll discuss below. You can foster that ability within yourself by enrolling in an international business MBA (IMBA) program. This specialization can teach you more about how money, products, human resources, information, and demand flow across borders and the many ways cultural differences help or harm prospects in new markets. However, be aware that ‘global’ has become a buzzword, and just because a degree program claims to have an international focus doesn’t always mean it does.

In this article, we dig into the question what is an international business MBA? and cover the following:

  • What kinds of students enroll in international business MBA programs?
  • Do international business MBA programs have unique prerequisites?
  • What do students in international business MBA programs study?
  • Do all MBA in International Business programs include global excursion experiences?
  • How is an MBA in International Business different from an international business master’s?
  • What can I do with an international business MBA?
  • How much will I earn after graduating with an MBA in International Business?
  • What else do I need to know before enrolling in an international MBA program?

What kinds of students enroll in international business MBA programs?

Newly-minted b-school bachelor’s degree holders and seasoned professionals seek out international business MBA programs for many reasons. This is an MBA concentration that can open more doors than other Master of Business Administration programs. Traditional on-campus an online MBA programs teach advanced management skills and prepare students to step into leadership roles. Globally focused programs do that, too, but also give graduates the skills they’ll need to thrive in:

  • International finance
  • International marketing management
  • International relations
  • International supply chain management

Graduates of IMBA programs work in the private sector, government agencies, and nonprofit organizations and NGOs in roles like foreign policy advisor, import/export director, customs manager, international marketing director, and global management consultant.

Some students are drawn to international business MBA programs because they want to transition into roles that let them see the world. An MBA in International Business can help you land jobs where frequent travel is the norm. You’ll work hard, but you’ll also learn about other cultures, meet interesting people, and build a global network.


“Should I Get A MBA?”

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Do international business MBA programs have unique prerequisites?

International MBA programs can be more competitive than traditional programs. The issue is supply versus demand. According to Poets & Quants, top-ranked business schools only accept 16 percent of applicants, and only some of those schools offer an international MBA. Global business is a popular concentration, and chances are that it will get more popular as economies worldwide grow increasingly interconnected.

Applicants typically have to meet the usual MBA prerequisite requirements (e.g., strong GMAT scores and professional experience that includes management) and may also have to meet additional requirements, like professional experience in a global environment or time spent working abroad. To get into the global MBA program at the University of Michigan – Ann Arbor‘s Stephen M. Ross School of Business, for example, you’ll need to be sponsored by your company.

The bottom line: While many colleges and universities welcome applicants from academic and professional backgrounds unrelated to business, your chances of admission to a highly ranked MBA in International Business program increase dramatically if you already have some global business experience.

What do students in international business MBA programs study?

You can’t judge a book by its cover—or in this case, a business education program by its name. IMBA programs vary significantly from school to school. Some schools offer an international business concentration; students pursuing this degree take the same core courses as those enrolled in the generalist MBA program plus electives related to global markets. That’s the case at Northeastern University‘s D’Amore-McKim School of Business, where international business MBA students complete 16 credits of core MBA coursework plus a selection of electives that include:

  • Becoming a Global Business Leader
  • Cultural Aspects of International Business
  • Doing Business in Emerging Markets
  • International Financial Management
  • International Marketing

Contrast that with the top-rated program at University of South Carolina – Columbia‘s Darla Moore School of Business, in which students take just three generalist core classes plus:

  • Comparative Institutional Systems
  • Global Finance
  • Global Marketing
  • Global Strategic Management
  • Global Supply Chain
  • Managing the Multinational Enterprise

As you assess whether a given college of business or MBA program will help you meet your professional goals, read course lists and graduation requirements carefully. There are global MBA programs that devote most of the curriculum to international business and global MBA programs that spend surprisingly little class time on international business—even in the international business specialization track. Don’t assume that the former will give you a better foundation in global business than the latter, however. Foundational business courses with very general sounding names may present business practices, entrepreneurship, regulatory issues, and other concepts in a global context. You’ll have to dig into each prospective program’s curriculum to know what each offers. Don’t be afraid to contact each school’s admissions office to learn more.

Do all MBA in International Business programs include global excursion experiences?

What sets strong global MBA degree programs apart are the international immersion, student exchange, and overseas study opportunities built into the curriculum. There’s only so much you can learn about international business in the classroom and from books. Internships, residencies, and other experiences abroad let students apply the lessons they learn in the classroom in real-world business environments in other nations.

Some overseas experiences are as short as a week. Other programs last for months and involve studying abroad at partner universities in business hubs like Hong Kong, London, Tokyo, Paris, and Dubai. For example, University of Michigan’s Global MBA program begins with month-long immersions in Korea and Japan.

Unfortunately, not all MBA in International Business programs include an international experiential learning component. Think carefully about enrolling in one of these because it may be a global MBA in name only. On the other hand, a program with multiple trips abroad may be costly, and financial aid may not cover international excursions. You have to balance the expense of international experiences against the benefits when assessing programs.

How is an MBA in International Business different from an international business master’s?

It’s tough to answer this question conclusively because colleges and universities approach global business graduate programs differently. The MBA in International Business and Master of Science in International Business programs at two schools may be virtually identical. At schools that offer both an IMBA and an international business master’s, programs may be very different. Many master’s programs can be completed in a year, while most full-time international business MBA programs take two years to complete, but there are accelerated one-year IMBA programs and master’s programs that last two years.

In general, the most significant difference between international business MBA programs and other types of master’s degrees focused on global business is that the former has a broader focus, while the latter is highly specialized. MBA students who opt into an international business track study business fundamentals and topics related to global business like:

  • Accounting
  • Business across cultures
  • Emerging markets
  • International financial policy
  • International relations
  • Management
  • Marketing
  • Organizational behavior
  • Strategy development

Graduates can do business in global markets or domestically. Students in Master of International Business programs, on the other hand, typically take more classes related to global business development and international laws, economies, and cultures. They may not take any generalist business courses at all.

What can I do with an international business MBA?

There’s a lot you can do after earning an MBA in International Business. Because you have an MBA, you’ll be qualified to step into marketing, organizational strategy, finance, and management roles in domestic companies. You’ll have an edge when applying for jobs with multinational firms because of your grasp of global economic and market trends, your cross-cultural communication skills, and your ability to predict how international audiences will respond to advertising and products. You might land in roles like:

  • Director of international HR
  • Foreign policy advisor
  • Global financial analyst
  • Global marketing manager
  • Global risk management director
  • Global supply chain manager
  • Government affairs director
  • Head of global strategy
  • Import/export compliance manager
  • International accountant
  • International corporate auditing director
  • International finance manager
  • International management analyst
  • International real estate development manager
  • International trade analyst

How much will I earn after graduating with an MBA in International Business?

IMBA holders can step into any role commonly held by MBAs, but they often work for companies headquartered abroad or work outside the United States. That makes it difficult to conclusively say how much international business MBA holders earn. What we do know is that the average salary for global MBA holders is about $95,000, while traditional MBA holders earn closer to $89,000.

It’s also relatively easy to find out how much MBA graduates earn because many b-schools share information about average graduate salaries on their websites. The Financial Times also publishes information about graduate salaries in their business school rankings. For each school in its global MBA rankings, it includes the average graduate salary plus the average salary increase. Harvard University graduates out-earn other IMBA graduates ($210,000 per year), but students who attend Northeastern University see the biggest salary boost (159 percent).

What else do I need to know before enrolling in an international MBA program?

First, you may be wondering whether you need to be bilingual to apply to international business MBA programs. The answer is no. Multilingual graduate students certainly have an advantage, and some on-campus and online programs require students to take language courses. However, you can pursue an international business graduate degree without speaking a second language.

That said, it’s usually a good idea to work toward second-language proficiency when your goal is to advance in a global business environment. If your IMBA program doesn’t build language instruction into the curriculum, make the time to take one or more language courses on your own. You will likely need (at least) a second language if you plan to do business overseas.

You may also be wondering whether an international business MBA is worth it if the only graduate school programs you can get into or afford don’t offer particularly robust international learning experiences. The answer is that it can be, provided you’re willing to put in some extra work. You can still gain professional experience abroad (and study foreign cultures, other ways of doing business, global markets, and languages) by organizing one or more international internships on your own. If that’s not feasible, look for internships and other opportunities to work with multinational companies that operate in the US but do business outside it.

Finally, you may have questions about the relative value of an international business MBA versus a traditional MBA. You already know you can earn more with an IMBA, but will you learn more? That’s not clear. Some part-time and full-time MBA programs are billed as globally focused but don’t specifically emphasize international business in the core curriculum. The most important thing you can do is make sure that the international MBA program you choose prepares you to succeed in a business landscape increasingly shaped by globalization.

(Last Updated on February 26, 2024)

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About the Editor

Tom Meltzer spent over 20 years writing and teaching for The Princeton Review, where he was lead author of the company's popular guide to colleges, before joining Noodle.

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