Business Administration

Should You Get an MBA or MS in Business School?

Should You Get an MBA or MS in Business School?
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Dan Bauer March 25, 2015

When people consider graduate business programs, many assume that the MBA is the only pathway to achieve their professional goals. Learn from a Noodle expert about the factors to consider when choosing between an MBA and a specialized master’s degree in business.

MBA/Business Programs You Should Consider

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Earning a business master’s degree—whether a Master of Business Administration (MBA) or a Master of Science (MS) in Business Administration or another business-related discipline—could serve your career goals and boost your earning potential over the next several decades. But earning either of these advanced degrees won’t be easy. You’ll need to clear the entrance hurdles—including the GMAT for MBA programs and the GRE for MS programs. Once in, rigorous classes, demanding professors, and late nights of homework will require dedication, diligence, and endurance.

MBA vs. MS: How to decide which degree fits your goals

Before applying to and enrolling in a graduate business school, you face a crucial question: What kind of graduate degree should you choose? Should you pursue an MBA? Or a master’s degree in a specific field such as finance, accounting, marketing, information technology, or organizational behavior?

Given the life-changing impact and substantial cost of any graduate degree program—measured in both tuition and foregone income—choosing the right path is a high-stakes decision that merits serious thought, research, and introspection.


“Should I Get A MBA?”

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The basics

Before we get into long-term strategy, there are a few basic initial steps that you can take as you explore your graduate school alternatives.

LinkedIn research

It can be useful to look at the education choices made by people who are currently in the sorts of roles and companies that you aspire to find yourself in over the next 10 to 20 years. Use LinkedIn to find this information and to see if there’s a clear pattern in the types of master’s degrees that others have pursued. Do they hold MS degrees? If so, in what areas? MBAs? If so, did they concentrate in a specific area? Are there patterns that can help guide your own career path?

Program curricula

MBA programs tend to place an emphasis on group projects and networking. That is because they are preparing students to succeed in team-based work environments. If you thrive in a collaborative enterprise, you will likely fare well as an MBA student — and in your ensuing career.

If, on the other hand, you prefer more solitary work, you may find that a master’s degree in, say, accounting will not only prepare you well for your chosen field, but also suit your temperament and skills.

Another critical difference lies in breadth and intensity of focus. An MBA program in business analytics will not include as much coursework in coding, programming, predictive modeling, computer science, and high-level mathematics as will a Master of Science in Business Analytics program. In contrast, the MS program will not provide much instruction in such general business subjects as business management, financial accounting, finance, leadership skills, marketing, operations and supply chain management. An MBA delivers a solid grounding in all those areas.

Long-term considerations

As you determine which option is best for you, you should also consider the three stages of a business professional’s career.

Opportunities for recent master’s graduates

Recent master’s degree graduates typically have two types of job opportunities after finishing their programs.

They can pursue a hands-on, tactical role in a particular specialty, such as marketing or finance. Some employers prefer new hires who already understand relevant theories and practices in a specific discipline and can hit the deck running. In these cases, a candidate with a non-MBA business degree in a related field may offer a significant competitive advantage over one with only an bachelor’s degree, or even one with a generalist MBA degree.

Other master’s degree grads may prefer to enter a rotational management/leadership development program, which will enable them to keep their choices open after graduating. This option allows young professionals to continue learning about and observing various business disciplines before choosing a specific role. Employers offering these programs tend to prefer candidates with traditional MBAs. Their broader skill sets mean they can be more easily groomed to meet the company’s needs.

Mid-business career

Several years into a business career, after demonstrating their abilities and narrowing their work focus, professionals may face the decision whether to return to school to advance their careers. This is the best time to enter a graduate program, by the way; most top schools require applicants to have years of work experience, and you will learn more and more efficiently as an experience professional than you would as a freshly minted undergraduate degree holder.

As with those just starting out, they need to consider whether they want to become a senior manager or a subject-matter expert. For those eager to lead teams and be measured by bottom-line results, an MBA degree (especially from bua top school) can facilitate advancement to senior management opportunities. But if a person’s driving passion is a specific discipline, then having a master’s in that field may be a better fit and be more valuable to the hiring organization.

The long run

The correlation between academic credentials and career opportunities varies by industry. For example, in top-tier management consulting firms, having an MBA from a leading school of business is nearly a requirement for those ascending to partnership level.

If someone’s experience relates to general management, then an MBA is probably the better choice. Exposure to every major business discipline offers enough depth to deal with specialists in those fields, and it also provides the breadth necessary for graduates to oversee multiple departments. Furthermore, those who opt for a traditional two-year MBA can have a summer internship through which to explore a new industry, company, and role before committing to it.

In major technology companies, however, having a specialized master’s in internet technology (IT) could have more value to an upwardly mobile executive. If a person’s career is likely to remain within a single discipline (e.g., finance or IT), then a non-MBA master’s degree could be the ticket to becoming Chief Financial Officer (CFO) or Chief Technology Officer (CTO) one day. This is not to say that you couldn’t pursue these roles with an MBA and relevant experience, but rather, that these are viable pathways for the non-MBA master’s business graduate as well.

A hybrid

Of course, there’s a third option beyond a generalist MBA or a specialized non-MBA master’s degree: You could consider an MBA with a formal concentration in the discipline or industry that interests you most. There is an array of concentrations — ranging from broad categories like human resources or health care to narrow areas such as sports management or wine and spirits. The options vary dramatically by school.

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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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