In-Depth Guide to Business Administration Master's Programs [2021 Edition]
December 29, 2021
The MBA is the most popular business-focused master's degree, but it's not the only one, and it may not be the best one for you. This article takes a long look at alternative business administration master's programs you might consider.
Graduate school will never hurt your professional prospects. That said, the relative value of a master's degree varies by field and by diploma.
A master's indicates that you have high-level theoretical and practical skills and knowledge—because graduate programs dive deeper into subjects than undergrad programs—but that doesn't mean having an advanced degree translates into more money or greater access to opportunity. Master's degree holders typically out-earn bachelor's degree holders, but sometimes not by much.
Some of the highest-paying master's degrees are graduate-level business administration degrees. The classic Master of Business Administration is one of them. It is, in fact, the only b-school degree many students consider. However, many other business administration master's programs can open new doors, help you switch careers, and otherwise make you more marketable.
Choosing among them isn't easy. The MBA might seem a no-brainer option, but consider your goals in returning to school and determine what you hope to get out of your degree program. It may be that pursuing another business-focused graduate degree makes more sense.
In this guide to business administration master's programs, we cover:
- What is business administration?
- What is an MBA?
- How is a Master of Science different from an MBA?
- What is a master's in business administration?
- What is a master's in business analytics?
- What is a master's in financial economics?
- What is a master's in financial engineering?
- What is a master's in marketing/digital marketing?
- What is a master's in MIS?
- What is a master's in operation research?
- What is a master's in real estate?
- What is a master's in supply chain management?
- What is a Master of Health Administration (MHA)?
- Should I get an MBA or an MS in business?
What is business administration?
Academic business administration is the study of how businesses are managed. It's a broad discipline encompassing everything related to the oversight of business operations. This includes but is not limited to:
- Business development
- Facilities management
- Human resource management
- Information technology (IT)
- Information systems management
- Operations management
- Product management
- Project management
- Quality assurance
Business administration cuts a wide path, creating hundreds of undergraduate and graduate degree options. The BBA and MBA are just two possible options open to students in the United States.
Definition of business administration
There's no one exhaustive definition of business administration. In addition to being a course of study in higher education, it's also everything involved in the art of management, and it's essential to the stability of any business enterprise. As Paul Pigors observed in Leadership or Domination, "The administrative function... insures the continuance of the existing order with a minimum of effort and risk. Its fundamental aim is to 'carry on' rather than to venture along new and untried paths. Administrators are, therefore, the stabilizers of society and the guardians of tradition."
MBA vs. Master of Science in a business-related field
The best alternative to getting an MBA might be getting a master's in management, but again, it's only one of many options. There are numerous specialized master's degree pathways focused on specific areas of business administration, from supply chain management to financial management to healthcare administration.
If your long-term plans involve staying in one field for your entire career or specializing in one area of business administration, you may get more out of a focused Master of Science program than a generalist MBA program. On the other hand, having both an MS and an MBA can be a career booster.
"A business master's degree is not necessarily the end of graduates' business education," said Sangeet Chowfla, president and CEO of GMAC, in a press release. "For many, their business master's degree is a stepping stone to continued professional development that may include an MBA down the road."
What is an MBA?
The MBA is an advanced business degree typically designed for professionals with some management experience. Generalist MBA programs cover general business topics in greater depth than BBA programs but still encourage big-picture thinking. Students in part-time, full-time, and executive MBA programs are often aspiring executives looking to step into roles like director, vice president, and chief executive officer.
Most MBA programs emphasize leadership, though schools approach the MBA curriculum differently. The existence of concentration-based programs makes it even harder to sum up this degree. You should probably think of the MBA as not one academic pathway but many. Students in an MBA in Entrepreneurship program will likely follow a very different course of study from an MBA in Aviation Management program.
The core classes in MBA programs teach students everything they need to succeed in executive-level and management positions or launch businesses. Coursework covers topics like:
- Business analytics
Some programs let students choose several elective classes related to either a field of interest (like technology or global management) or other general business topics (like communications or digital marketing). Most MBA programs require students to complete a summer internship and work on real-world case studies in class. Some also build domestic and international business residencies or excursions into the curriculum.
Who gets an MBA
Roughly one-third of the top CEOs in Fortune 500 companies have MBAs. This data point probably inspires many aspiring executives to apply to b-schools.
Not all MBA students are hoping to land a spot in the c-suite, however. Some need the degree to compete in crowded markets. There are also on-campus and online MBA programs designed for doctors who want to manage their practices more effectively and for nurses who wish to become nurse managers.
Which is to say: the MBA is a very versatile graduate degree. MBA programs attract men and women (though slightly more of the former) from across industries, professions, and skill areas.
How is a Master of Science different from an MBA?
Business-focused master's degree programs differ from MBA programs in many ways. We've listed the most significant differences:
- Master of Science programs accept applicants with little experience, while MBA programs typically require that applicants have years of real-world professional experience
- Master of Science programs tend to be shorter than MBA programs and require a less intense commitment
- Master of Science programs tend to cost less than MBA programs
- More Master of Science programs are field- or discipline-specific; many MBA programs offer a general degree covering all fundamental management disciplines
- Some employers treat an MBA as more valuable than other business-focused master's degrees
What is a master's in business administration?
You can think of the Master of Science in Business Administration (or Master of Science in Management or master's in management) as an MBA-lite. Some call it a "pre-experience business master's" degree. While master's in business administration programs have a lot in common with MBA programs, they typically don't require applicants to have significant professional experience. They're often designed for students with undergraduate degrees and entry-level experience but not the managerial skills they'll need to advance into supervisory roles.
Master's in business administration curriculum
The curriculum in master's in business administration programs is similar to the typical MBA curriculum. Students take core courses in:
- Corporate strategy
- Financial management
- Human resource management
- Marketing management
- Organizational behavior
- Professional communication
The master's in business administration curriculum also introduces students to the fundamental leadership skills managers need.
Is a master's in business administration worth it?
Absolutely, with the caveat that the MBA is the better degree for those with more professional experience. If you're fresh out of an undergrad degree program or have less than two years of work experience and your long-term career goals involve a corner office with your name on it, this degree can help set you along that path.
What can you do with a master's in business administration?
Students graduate from master's in business administration degree programs with the skills and knowledge to advance into industry-specific junior-level management roles and general management roles. With this degree, you might transition into positions like:
- General operations manager
- HR manager
- Manufacturing manager
- Product manager
- Project manager
- Team director
- Training manager
How much will you earn with a master's in business administration?
Master's in business administration graduates can earn salaries approaching $90,000, which is comparable to what many MBA holders earn after graduation. MBA salaries may rise more quickly, but that's mainly because MBA holders tend to have more experience than their colleagues who graduated from other business administration master's programs.
What is a master's in business analytics?
A Master of Science in Business Analytics (MSBA) is an interdisciplinary graduate degree that touches on business and data science. There are two types of MSBA programs. The first is for professionals with a background in data analytics who hope to step into more senior roles. The second is for business professionals and people from other backgrounds who want to transition into data analytics careers. In both, the overall focus of coursework might be on business principles, quant skills, or both.
Master's in business analytics curriculum
The curriculum in most Master of Science in Business Analytics programs includes coursework in:
- Analytics tools
- Big Data
- Business intelligence
- Data-driven storytelling
- Information theory
- Machine learning
- Optimization methods
Some MSBA programs—especially those geared toward experienced analytics professionals—are more technical than others. In those, you might take computer science and information theory courses, along with coding classes in R, Python, SAS, and SQL.
Is a master's in business analytics worth it?
There's money to be made at the intersection of business and tech. The average master's in business analytics salary is under $75,000, but that figure assumes you'll stay in business analyst or business intelligence roles. Graduates who devote their off-hours to studying the technical side of data analysis can use this degree to transition out of data analytics and into data science—a field where salaries are much higher.
What is a master's in financial economics?
The Master of Science in Financial Economics (MSFE) is the first business administration masters program we cover without 'business' in the title, but it won't be the last. Schools usually offer the master's in financial economics jointly through the business school and economics department. Students in MSFE programs explore the ways economic forces affect financial markets and how those effects impact other sectors. Programs are often highly technical, with core courses geared toward graduate students with strong math and programming skills.
Master's in financial economics curriculum
The curriculum in MSFE programs typically covers subjects like:
- Fixed income analysis
- Managerial accounting
- Managerial economics
- Microeconomics and macroeconomics
- Quantitative analysis
In some programs, coursework prepares students not only for careers in banking and business but also for CFA certification.
Is a master's in financial economics worth it?
This is a versatile degree. MSFE holders work as financial analysts, securities analysts, asset managers, commercial bankers, and compliance managers. Many people who earn this degree work in banking, but some go on to work in healthcare, real estate, public policy, and tech.
The median salary for MSFE holders is just $62,000, but salaries are largely dependent on title and experience. You could earn $100,000 or more with this graduate degree. Be aware, however, that most Master of Science in Financial Economics programs are small and selective.
What is a master's in financial engineering?
Financial engineers use computer science, advanced mathematics, and business strategies to make money. The work they do is complex. The master's in financial engineering is a multidisciplinary academic pathway. Students pursuing this degree learn the quant and comp sci skills necessary to develop high-tech financial products and automate everything from pricing to portfolio management.
Master's in financial engineering curriculum
Core courses in on-campus and online master's in financial engineering cover topics like:
- Algorithmic trading strategies
- Data science in finance
- Empirical financial methods
- Financial computing
- Financial services analytics
- Fixed income markets
- Probability theory
- Risk management and measurement
- Stochastic calculus
Some Master of Science in Financial Engineering programs expect incoming students to be proficient in languages like C++, C#, Python, and Java. Others cover coding in the curriculum.
Is a master's in financial engineering worth it?
Financially, absolutely. The site efinancialcareers called this degree the ticket to the hottest careers in finance and found that most students who graduated from top programs earned between $90,000 and $159,000. More importantly, this isn't a quant degree that leads to backroom computing careers. After graduation, you'll have the qualifications and the skills necessary to step into high-profile front-office roles in domestic and global business firms.
What is a master's in marketing/digital marketing?
The Master of Science in Marketing (or Master of Marketing) is a degree for professionals who want to learn more about the theories and principles of marketing and the best and most up-to-date practices and strategies. Most marketing master's degree programs include a technology component to address the digital and analytics-based channels marketers increasingly must master. In fact, traditional marketing-focused graduate programs are becoming increasingly indistinguishable from on-campus and online master's in digital marketing programs.
Master's in marketing/digital marketing curriculum
Traditional Master of Science in Marketing programs cover core subjects like:
- Applied marketing strategy
- Brand management
- Consumer behavior
- Customer relationship marketing
- Data-driven customer management
- International marketing
- Market research
- Marketing analytics
- Media planning and analysis
- Product management
- Retail analytics
- Visual communication
Master's in digital marketing programs cover much of the same ground, with additional courses in:
- Content marketing
- Data analytics
- Digital assets management
- Digital storytelling
- E-commerce marketing
- Email marketing
- Search engine marketing
- Social media management
- Web analytics and SEO
- UX optimization
Is a master's in marketing/digital marketing worth it?
Whether a master's degree in marketing is worth it depends on your long-term goals. Pursuing a Master of Science in Marketing can make it easier to grow your professional network, give you new tools for helping businesses grow, and strengthen negotiating power when it's time for that annual raise. This assumes, however, you plan to stay in the marketing department for your entire career. If you dream of becoming a CMO, this is the degree for you.
What is a master's in MIS?
This degree pathway has a confusing array of names. Some schools offer a Master of Science in Information Systems (MSIS). The University of Washington has an online Master of Science in Information Management program. Others confer a:
- Masters in Management Information Systems (MIS)
- Master of Science in Information Systems Management (MS-ISM)
- Master of Science in Management Information Systems (MSMIS)
- Master of Information Management and Systems
- Master of Science in Information Systems and Technology Management
- Master of Science in Information Systems Technology
However, all accredited master's in MIS programs cover topics related to using digital data and information technology to meet business goals. You won't learn to build networks or design software when you pursue an MSIS, but rather how to launch, maintain, and manage existing digital information systems for corporations, nonprofit organizations, and government agencies.
Master's in MIS curriculum
In both on-campus and online MS MIS programs, students complete coursework related to:
- Business problem-solving
- Cloud architecture
- Data analytics
- Database creation
- Database management
- Information security
- IT management
- IT technology
- Network administration
Is a master's in MIS worth it?
If you like working with technology but aren't interested in becoming a programmer or database engineer, this might be the discipline—and degree—for you. How much you can earn with a master's in information systems depends on many factors, not just your highest level of education. There are entry-level roles in information systems you can get without this master's degree. Still, you'll probably need an MSIS if you want to qualify for the best-paying jobs in information systems management like information systems director, enterprise architecture manager, or chief information officer.
What is a master's in operation research?
Operations research is a discipline focused entirely on solving problems. Operations researchers use probability, analytics, and mathematical modeling (plus a whole range of specialized software) to answer questions like:
- Which store layout will convince customers to spend the most?
- What's the optimal schedule of screenings for catching cancer early?
- Where should the fire station be located to reduce response times across the city?
Becoming an operations research analyst means getting a master's degree. Some operations researchers study data science or engineering in graduate school. Others study operations research at the master's level.
Master's in operation research curriculum
Classes in on-campus and online operations research programs cover topics like:
- Algorithm design and analysis
- Data analytics
- Logistics engineering
- Mathematical programming
- Optimization models
- Probability and statistics
- Scheduling theory
- Service system engineering
- Stochastic operations research models
Is a master's in operation research worth it?
An operation research master's is worth it simply because you'll need one to work in this field. The good news is it's a degree associated with relatively high pay and job satisfaction, which is why US News & World Report ranks jobs like operations research analyst high up on its lists of the best business jobs, best STEM jobs, and the best jobs overall.
What is a master's in real estate?
There are numerous master's in real estate programs, from the Master of Science in Real Estate (MSRE) to the Master of Real Estate Valuation and the Master of Science in Real Estate Development. Students often enroll in these programs after working in residential home sales. Some want to transition into commercial real estate management. Others aspire to more senior roles in real estate development, finance, or management.
Master's in real estate curriculum
The curriculum in on-campus and online master's in real estate programs generally covers topics like:
- Business management
- Market segment analysis
- Marketing in real estate
- Project management
- Public entitlements
- Real estate finance
- Real estate investment
- Real estate development
- Real estate law
- Real estate valuation
- Site analysis and design
Some MSRE programs are concentration-based. In those, students take core courses plus electives related to areas of specialization like asset management, sustainable development, construction management, affordable housing, or public-private partnerships.
Is a master's in real estate worth it?
Earning a Master of Science in Real Estate or another real estate-focused master's can provide a big advantage over your competition, whether you work in business development, acquisitions, or sales. According to one older Select Leaders' Real Estate Hiring Trends Survey, 70 percent of real estate companies prefer to hire candidates with advanced degrees. You'll probably earn more money with an MSRE, too, because you'll have the bona fides to transition into management-level positions and a more robust professional network to tap for opportunities.
What is a master's in supply chain management?
Modern supply chain management (SCM) is about more than getting raw materials and finished products where they need to go. Supply chain managers have to understand the fundamentals of procurement, materials management, logistics, and more. If they work for international firms, they need to know the rules and regulations governing global commerce. And data analytics and data science are increasingly a part of SCM. Earning a master's in supply chain management—whether it's a Master of Science in Supply Chain Management (MSSCM) or a Master's in Supply Chain Management (MSCM)—can prepare you to step into this specialized and exciting area of business.
Master's in supply chain management curriculum
Classes in the top supply chain master's programs dig into topics like:
- Business logistics
- Customer relationship management
- Demand chain management
- Electronic data interchange
- Enterprise resource planning
- Inventory control systems
- Inventory management
- Logistics management
- Operations management
- Procurement and strategic sourcing
- Project management
- Supply chain networks
- Supply chain security
- Quality management
- Vendor-managed inventory
Some supply chain graduate programs, like the University of Tennessee's online MS SCM, emphasize the business side of SCM and build capstone projects and immersions into the curriculum in much the same way MBA programs do.
Is a master's in supply chain management worth it?
The answer is yes, provided you're someone who is fascinated by everything that goes into producing and distributing the goods we use. While it's possible to advance in SCM with just a bachelor's degree, earning a master's degree can help you advance more quickly and earn more money. The top-paying jobs for supply chain management grads pay above $90,000, with some paying more than six figures. Having an advanced degree is helpful when your goal is to transition into those roles.
What is a Master of Health Administration (MHA)?
Healthcare administration is what keeps doctors' offices, hospitals, surgical centers, and other medical facilities up and running. Aspiring executives who enjoy working in medicine often choose MHA programs over MBA programs because of the curriculum's specialized nature. On-campus and online MHA programs teach many of the same management and leadership skills, but present them in the context of medical administration.
Master of Health Administration curriculum
Core classes in MHA programs usually cover topics like:
- Analytics for healthcare management
- Ethics in healthcare
- Financial management in healthcare
- Health insurance and managed care
- Health policy
- Human resources management in healthcare
- Legal considerations in medicine
- Medicare and Medicaid policy
- Performance improvement in healthcare
- Practice management
Some programs, like New York University's online MHA, are designed for generalists, but many have concentration-based curricula. A student pursuing an MHA in Nursing Home Management might take very different classes from one pursuing an MHA in Healthcare Operations.
Is a Master of Health Administration worth it?
Jobs in health administration are currently being created much faster than in other fields, so this is a good degree for anyone looking for job security. Healthcare administration jobs also pay quite well because this discipline is such an important (if often overlooked) part of patient care.
More importantly, this is a graduate degree for people who want to make a difference. Many studies have found that healthcare administration can have a positive impact on things like readmission rates and patient outcomes. Good administration matters.
Should I get an MBA or an MS in business?
If you're still not sure whether you should get an MBA or a master's degree in business, you're not alone. According to a 2018 Graduate Management Admissions Council student survey, the average student seriously considers more than three MBA and business master's program types before making a final decision. And yet, the MBA remains one of the most popular business-focused master's degrees in the US, if not the most popular. American colleges and universities award about 200,000 of them each year.
More people are pursuing non-MBA graduate management degrees, but full-time one-year and two-year MBA programs are still more popular with prospective students—even though the relative value of an MBA may be declining. Most MBAs don't end up becoming Fortune 500 executives, after all.
Your choice should be based not on the relative cachet of this or that diploma but on your goals. If you want to make as much money as possible or become CEO someday—and you enjoy business for business' sake—getting an MBA is a smart move. You can also move between industries with a generalist MBA, making it the most versatile b-school degree. On the other hand, if your motivation for studying management is very firmly rooted in another area of interest (like finance or IT or nursing), a specialized business master's degree program might be the better fit. You'll probably be happiest in a program that puts your passions first and business fundamentals second.
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