Thinking About Getting a Master's in Finance? Read This First.
March 10, 2021
You don't need a degree from a top-ten institution to have a very successful career in finance.
Now is a great time to start a career in finance. US News & World Report lists three finance jobs—financial manager, financial advisor, and financial analyst—among its top 15 best business jobs in 2019, and two more—actuary and accountant—whose skill sets overlap significantly with finance's. Businesses have a need for people who understand valuation, financial modeling, and risk assessment.
So what's your entry point? An advanced degree is a great way to bolster your finance career. If you think finance is for you but aren't entirely sure, consider an MBA, perhaps with a concentration in finance. But if you know finance is your one true calling, you may want to pursue a degree that focuses more exclusively on the skills and principles needed to succeed in high-level finance. A master's in finance is probably the right choice for you.
But there are so many finance master's programs out there. How to decide which one best suits your career goals? As you consider programs, take a close look at their curricula, pedagogic approach, cost, accreditation, and reputation. You should also give some thought to whether an on-campus or online program is a better fit for you.
Curriculum Finance is a broad discipline amenable to multiple approaches, so it should come as no surprise that different master's in finance programs vary considerably both in their core courses and their electives. For example:
- A master's from Princeton University features "a strong emphasis on financial economics, data analysis and technology," requiring "a solid understanding of the fundamental quantitative tools… vital to the financial industry." This is a quant-heavy program; its core curriculum includes stochastic calculus and advanced derivatives, subjects other programs offer as electives, or not at all.
- On the other hand, the master's program at University of Southern California, while hardly ignoring quantitative skills, places more emphasis on accounting, economics, and corporate governance. Compared to Princeton, USC's curriculum covers a broader range of finance-related business subjects, but in less depth. Note these differences as you compare programs. Be aware that each school's curriculum is tailored to its overall philosophy, the skill set of its faculty, and the job markets the program serves.
Fortunately, master’s in finance programs post their curricula online. Review these carefully with your career goals in mind. You will see that some programs emphasize theory and advanced quantitative analysis, while others focus more on practical skills. Which is a better fit for you? Also, do you want to specialize? Some program offer specialization tracks, others only a generalized degree. There are programs that offer only a fixed set of courses with no electives. Others mandate a small core with plenty of latitude to customize.
Online or on-campus? Until recently, those seeking a master's in finance online had relatively few options. Not any more; each year more excellent finance programs join the online education community. Online education eliminates the need for classroom space, and that means increased enrollment and increased opportunities for candidates applying to top institutions. That student in Wyoming who dreams of attending Massachusetts Institute of Technology now not only has a better chance of being admitted but also no longer needs to leave Wyoming in order to complete the program. Online programs also tend to be more accommodating of part-time students than are on-campus programs, allowing students to continue working as they complete their degrees.
On-campus programs still offer more options, both in terms of the number of programs available (i.e. there are many more on-campus master's in finance programs than there are online) and the number of specializations and electives (online programs tend to have a smaller selection of electives than their on-campus counterparts). And, in terms of networking with faculty, alumni, and companies that recruit on campus, the on-campus option is more effective than online. On-campus programs may also offer access to high-tech labs and other facilities that are unavailable to online students. Finally, on-campus programs are usually full-time, meaning you'll complete the degree more quickly. In the end, you'll need to balance the convenience and flexibility of online study against the advantages on-campus learning offers.
Pedagogy Pedagogy—the way material is taught—is an underlooked aspect of graduate education. And yet it's important: how material is taught can have at least as great an impact on your learning as does the teacher herself. Schools generally don't expend a lot of space on their websites discussing their faculty's teaching methods, but you can glean some sense of the program's overall teaching philosophy there. Does the program offer lots of hands-on experience, such as labs, internships, and outside projects? Or is learning mostly imparted through sit-down lectures? You can also search websites like ratemyprofessors.com to see what other student say about individual instructors at each school, although these sites tend to skew heavily toward undergraduate study and are therefore of limited use to master's students.
If you're considering the online option, make sure to preview the online experience. Contact an admissions representative at each program you're considering and ask whether you can tour the learning interface (most commonly referred to as the Learning Management System, or LMS). You want to make sure that it has a clean and intuitive design, and that all the content—text, interactive apps, streaming video, downloadable documents—displays and plays correctly on your computer. You also want to see how the content is presented. Is the asynchronous content entirely text-based, or does it include streaming video and interactive simulations? Are the videos well produced, or are they hard to watch? Your master's will require you to perform a lot of advanced mathematics. How will those assignments be managed online? These may seem like pretty granular questions; they won't when you're trying to upload an assignment at 3 a.m.
Cost A master's degree requires a significant investment of money, time, and effort. Your life will be disrupted while you pursue your degree: your career may stall or stop completely; your romantic and family life will be challenged by your academic commitments; and your opportunities for leisure activity will likely disappear entirely. Thousands of people pursue master's degrees every year and survive it, so it's not exactly a Herculean ordeal, but it is challenging, and you need to be aware of that before you commit.
The price tag on a master's varies widely among programs. An online master's from West Texas A&M will cost in-state residents $14,000 in tuition, while a master's from Princeton University will cost over $100,000. In general, state universities will be less expensive than private institutions, although there are exceptions on both ends of that equation.
Accreditation Most universities award their MF and MSF degrees through their business schools. To ensure potential students that their programs meet baseline standards, schools seek accreditation, a process through which an independent organization evaluates a school’s student body, faculty, retention and graduation rates, facilities, curricula, and alumni satisfaction. Accreditation indicates that a school has been reviewed by experts and deemed sufficient to confer degrees.
A number of national and international organizations accredit business schools, and most prominent business programs earn accreditation from at least one. Because these organizations value different qualities, some business schools seek accreditation from more than one (in order to demonstrate their strength across different metrics).
Regional accreditors evaluate colleges and universities as a whole, i.e. they do not evaluate programs within the institution individually. Many business schools acquire this form of accreditation instead of, or in addition to, national accreditation. Regional accreditation may sound less prestigious than national accreditation, but in fact it is typically regarded as at least equal in value. Most regional accreditors have operated for much longer than the national accreditors, and their prominence among academics and employers is long well-established.
The accreditation process can be costly to schools (particularly in the labor required to prepare for an accreditation review), and some schools forgo the process for that reason. That doesn't mean their programs are inadequate, necessarily; it simply means they lack the imprimatur of an accreditation organization. Even so, employers generally prefer candidates whose degrees come from accredited institutions, making them the safer choice.
Reputation A degree from a prestigious institution can be a big career-booster. Who isn't impressed by a degree from Harvard or Princeton? It indicates not only that a great school deemed you an exceptional candidate, but also that you completed a challenging program led by some of the nation's top thinkers in the world of finance. Your degree proclaims that you have been pre-vetted, which employers—who love anything that makes their hiring decisions easier—appreciate.
You don't need a degree from a top-ten institution to have a very successful career in finance, however. Many master's programs, both on campus and online, are highly regarded and will give your career a significant boost. The very top programs have a national reputation; many others are widely respected regionally and locally. Visit the websites of all programs you are considering, click on the Careers tab, and look at the list of recent employers of graduates. These are the employers who value the school's degree most, the ones most likely to recruit you when you graduate. Look at them and ask yourself whether that list reflects your career goals.
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