To Master or to MBA?

A question as old as business education with an answer as intricate as Hamlet

A good education can always be made better. Recruiters nowadays demand more and higher qualifications so it will be hard to impress them with just a BA on your CV. In other words, jobs nowadays are becoming increasingly ‘skilled up’ and anyone who wants to boost their marketability should consider pursuing a graduate degree. It not only looks good on your CV, but is a major point of reference for employers. The value of the graduate degree has not diminished; on the contrary. So applying to university is a win-win move. The question, however, remains of what to pursue: a Master’s or an MBA? The answer is simple. If you set yourself clear goals and make an informed decision, the results can only be positive.

Different career paths

If your ultimate goal is to hone your business skills and secure yourself a management position, you should pursue an MBA. It is a postgraduate degree awarded to students who have mastered the study of business. The MBA is still considered one of the most prestigious and sought-after degrees in the world. In many cases an MBA degree is required for executive and senior management positions – in fact, for some jobs, you won't even be considered unless you have an MBA. The degree can be career-changing (it can help you switch industries and head in a completely new professional direction) and a stepping-stone towards leadership. 

If, however, you want to gain advanced knowledge in a certain field and you are not set on a business management career path, you should opt for a Master’s degree. It provides you with advanced knowledge in the field of your choice (and there are plenty of fields to choose from) as well as with a high level of skills and techniques associated with the chosen subject area, and a range of transferable and professional skills gained through independent and highly focused learning and research. The Master’s doesn’t teach management, but instead is meant to help you kick-start your career in the professional venue of your choice. It makes you eligible for a greater number of more lucrative entry-level positions and opens up a wider range of career choices after graduation.

Age and work experience can be a factor

Master's applicants are usually college graduates in their 20s with little work experience who want to develop certain professional skills before making a career for themselves. In most cases Master’s degree programmes are designed as a natural continuation to an undergraduate one. So in order to enrol in a Master’s programme, you may be required to have a certain academic background but practical, on-the-job experience is not a must.

MBA candidates, on the other hand, are for the most part working professionals who want to climb up the hierarchical level or change industries while keeping their managerial status. The Master's curriculum will be teaching you the hard skills. If you sign up for a non-MBA Master's degree in Finance, for example, you’ll be focusing on financial reporting and analysis, accounting etc., while the MBA helps master the soft skills (leadership, communication and corporate awareness) that will give you an edge on the job market. Also, the MBA curriculum is based on active teamwork, discussions and the sharing of projects – all of which require some previous work experience.

Does Location Matter?

Contrary to popular belief, Master's are more location-bound than MBAs. The geographical location of the grad school may turn out to be a decisive factor for Master's candidates, especially when it comes to their employability. When choosing a university, it is advisable to see if the school will impact where you’re likely to find work. For programmes that have a practical placement component, geography may play an even bigger role because the mentoring relationships created often lead to future job opportunities.

For many MBAs, on the other hand, initial location choice no longer matters. INSEAD, which splits its Full-time MBA across France and Singapore and is ranked within the top five of the MBA rankings, have suggested that choosing a destination is now much less important. Pejay Belland, director of admissions at INSEAD, says that: “Initial location choice no longer matters, as multiple locations allow for many networking opportunities, being exposed to different perspectives about the world economy, [and] adoption of different business practices.” Commenting on the increased globalisation of business schools, Pejay adds: “An MBA is no longer just about grasping the fundamentals of business, but about developing deeper cross-border collaborations with people from diverse cultures and understanding various markets in countries such as China, India or Brazil.”

The global nature of business and the growth of emerging markets have contributed to business schools like INSEAD delivering MBA programmes in multiple locations, while many more have set up campuses in emerging markets such as Africa.

Networking as the value added to the graduate degree

Universities are closed communities of bright, forward-thinking individuals from various backgrounds. By opting to go for a Master’s degree, you also apply to become part of a culturally, socially and intellectually diverse environment. Enrolling for a Master's degree also opens the school’s alumni database to you. This is a rich source of contacts that can help you build a strong network of friends and connections which can be quite valuable when you go into the professional world – helping you not only to land the desired job but also keep it, for your classmates today can be your business partners tomorrow.

The extended network of useful business contacts is one unquestionable asset of the MBA. As an MBA student you have great networking opportunities. Through this type of study you get to know and interact in a relevant manner (in a context that accentuates your business management capabilities) with colleagues (future high-level managers), professors and teaching staff (usually former or current potent business people, with great in-field experience). Last but not least, you gain access to the extensive alumni network of that particular MBA programme and of others (professionals in key positions with whom you already have a direct link through the MBA education you possess). This extensive, well-consolidated business network is bound to pay off throughout your whole career, making you the first-hand recipient of all relevant information in the field and giving you better chances at seizing the best opportunities.

The balance sheet

The choice of an MBA or a Master's degree is a dilemma that can be easily solved if you set your goals well from the outset. If you are fresh out of college and are looking to expand your knowledge in a certain field, develop professional skills in an area of interest and improve your marketability, then a Master's is a good idea. If on the other hand, you have fair amount of work experience and want to move up into management at an international level, create a company or just completely change your job and area, the MBA will do the trick.

This article has been produced by Advent Group and featured in the 2015-2016 Access Masters Guide

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