The Importance of Theory in Master’s Education

The theoretical framework of a subject is often overlooked even at Master's level, as the locus is the subject matter and that alone in some disciplines. Other supplementary information is considered to be an extra benefit to a CV rather than a necessity, but could this actually be more useful than practical skills that can be learnt through physically doing something? Certainly some of the more interesting information to be learnt at MBA level is theory based, but sometimes theoretical frameworks and models can digress into pseudoscientific postulations. There is a good basis then, for employers to choose those who demonstrate sharp business skills above those who have a love for the subject. But the case must also be made for the relevance of subsidiary knowledge and the role it plays in helping businesses grow.

Of course, some background knowledge is always required, but a concise understanding of all things pertaining to one broad subject, like business, would take an entire lifetime of dedicated learning to achieve. There is the distinct possibility that a student will prefer to study the theoretical aspects of a subject more than the practical ones. However, if the course is based on a practical subject such as Business Studies, then its theoretical counterpart, Economics, should be chosen if one would prefer to discuss a broad range of less practical but more in-depth subjects and analyse one against the other. One of the advantages to doing this is that it boosts creative thinking leading to novel solutions in an entrepreneurial industry that is centred on logic. This is a key feature employers look for, according to Monster Worldwide representatives. A broad knowledge of economic theory is a good basis to build on and use in business situations where it may not ordinarily be used. Consider the similarities and differences between a man and a machine. Just as an autonomous machine will search for all available options in its hard drive to solve a problem, and come up with the best solution based on how far up it is on its top-down procedure list, a human facing a problem will search top-down through the most obvious solutions first, and then the less obvious ones. The difference between the two is that the human understands the concept of collateral damage, consequence and longevity, whilst the robot does not.

Similarly, in the business world, if a business professional chooses a more obvious solution, with ramifications that damage the company in the long or short term, then s/he has failed to find a solution that perhaps requires more work to achieve but that catalyses the least amount of collateral damage. Autonomous robots can reach their parameters in the space of a second, but they are limited in their understanding of human behaviour and needs. Therefore, the more theoretical knowledge of humans that is coded into the deliberation systems in their hard-drives, the better their solutions. But there is only so much we know of our own consciousness and only so much space on a hard drive, so maybe robots won't take over all of our jobs just yet. Humans who study theory may take longer to assess and explore all of the potential solutions to a problem compared to a robot; sometimes weeks, months, even years, but they may be able to find the solution that minimises loss and maximises profit by viewing a problem peripherally. In his microeconomic study on employee startups in high-tech industries, Steven Klepper mentions that this is often why candidates who have studied theoretical degree subjects are chosen for positions in start-ups and departments in innovation.

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At University College London, Master's level students are expected to have a 'developed interest' in a subject. A postgraduate taught or research degree will require the student to know a great deal in an area relevant to that particular degree, even if it is not in exactly the same field. To some extent, it is a case of enjoyment, since if one does not enjoy a subject then it could be difficult to invest so much time studying it. In any case, it takes persistence and dedication, as there will be parts of the course which are not as interesting as others, or more challenging. Researchers of pedagogy at MIT have found that students learn from other students almost to the same extent that they learn from teachers, so it is important in every postgraduate classroom to have an eclectic mix of backgrounds so that there are rounded arguments. This may sometimes unduly produce slightly skewed selection criteria, as an abundance of similar qualities is often not as desirable to universities as a diverse range of opinions. This is in part due to the percentage of learners who prefer to learn through kinesthetic media such as arguments. A pedagogical study published by the University of Illinois found that around 50% of students preferred kinesthetic learning to visual and auditory, contrary to the findings of older models of education such as Emerson's autodidactic model. Kinesthetic learning and argumentation specifically require a lot of practical skill, as debate is learnt by studying discursive practice. This is most evident in the techniques that politicians use in interviews with journalists. The way that they hedge and distance themselves from awkward topics, because they don't know the answer or don't want to give an answer, is an example of the study of persuasion and the theory of persuasive language. The theory of the 'manufacturing of consent' is noticeable in positions of power, and therefore needs to be taught to be used in a manner that is conducive to prosperity, rather than covertly masking negatives. If political theory was taught in this manner to political advisors, then we would perhaps see a more honest democratic response to media reporters.

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The job prospects that one can expect after demonstrating a keen interest in a particular subject relevant to a particular job are numerous. They are usually in high positions as well, since employers look to give those who have the ability to make difficult decisions important roles where knowledge and experience is valued above leadership. The director of the Education Department at the University of Warwick, Ian Abbot, observes that the MBA is a 'golden ticket' to all levels of employment. But other employers such as Barclays have changed their tune of late and require more 'emotional intelligence' in their employees, due to the amount of client based activity and interaction required in most positions in banking. It may be that a mixture of the two is the ideal for all professional positions, as it is difficult to imagine a situation in which a more rounded knowledge of a subject is a bad thing, and it is impossible to demonstrate this knowledge without the skill to make a cohesive argument.

READ : Theory is important. But not as much as the decision to Masters or not to Masters

This article is original content produced by Advent Group and included in the 2016-2017 annual Access Masters Guide. The digital guide file will soon be available for download. In the meantime, you may download our 2015-2016 Guide here.

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