Should you apply for a Masters degree or an MBA? It is all about you and the vocation which inspires your intellectual curiosity, the field you want to plunge into and make a difference. It is also about the lifestyle that you always dreamed of. It is about you in a world full of opportunities to learn and grow throughout your life.
A Masters degree delivers advanced academic knowledge and develops the skills needed for career development. Employers value higher academic qualifications and the latest hiring trends are positive. The 2017 Corporate Recruiters Survey of the Graduate Management Admission Council (GMAC) reveals that “a greater percentage of employers plan to hire business Masters graduates in 2017” with an increase of 10% and 20% respectively for Masters in Management and Masters in Finance graduates. Another positive development reported by the survey is that employers’ plans to hire international graduates “remain steady despite recent political uncertainty.”
Masters degree studies are the right next step in several circumstances – to gain deep professional expertise in the field of your first degree; to step into a new professional field with a non-consecutive Masters programme; to move to a higher level of your career with an advanced qualification and skill set; to stay abreast of new developments or technologies that can impact or enhance your role. For example, if your major is in Finance and your interests are in the financial sector but you want to dive deeper into public finances or corporate finances, you can advance your financial knowledge with a specialised Masters in that particular field. Or if you want to advance your knowledge in a particular branch of science and move into an academic role, then a Masters, particularly a research-based Masters, can prepare you for the new role and even, if it is your target, to climb to a third-cycle education with a PhD.
Graduate studies can be a great way to prepare yourself for a more senior or managerial role in your current organisation or profession. Speaking of a managerial role, the first Masters programme that comes to mind is the Master of Business Administration (MBA) – the most recognisable business degree worldwide. As a matter of fact, reaching a top managerial position does not necessarily mean studying a dedicated management programme such as an MBA. But it is worthwhile to note the differences between the two types of degree, so that you can plan your next steps.
Business Masters vs MBA degree
A business Masters and an MBA are both Masters-level postgraduate degrees granted to students who have demonstrated a high level of knowledge. However, the programmes differ significantly as regards eligibility, focus, and personal development. There are several main distinctions between the degrees.
Masters degrees are designed for candidates who are at the beginning of their career, or for graduates who want a higher level qualification before entering the job market. MBA degrees utilise the professional experience of professionals and peer learning, so they have a prerequisite of at least two years (sometimes three) of full-time professional experience. While the MBA is suited to students from any academic or professional background who want greater career flexibility, management roles, or business ownership, Masters programmes are the better option for students who want highly specialised knowledge in a specific area. That is why many highly specialised Masters programmes require an academic background in a relevant field of study or even some work experience. Non-consecutive Masters programmes are the exception as they are targeted at those who want to change their academic field of study or make a career switch.
The MBA is a multi-subject degree that covers topics from finance and leadership to technology and marketing, while the business Masters is a highly specialised degree that dives deeply into one topic such as accounting, management, human resources, information technology, etc. An MBA degree – through its curriculum of multiple business disciplines – offers a broader view of business management. For that reason, the MBA degree is a better choice for those whose aspirations are in the field of general management, executive leadership, or entrepreneurship. On the other hand, a business Masters degree helps students to become real experts in one functional area, building on the skills gained at undergraduate level and developing their knowledge of a specific area. The curriculum focuses on developing analytical and technical skills, rather than on leadership and management as in an MBA programme. For that reason a business Masters is always suitable for professionals who aspire to careers of thorough subject-matter expertise.
A first university degree (a Bachelor’s or equivalent) is a prerequisite for enrolling in either type of programme – Masters or MBA. However, it is often the case that MBA students obtained a Masters degree prior to enrolling in the course, which shows that gaining a Masters degree and continuing to an MBA adds value, professionally and personally.
Indeed, it is often the case that professionals do a Masters degree to gain professional expertise, but later in their career go for an MBA to transition to a management role. However, the opposite switch – from an MBA to a Masters – is also possible. “I started the MBA with a concentration in HR, and then switched to a Masters in HR Management (HRM). My reasoning for switching programmes was simple – the Masters offered more opportunity for me to take the classes I wanted,” says Sheila Russ, a graduate from Virginia Commonwealth University (US). “The MBA programme offered a better overall knowledge of business with 12 classes – but only four of them were electives, so the majority of your course load was chosen for you.”
Employers are also aware of this difference. According to Gary Garber, an HR professional in a Chicago-based finance company, an MBA has a ton of general business courses and only a few HR ones. “As a graduate of Cornell’s Masters in Industrial and Labour Relations (MILR), my experience is the opposite – the MILR has a ton of HR courses and only a few general business ones,” Mr Garber says. “Employers certainly consider both degrees, but I think where there are specific HR vacancies, then the level of specialised knowledge the MILR provides you with wins out,” he adds.
What is the best next step?
Which direction to take while standing at the Masters–MBA crossroads might be a difficult choice. According to higher education and organisational development consultant Gail Whitaker, there are five questions every prospective student should ask before deciding which their next degree programme should be:
Where do I see myself in five or ten years and beyond?
Do you see yourself leading a company or being an expert in your field? Do you thrive at managing people or do you prefer to unravel the details of a specific challenge? What is it about your work that excites, motivates, and inspires you? Answering these questions will help you visualise your ideal future and thus help make the decision easier.
What have recent graduates experienced?
Once you have a picture of your ideal career path, confirm your instincts by connecting with recent graduates for informational interviews regarding the degree programmes you are considering.
How are professionals using their advanced degree now?
Expand your conversations to include experienced professionals who have already found success in the careers you are interested in pursuing. Once you make contact, your goal is to glean as much insight as you can from professionals who have been in your shoes.
Which degree is best suited to the type of position I want?
Most employers who seek business candidates with Masters level education specifically request an MBA degree, but may accept a Masters level degree in a similar or related field depending upon the occupation.
Does the curriculum offer the skills, knowledge, and flexibility I need in order to reach my goals?
As each programme can vary in its curriculum, teaching method, duration, and delivery options, thorough research of the curriculum and the format is important, to see whether it will provide you with the skills you lack and will suit you.
Indeed, we live in a world full of opportunities for learning and career development. For some, choices are always based on thorough research and analysis; others trust their intuition. In both cases, you have to know your options. Afterwards, just build the strategy that will take you where you will truly make a difference. This fast-changing world appreciates life-long learning.