You need to take a number of factors into account before choosing between Masters and MBA programmes.
In the eyes of employers, traditional Masters and Master of Business Administration (MBA) degrees add substantial value to job candidates. They are not, however, a golden ticket to success. Studying at such a high level requires serious commitment as the courses move away from the more passive nature of Bachelor’s programmes, where lectures are generally the focus, to collaborative studying where success is measured by one’s own will and motivation to learn and contribute. This change allows a more hands-on approach to learning through analytical discussions among peers and the constructive criticism that such discourse entails. Masters programmes are the last stage where communicative teaching is of great prominence, since at the PhD level studying patterns become more insular and research more focused. But before you reach the PhD milestone, which programme, if either, is right for you?
Ideally, an MBA candidate should have sufficient experience in a field so he or she has the knowledge base to build upon. This is, in part, due to the format of the MBA programme, which is generally collaborative. Professors act more like supervisors, while in Masters programmes they usually lecture students on the specifics of a subject. For candidates to be considered for an MBA programme, they must have experience managing other people or potential to do so. Bringing together people with such backgrounds promotes networking, which is essential for the development of MBA students because they need contacts to prosper in business, according to the Chief Executive of the London School of Business, Professor Maurits van Rooijen. This process allows quality relationships to flourish among like-minded individuals with similar backgrounds.
Masters programmes, on the other hand, do not require any previous work experience, just a graduate willing and able to develop ideas and drive the field forward. If you are looking for a career in business but don’t have the relevant work experience, then a Masters degree in a subject such as economics or finance (which often includes many of the core modules of MBA programmes) is a proper alternative. The Masters programme will also give you a decisive edge over candidates holding BA or BSc degrees. Masters degrees can be viewed as an extension of Bachelor’s programmes and, as such, require some sort of academic background related to the field of study. Practical experience is not essential for most Masters programmes even though it can boost the candidates’ admission chances. This is because it demonstrates a keen interest in the respective field, which you will need to write about in your motivation letter in any case. In a traditional Masters programme, hard skills are the main focus. In the MBA, students are expected to already have adequate hard skills, so the focus is on soft skills.
Due to the experience needed to join an MBA programme, the average age of MBA students is 27-28 years. This puts the MBA between the traditional Masters degree and the EMBA (Executive Master of Business Administration) degree in terms of age of the participants. The average work experience of MBA graduates at Oxford University last year was 5.5 years and most of the applicants had already achieved a lot in their professional lives. The MBA requires a more mature, autonomous approach to learning, aided by the guidance of faculty staff. The traditional Masters degree programmes, which incorporate students with an average age of 24, still require participants to learn through autodidactic means such as classroom discussion, but not to the same extent as the MBA.
The MBA programme focuses on improving the practical skills of the students and on grooming them for management and leadership roles. MBA programmes are very useful for driven business professionals who want to take the next step up the corporate ladder or who want to branch out in a different direction.
There is a generalised approach common in many MBA programmes, while Masters programmes are more specialised in nature, providing students with in-depth academic and theoretical knowledge in a specific area.
Some executives, such as Gary Garber, an HR professional at a finance company in Chicago, see this as a negative factor in MBA programmes, emphasising the importance of in-depth knowledge at Masters level. Others, such as Mattan Griffel, founder of The Front Labs technical marketing company, feel that in-depth knowledge is unnecessary in a Masters programme revolving around business studies.
If, however, you are seeking another route to success, one that entails exceptional hard skills and profound knowledge in a subject area, then a traditional Masters degree could prove to be the better choice. Although considered an extension of the Bachelor’s degree, a Masters degree is in fact a standalone programme, which aims to impart specialised knowledge. Marketing is a good example. Let’s say a student has pursued a Bachelor’s degree in Marketing Communications. A classic Masters route would be to specialise in branding, PR, or advertising, all of which are part of Marketing Communications, but large enough areas to be practised individually for a lifetime. The Masters degree shatters huge areas of knowledge into pieces and gives the student a shard in order to transform him or her into an exceptional specialist. If the Masters was a person, it would be a profession coach, teaching you all the tips and tricks of the trade, so that upon entering the workforce, you can practise that profession as if you have years of work experience behind you.
By and large, this is the core difference between the Masters and the MBA. In considering (or not) factors such as work and management experience, age, and career starting points, the two degrees cater to entirely different groups of students. Candidates contemplating which route to take must understand that they are dealing with two options, rather than a single choice between the two. How do you make the right decision? Consider where you stand in your personal and professional development, and where you want to arrive with the help of education, and you will have a better answer than any author, book, or coach can ever give you.
This article is original content produced by Advent Group and included in the 2016-2017 annual Access MBA, EMBA and Masters Guide.