One of the most persistent myths about graduate education holds that, no matter what your professional background or educational history, if you want to advance in your career, you have to acquire an MBA. Without a doubt, an MBA looks good on your CV, provides solid management training and helps expand your professional network. However, it is not the right choice for everyone, nor is it an absolute necessity if you wish to make it to the top of your industry.

Depending on their backgrounds, many grad school applicants will be better served by a more specialised Master’s degree, such as in finance or accounting, or in a subject that is relevant to their professional interests. It helps to have clear professional goals and understand how your past experience relates to these goals. Knowing your interests will enable you to select a field in which you would still be happy five or ten years from now.

So how do you decide if you should pursue an MBA or a Master’s degree in another field? Here are a few tips:

A Master’s degree helps you specialise and obtain advanced knowledge in a field, while an MBA provides broad training in business management. By and large, Master’s programmes are more theoretical and involve completing a Master’s thesis or a final project, whereas MBAs have a practical focus and require students to find solutions to real-world case studies and business problems. That said, an MBA by itself does not make you job-ready, just as a non-MBA Master’s degree is not necessarily a stepping stone towards a doctorate or an academic career. The MBA degree is not only meant for career changes (switching industries and heading in a completely new professional direction) but is also a stepping stone towards leadership. It broadens a person’s horizons and gives him/her international scope, thus allowing for relocation after graduation (by landing a foreign job). On the contrary, the Master’s doesn’t teach management, but instead is meant to help you kick start your career and get a flying start in your professional development. The MBA degree, on the other hand is, in most cases, the last time in a person’s life that he or she has to study seriously. It is a degree that will be applicable throughout your entire career.

Both degrees have their practical applications and can lead to career advancement, but only if applicants have a clear idea of where they want to get professionally. Last but not least, applicants’ backgrounds are just as important as career objectives in helping identify the right programme.

Recent BA/BS graduates

An MBA does not make much sense unless you already have some years of work experience; in fact, most MBA programmes will not even consider you unless you have been in the workforce for a few years. Part of the reason is that the primary method of teaching in MBA programmes is collaborative, with professors serving as moderators rather than as lecturers; MBA candidates are expected to be able to contribute to class discussions and group projects by sharing their insights and experience. Recent graduates with no work experience will have a hard time complying with these requirements.

A suitable alternative for recent college graduates are Master’s degrees in business-related subjects, such as finance, management and accounting, or graduate programmes relevant to their interests, as they normally do not require prior work experience and will help students deepen their knowledge in an area of interest.

A Master’s degree will also provide recent BA graduates with a much-needed edge over other candidates in an increasingly competitive job market. Many new graduates choose to enrol in Master’s programmes instead of settling for the increasingly low wages that BA holders are now offered at the beginning of their careers. This investment normally pays off: an advanced degree qualifies individuals for more lucrative entry-level positions and opens up a wider range of career choices after graduation.

Working professionals

If your CV contains a respectable work history, then an MBA is an option for you, but it is not your only choice and certainly not the best option in every case. Furthermore, MBAs come with particularly hefty price tags that will set you back years. Only if you land a job that pays significantly more than your old job will you get a good ROI. Scholarships and other financing options are more readily available for non-MBA programmes than for MBA degrees. 

A non-MBA Master’s degree in finance, accounting or another area of business might be a more suitable option for you than an MBA if you see yourself in a more specialised management role or wish to acquire advanced knowledge in a subject that is applicable across industries. Alternatively, if you are looking to enter an industry in which you have no prior experience or academic credentials, a specialised Master’s might be more beneficial for you than an MBA. For example, if you are considering switching to IT, your background in news media management might not convince potential employers that you have the knowhow to perform at the top level in their industry. An MSc in IT Management or a Master’s in computer science might just open the right doors for you.

“There is no right choice of grad school programme that universally applies to everyone. There are many factors that play in, but professional and academic experience and goals are key. And everyone has different objectives”, says Delyan Ganev, who opted for a Master of Finance degree over an MBA.

Ganev was interested in finance and wanted an advanced degree that would allow him to specialise in this subject, while simultaneously opening up a variety of employment opportunities. He chose the Master of Finance programme offered by MIT’s Sloan School of Management. “My Master’s was more focused than an MBA with a track in finance. I think that an MBA prepares you to be a very well-versed generalist with a focus on one or two areas. And I wanted to be a specialist”, Ganev explains. Tellingly, the Master of Finance degree was the second most popular business programme at MIT after their MBA.

In the past half-decade, interest in more specialised business education has seen steady growth worldwide, according to a 2013 GMAC survey consulting institutions around the globe. (GMAC, or the Graduate Management Admission Council, is the organisation that administers the GMAT exam). In response to the increased demand for specialised Master’s degrees, graduate schools have started offering a wider selection of graduate programmes that emphasise specialisation over broad management training, according to a U.S. News & World Report article from April 25, 2013. One dean quoted in the same article even estimates that specialised Master’s degrees will overtake MBAs in popularity in the next five years.

Whether his prediction will come to pass remains to be seen, but one advantage of specialised Master’s programmes is that students start networking with people from their industry right away. By contrast, MBA cohorts usually consist of individuals from diverse walks of business, so connections with classmates after graduation are more likely to be personal rather than professional.

That said, you have to be sure you want to stay in a field if you pursue a specialised Master’s as it may limit your ability for lateral growth. In this respect, an MBA provides more breadth, and the knowledge and skills it hones apply across industries. “An MBA is often the choice of career changers. Generally, people do an MBA to change their job, industry or country, or all of these at once”, says Elena Atanasova, who earned an MBA from HEC Paris.

An MBA is also an ideal choice for people who come from highly specialised or technical backgrounds and wish to advance to leadership positions in their industries. In fact, MBA programmes prepare you to lead and manage people and assets, no matter what your background. Moreover, the training students undergo in these programmes helps broaden their horizons and provides them with a more international perspective, thus allowing for easy relocation between industries and countries.

Rumyana Nacheva, who has an MBA from Hult, has this to say in favour of completing a Master’s in Business Administration: “An MBA gives a broader knowledge of different areas of business. MBA degrees are more applicable in real life and allow one to grow faster professionally. MBA programs also teach students to be flexible, to present themselves in the best way, and to cope with difficult situations.”

Ultimately, it is up to you to make the most of your programme, regardless of whether it is a specialised Master’s or an MBA. Whether you will use the networking opportunities your school offers, attend specialised seminars to meet industry leaders, or cold-call employers you are interested in, getting where you want to go is as much about drive and attitude as it is about your academic credentials.