The importance of theoretical knowledge in Masters education is often underestimated, but, in reality, it results in better decision-making.

The theoretical framework of a subject is often overlooked even at Masters level, because the focus is the subject matter and that alone in certain disciplines. Other supplementary information is considered a bonus to a CV rather than a necessity. But could this prove more useful than practical skills that can be learnt through physical application? Certainly some of the more interesting information to be learnt at Masters level is theory-based, but sometimes theoretical frameworks and models can digress into pseudoscientific arguments. There is a good basis, then, for employers to choose those with savvy business skills above those who merely love the theory behind a subject. But there is also a strong case for the relevance of subsidiary knowledge as a means to make a business grow.

A boost to creative thinking

Of course, some background knowledge is always required, but a concise understanding of everything involved in one broad subject, like business, would require an entire lifetime of dedicated learning. It’s highly likely that a student will prefer to study the theoretical aspects of a subject more than the practical ones. However, if the course is largely practical, such as Business Studies, then its theoretical counterpart, Economics, would prove the ideal complement so as to study a broad range of less practical but more in-depth subjects and compare the two areas. This would help to boost creative thinking, leading to novel solutions in an entrepreneurial industry that is logic-orientated. Employers prize this skill highly, 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.

Compare the behaviour of a man to a machine. Just as an autonomous machine will search for all available options in its hard drive to solve a problem, and find the best solution based on its ranking in a top-down procedure list, a person facing a problem will begin with the most obvious solutions first, and then work progressively downwards. The difference between the two is that a person, unlike a robot, understands the concept of collateral damage, consequence and longevity. Similarly, in the business world, if a business professional chooses a more obvious solution, with short or long-term damaging repercussions for the company, then s/he has missed a solution that may be tardier but will result in less collateral damage. Autonomous robots can reach their parameters in a second, but have a limited understanding of human behaviour and needs. Therefore, the more human theoretical knowledge can be 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. Human theorists may take longer than a robot to assess and explore all potential solutions to a problem - 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.

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Theory in Masters is not always overlooked

In his microeconomic study on employee start-ups in high-tech industries, Steven Klepper mentions that candidates who have studied theoretical degree subjects are often favoured for positions in start-ups and departments in innovation. At University College London, Masters level students are expected to have a ‘developed interest’ in a subject. Students of postgraduate taught or research degrees should know a great deal about an area relevant to that particular degree, even if it is not in exactly the same field. To some extent, it is about enjoyment, because if you don’t enjoy a subject it will be difficult to study it in-depth. In any case, it takes persistence and dedication, because some course components will be more interesting and challenging than others.  Researchers of pedagogy at MIT have found that students learn almost as much from classmates as they do from teachers, hence it’s important in every postgraduate classroom to have an eclectic mix of backgrounds so that there are rounded arguments.

This may sometimes unduly skew selection criteria, because universities favour a diverse range of opinions over homogeneity. This is in part due to the percentage of learners who prefer to learn through kinesthetic media - such as reasoned argument. A pedagogical study published by the University of Illinois found that around 50% of students preferred kinesthetic learning to visual and auditory methods. This runs 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, because the ability to debate persuasively is learnt by studying discursive practice. You can see this most clearly when politicians are grilled by journalists. Equivocating, or shirking awkward topics, because they don’t know the answer or prefer not to give one,  comes from the study of persuasion and the theory of persuasive language. The theory of the ‘manufacturing of consent’ is noticeable in positions of power, and its application should be taught so that it is conducive to prosperity, rather than to aid evasiveness. 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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Those who demonstrate a keen interest in a particular subject relevant to their choice of employment can expect a wide selection of job offers. They are usually in prestigious positions as well, since employers look to those who have the ability to make difficult decisions when allocating roles where knowledge and experience are valued above leadership.

The director of the Education Department at the University of Warwick, Ian Abbot, observes that the Masters 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, because most banking positions need a high level of interaction with clients. It may be that a mixture of both is the ideal for all professional positions because  a more rounded knowledge of a subject can only be beneficial, and it is impossible to demonstrate this without being able to make a cohesive argument.

This article is original content produced by Advent Group and included in the 2016-2017 annual Access MBA, EMBA and Masters Guide under the title “Theory of Relative Contempt.”