MBA Vs Masters: Which Should You Choose?

The MBA is world’s most sought-after graduate management degree, but specialized business masters are eating into the MBA market

In the fall of 2018, King’s Business School opened at a brand-new, dedicated site at Bush House in central London. Emerging from King’s College London’s School of Management and Business, the revamped business school hosts 2000 students, from 80 countries, who are taught by over 100 academic staff.

King’s offers a wide array of undergraduate, post-graduate, and executive education programs. But, trawling through the glossy pages of the school’s brochures, there’s one glaring omission: there’s no MBA program in sight.

Instead, King’s offers specialized masters degrees—shorter, more affordable, more concentrated post-graduate management courses. King’s is launching new master’s in digital marketing and entrepreneurship and innovation this year. It offers a Masters in International Management as the closest alternative to a traditional MBA.

The school’s dean, Stephen Bach, says the decision was taken in response to employer demand. “The MBA market is changing,” Stephen explains. “Employers and students tell us that the appetite for MBAs has softened, hiring trends are moving towards earlier career graduates with strong analytical and inter-personal skills, an entrepreneurial mindset, and a well-developed sense of personal responsibility and resilience.”

Specialized master’s programs are eating into the MBA market. Emerging program types—masters in data analytics, business information technology, and entrepreneurship—have seen a surge of interest.

While the MBA remains the number one graduate management degree sought by prospective students, now, according to the latest research from GMAC, nearly half of business school applicants consider a business master’s program alongside an MBA; 38% prefer the business master’s program type.

The University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business offers eight specialized masters programs, across topics like business and marketing analytics, as well as finance, accounting, and supply chain management. Five of those are STEM-designated, meaning international students can stay and find work in the US without an H1-B visa.

Smith’s STEM-designated Master of Science in Business Analytics covers hot topics like cyber security and social media and web analytics, and offers real-world learning experiences based on partnerships with companies like Deloitte, KPMG, and Unilever. Students dive into the technical—going beyond what would be covered on a traditional MBA—learning programming languages like Python and SQL.

Smith runs it business master’s programs alongside a thriving full-time MBA. At the The University of Leicester School of Business, the school’s seasoned dean, Zoe Radnor, decided to shelve the full-time MBA program completely. Leicester offers a blended-learning MBA alongside a host of specialized master’s.

“I was director of the full-time MBA when I was at Warwick Business School,” Zoe explains, “I know what a big MBA program looks like; it’s a very expensive program to run with very demanding students on it.

“You just don’t get the numbers anymore,” she continues. “A huge part of an MBA is about building your network and, if you haven’t got the numbers, you’re not going to be able to do that. When I was at Loughborough, we tried to launch a sports MBA. If any university is going to launch one, it’s going to be Loughborough. But the numbers were in the low teens.”

Leicester is launching new specialized master’s in entrepreneurship and innovation management this year, and Zoe sees the rise of business master’s as part of a wider industry trend. “Specialized or good conversion masters are where the market is going,” she says.

At Dublin City University Business School, executive dean Anne Sinnott is targeting the MBA market with an MSc in Business Management. She’s seen overall postgraduate applications to the school double in the past year, with the management master’s recording the biggest growth in applications.

“If you look at the global numbers of MBAs, they’re declining,” she says. “I think an MBA was developed as a conversion course for engineers, accountants, scientists; people without a business background. Now, I think it’s become a slightly confused animal. I taught on an MBA—it began to become quite different when people in the class had already gone through undergraduate business degrees.”

Read: Growing Interest In Business Master’s Programs Over MBAs


Clearly, the full-time MBA faces some teething problems. Who’s an MBA for? What’s its main value? If an MBA becomes specialized—recent years have seen the rise of Tech MBAs, Sports MBAs, MBAs in Supply Chain Management—then is it still an MBA?

Business schools are refreshing their offerings, with flagship MBA programs re-issued in more accessible forms. Going online is the most obvious route. Alongside a traditional full-time MBA program, the University of Southern California’s (USC) Marshall School of Business offers an Online MBA ranked among the top 10 in the US by the US News & World Report.

The USC Online MBA is designed for the digital era professional, with the curriculum covering how to manage remote employees; how to communicate internationally; data analytics; and social media. The program combines self-paced coursework with real-time class sessions via webcam.

Similarly, Birmingham Business School’s Online MBA—a 100%-online MBA program—has drawn a steady stream of interested applicants after a more accessible, flexible MBA experience. Birmingham’s Online MBA was the first of its kind to be accredited by the Association of MBAs (AMBA). After they complete the course, graduates from the Online MBA program receive the same certificate as their counterparts on the full-time MBA.

There are a steady stream of MBA alternatives emerging too. London School of Economics dubs its part-time Executive Global Master’s in Management (EGMiM) the alternative to the MBA.

Still, amid the noise, the traditional full-time MBA does have a strong place in the market.

Applications to the Master of Science in Business Analytics (MSBA) at the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management have exploded in recent years, with the class size more than doubling between 2015 and 2016. In 2017, the MSBA had more entering students than the school’s full-time MBA.

But applications to Carlson’s full-time MBA program have stayed firm, with domestic applications increasing. Dean Sri Zaheer says the full-time MBA offers something different: “If you want to change your career completely, I think there’s nothing like the two-year, full-time MBA.

“You get the opportunity to do a full summer internship, and so much of the hiring these days comes from summer internships. The full-time master’s programs don’t typically have that option.”

At Carlson, the full-time MBA and specialized master’s programs happily co-exist. The two program types, Sri says, are for different demographics.

Carlson full-time MBA students are typically around 28 years old with three-to-five years’ work experience. MSBA students are typically around 24-to-5 years old with two-to-three years’ experience.

Average starting salaries for Carlson’s MSBA graduates are around $87,000; $20,000 less than grads from the MBA. “They’re going to be technical specialists; they could well be students who come back later in life for an MBA,” Sri explains.

STEM-designated specialized masters are an advantage for international students job-seeking in the US. “But even with our full-time international MBA students, practically all of them will stay on and get jobs in the US,” Sri continues. “There’s a lot of uncertainty, but the jobs haven’t gone away.”

Carlson’s MBA class is roughly 25% international, although 80% of applications come from internationals. The demand is there, but the selectivity for international students is high.

For career-switchers like Stella Gonzales Vigil, who’d never worked outside her native Peru before an MBA at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business, the traditional MBA format was always the favored option.

“I spent a lot of time talking to other Peruvians that who pursued MBA abroad and the feedback was always positive,” she says. “They referred a lot to the experience over what they had learned, and that was something I understood later at Fuqua, where I was immediately immersed in an environment that inspires you to try new things; to try something different.”

The two-year, full-time MBA gave Stella that time. She got an internship at Deutsche Bank in New York, which later led to a full-time job.


The full-time MBA’s strong position in the market comes from its transformational qualities, giving students the space and support needed to choose a new direction. And, like every business school, every MBA program is subtly different.

The UK’s University of Exeter Business School offers a niche full-time MBA program centered on sustainability, with a class of just 40 students. MBA director, Stuart Robinson (pictured above), did an MBA himself at London Business School in the late 1990s.

“LBS prepares you for a career in a multinational, a bank, or a consultancy—that’s what they do and they do it very well,” he says. “We don’t compete with LBS. We take in a broad range of people with a broad range of interests who don’t necessarily want to go and work for Goldman Sachs, but who want to do something that they feel good about.” Exeter MBAs have gone on to manage their family businesses or start small-scale social enterprises.

What’s an MBA for? Compared to a specialized master’s, Stuart says an MBA is about longevity.

“An MBA is to learn stuff, meet a bunch of people to make a network, and learn about yourself—that’s really what you get at the end of it,” he says.

“I did my MBA when I was 33. I came into the MBA with a background in project management and marketing and I thought that’s what I wanted to do. I left the MBA as an accountant and became a finance manager. Then I became an IT director; then I moved to work in the city; and now I’m a university academic.

“So, at the age of 33, which specialized masters should I have chosen?

“I think some people have very connected, organized careers, but I don’t think those people are in the majority. Should you choose your specialized master’s in accounting age 30 or should you choose an MBA that’s going to equip you with a range of skills? That’s the question you need to ask yourself.”

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