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MBA Vs Specialized Masters: 3 Important Differences

Choosing between an MBA and specialized master’s program is a tricky decision—here’s what you need to know about each qualification

With hundreds of business schools offering thousands of graduate programs, finding the perfect course for you can be a huge challenge.

Before you look into specific schools and programs, you’ll need to answer one important question: is an MBA or a specialized master’s— such as the Master's in management, Marketing, or Finance— the right option for you?

BusinessBecause asked Dr Kathleen Boies and Dr Sandra Betton, two associate deans at the John Molson School of Business (JMSB) at Concordia University, how you can find the best fit for you.

Here are the three key differences between MBAs and specialized master’s programs:


1. Theory vs Practice


According to Sandra, MBAs feature a more practical curriculum than specialized master’s programs. 

“Students in the MBA program at JMSB have a number of opportunities to interact with the business world in real life,” she explains.

One popular example of this learning approach is the international case competition held at JMSB every year. During the event, competitors are given real business issues, and present their solutions directly to the company.

The competition includes a live case, presented by a real company. Recent attendees include Spanish beauty company, Beauty & Go, logistics company, McGill St Laurent, and office space provider WeWork.

MBA students at JMSB also have the option to expand their work experience by undertaking a co-op internship program, sourced by the university. Students with an interest in non-profit and government roles can also take on a specific community service internship.

Meanwhile, specialized master’s programs encourage students to deepen their theoretical understanding in one specific area.

For Kathleen (pictured), these qualifications are best suited for candidates who already have a very clear idea of where their interests lie.


portrait dr kathleen boies JMSB


At JMSB, she explains, four business-related MSc programs are on offer: marketing, finance, supply chain, and management. 

“Our specialized master’s are very research-oriented,” she says. “If you already know what topic you’re interested in, and really want to dig deep, I would recommend an MSc.” 

Elsewhere, there are dozens more options to choose from, including: analytics and management, business analytics, finance, international business, disruptive innovation, and more.


2. Different Students


portrait dr kathleen boies JMSB


MBAs and specialized master’s programs tend to attract slightly different participants.

Most MBA programs require their students to have a few years’ work experience behind them, while specialized master’s programs can be studied right after a bachelor’s degree, or later on in a person’s career.

“At JMSB, the minimum requirement for our MBA program is two years’ work experience, and the average is five,” Sandra explains. 

With its broad curriculum, the MBA is suitable for professionals from a diverse array of backgrounds, provided they have the right level of experience.

At JMSB alone, students have included engineers, a jazz singer, an actress, an acrobat, and a cordon bleu chef.

Specialized master’s programs tend to draw from a less varied pool of applicants in terms of academic background.

For highly technical courses, students must have a specific knowledge base to work from. This often means having a science, economics, or business degree—but not always. 

At JMSB, for instance, the MSc programs in marketing and management are open to graduates from all disciplines, provided they have a strong track record and are motivated to learn.


3. Breadth vs depth


portrait dr kathleen boies JMSB


On a specialized master’s program, students have the chance to thoroughly delve into the topic that most interests them.

This means more core modules, and fewer elective modules than an MBA curriculum, to ensure participants graduate with the technical knowledge they need to excel in their chosen field.

“If you’re doing an MSc in finance, we want to make sure that by the time you graduate you have the financial knowledge that will make you a good analyst, for instance” Kathleen explains.

Despite this specialization, students studying a business master’s at JMSB do have a lot of control over their final research project.

In recent years, projects have varied in scope from CFO behavior, to pet influencers on Instagram, to sustainability strategy, demonstrating the flexibility on offer.

With an MBA, students study a wider range of topics in less depth. 

At JMSB, for instance, MBA students study everything from financial management to managerial analytics. They’re also required to take a module in responsible management, which covers ethics in business.

Along with these core courses, students choose five electives, Sandra explains. Currently, the most popular modules are consulting, project management, and social media marketing. 

With these diverse courses, MBA students graduate with a broad understanding of multiple topics, rather than a deep understanding of a few specific subject areas.

“The MBA at JMSB is for people who want to explore,” Sandra summarizes. “It’s a collaborative, supportive program.”

On the other hand, specialized master’s programs are ideal for students who want to delve deep into a topic alongside like-minded individuals.