MBA or Business Masters: Which Graduate Business Degree is Best for Me?

Prospective business graduate students must choose from a wide range of programs among 477 U.S. graduate business schools. Each advocating pick me, Pick Me, PICK ME!  Their marketing materials may make it appear they are for everyone with an interest in business and a passion to succeed. It’s crucial to sort through the hype and find the graduate business degree that’s the best fit for each student.

Let’s start addressing best fit by describing the three main graduate business degree types: MBA, Specialty Masters, and Masters in Management.

  • MBA – Most MBA degrees take two years to complete. They provide breadth and depth in business management. Many allow students to specialize in one or more topics if they complete a core general management curriculum.
  • Specialty Masters – Specialty Masters degrees typically take one to two years to complete.  They provide depth in a specific topic such as business analytics, accounting, or entrepreneurship. The range of available topics is extensive.
  • Masters in Management – MiM degrees typically require seven to twelve months to complete. They go by several names, Masters in Management, Master of Science in Management, and Master of Science in Management Studies. This degree offers the foundations of general business management.

Prospective students should explore three dimensions, student profile, learning need, and career goal to determine best fit. The following chart summarizes the drivers of fit for each type of degree for the three dimensions.

Graduate Business Degree Fit chart

Student Profile – Who’s the degree designed to serve?

MBAs are designed for students who’ve already learned a lot about business by working in the private or public sector for several years. Most leading MBA programs won’t even consider applicants unless they have four to six years of experience and can show they’ve delivered substantial results for their employers.

Masters in Management degrees are built for recent college graduates. Many have work experience through internships or a first job. Most have worked for less than two years. Often MiM students enroll only a few months after graduation from college. Taking business courses in college is usually not required. Some programs prefer students who did not major in business. Masters in Management degrees can also be a good fit for those who’ve completed advanced degrees in other fields or have worked in non-business fields such as education and have little familiarity with business.

Specialty Masters degrees are crafted for students with specific skills and definitive interests that match the focus of the individual specialty masters degree (e.g analytics or accounting) Prospective students must be confident and passionate that they want to pursue a career path in the area of the degree’s focus. They must also be able to demonstrate some expertise in the focus area through work in college or in their first jobs.  Unlike an MBA, four to six years of expertise is rarely required.  Demonstrating the ability to do the work is essential. In analytics, for example, this often includes demonstrating the ability to code in one or more programming languages, to undertake complex analytical tasks, and to work at an elevated level of numeracy.

Learning Needs – What do I need to learn?

students working together in a college classroomThose seeking a strong foundation in business management make the best Masters in Management students. MiM foundational pillars include financial literacy, the principles of strategy and innovation, basics in understanding customers and markets, analytical and problem-solving methods, best practices in leading and being part of operational teams, and effective business communications. Elite programs add experiential learning projects with corporate partners to help students learn to apply what they learn to real-life situations.

Those who need to learn as much as they can about a specific area of business are ideal candidates for Specialty Masters programs. Focus is preferable to breadth because these students seek mastery of the topic.  It’s also important for these students to learn about emerging issues, cutting-edge approaches, and the latest developments in technology and application so they can add value in work environments where their colleagues have a strong grasp of trends and innovation.

Those with more work experience typically need a deep curriculum that can fill in gaps in their experience and provide the advanced knowledge to accelerate their career path. The course offering must vary by level so that some students can obtain fundamentals while others obtain advanced understanding. Because MBA degrees have a longer, two-year duration, and provide opportunities to learn from other experienced students they are an ideal way to build the depth that experienced students require.

Career Goals – How will a degree help my career?

A Masters in Management Studies degree is ideal for those who are entering a professional area of business.  It’s typically not about leaving their undergraduate major behind.  Instead, successful MiM graduates integrate business education and what they’ve learned in college to become preferred candidates for first rungs in professional career ladders that lead to lucrative and challenging leadership positions.

Specialty Masters programs develop the leaders of specialized teams that drive business forward through technology, deep expertise, and understanding of professional standards. Entry-level positions in these areas are rarely the goal of program graduates. Specialty Masters degrees are intended to enable graduates to drive the business forward as team and unit leaders.

MBAs play the role of both career accelerators and career pivot points. For many high achievers, they are a stepping stone to a higher level of leadership and responsibility in their company or industry. For others, they are a vehicle to move from one industry to another or from one set of roles to a new set. The common thread is the ability of the degree to impact advanced knowledge that’s tailored to the student’s goals.

Full-Time, Online, Part-Time?

MBA and Specialized masters are offered in-person full-time, in-person part-time, and online options. Some programs combine these options in hybrid models. Be careful in selecting online options. Look for ones that support dialogue and the interchange of ideas among students. None of the top Masters in Management programs offer either part-time or online options. The compressed duration and need for experiential learning through small team projects with corporate partners make in-person full-time the best delivery option.

What’s right for me?

students learning in college classroomConsider a Masters in Management degree if you’re a.) a recent college grad or someone who’s been in the workforce in non-business fields b.) need to learn the foundations of business and c.) want to enter a business career on the fast track. It’s great for entry-level roles across industries and for exploring what you want to do next.

Consider a Specialty Masters degree if you a.) have a talent and a passion for a specific area of business b.) have done enough work in that area to know you love it and are good at it. Find a program that will focus on the knowledge and expertise to pursue your passion.

Consider an MBA if a.) you’ve been in the workforce for several years and b.) find you enjoy business but want to accelerate your move to a leadership position or c.) want to move into another industry or role. It will give you the depth and breadth you need to achieve your goals.

About BU’s One-Year Master in Management Studies degree program

Boston University’s top-ranked Master in Management Studies degree is exactly what you need to get ahead. Fast-track to the high-paying jobs and professional business career you’re dreaming of with a one-year business master’s degree at a world-renowned university.

In our one-year business program, you’ll learn by doing and apply what you’ve learned by working with industry leaders on their business challenges. The inventive design and hands-on learning focus of the Master in Management Studies degree is breaking new ground—providing students with the skills employers are seeking. By breaking the mold, this 12-month business degree replicates a real work experience that makes real impact.

Learn More

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About the author: Fred Geyer is the Director of the Masters in Management program at Boston University Questrom Business School. He is currently pursuing his third career after initial success in his first career in marketing and general management at General Foods, Crayola, and Electrolux and in his second career as a Senior Partner at Prophet Growth and Transformation Consulting. He is the co-author of the Definitive Guide to B2B Digital Transformation and a professor in the Masters in Management program.

Questrom | LinkedIn | Prophet | B2BDT

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