Information compiled by the GradSchools.com team - last updated August 2010
Getting your graduate degree will require a big investment of time as well as a big chunk of change; you want to make sure you’ve got the biggest question answered correctly: which degree should you pursue?
Even if you have already narrowed your options to, say, the study of business, that doesn’t mean that an MBA degree is the only way to go. It might make sense to pursue a masters degree in a related subject such as marketing, accounting, finance, or international business. Alternatively, you can fine-tune an MBA degree to your interests by choosing a specific emphasis or concentration. A concentration generally consists of about three courses relating directly to your chosen subject.
In many ways, the question of an MBA degree vs. an MS degree comes down a question of breadth vs. depth. Do you want to see the big picture or zoom in on a specialization? Do you want to manage a diverse range of people and business areas, or become the resident expert on a particular subject? With some serious thinking about your personal interests, your career needs, and your current schedule, you will be able to make the right decision.
Let’s start with the business MS degree
While an MBA concentration may only feature a few classes, an MS will dig deeply into a subject. Expect rigorous material that may be more theoretical or math-based than a more general curriculum. Marketing is a good example. At a high-level, the subject may seem straightforward: figuring out how to sell a product or service; just another word for advertising. Pull back the curtain, though, and you will find an incredibly intricate discipline that employs aspects of mathematics, sociology, statistics, product design, distribution, and more. If you are really sure of your subject, then an MS will give you the chance to explore it with great depth.
Also, because it’s a more specialized degree than an MBA, business MS programs may be smaller and may offer less flexibility in course options and schedules. Many MS degree programs are designed to prepare students for specific certifications or exams, such as the Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA) exam for those studying finance. By comparison, an MBA may cover the relevant knowledge and skills, but won’t necessarily focus on the ins and outs of certification exams.
Now let’s take a closer look at the MBA degree
Chances are, you’re probably pretty familiar with this degree, and you can bet that goes for just about anyone everyone else considering graduate school. An MBA is a universally recognized degree, so you can expect it will always be a highlight on your resume, no matter who’s looking at it. As we alluded earlier, an MBA has breadth: you can expect coursework in subjects as diverse as finance, organizational behavior, leadership, technology, and management.
If you’re looking for career flexibility or management training, a business degree is the way to go. Through varied classes, case studies, and a diverse student body, you will be exposed to a whole gamut of subjects and industry opportunities. You might even begin your degree with one career in mind, and finish the semester with an entire list of other options. Therefore, unless you are absolutely sure of your subject, or you are being trained specifically for your current job, an MBA degree may be a safer option.
The flexibility of an MBA will likely extend to the way you earn the degree itself. Because business degrees appeal to a greater number of people than MS degrees, most universities will be able to offer a wider range of academic options including: one or two-year programs, part-time, evening, or weekend programs, and executive programs. You may also be able to pursue all or part of your degree through online graduate programs. These options are also available for MS degrees, but to a far lesser extent.
So what’s right for you?
Now that you have a better understanding of the differences between an MS and an MBA, how do you determine which one has your name on it? Well, the best thing you can do is talk to people. Lots of people. Begin by visiting the department offices of the degrees that interest you. Faculty and professors there will give you a sense of the curriculum and of where students go after graduation. Keep in mind that each degree you’re considering will hold different requirements. While an MBA application will ask for a GMAT score, an MS may require the GRE and the TOEFL. Also, because of its more rigorous curriculum, the MS option may require more specific experience, such as prerequisite coursework or a specific undergraduate degree. For instance, an MS in operations research at Northeastern University strictly requires undergraduate work in science, math or engineering.
You should also talk to those who already work in your chosen industry. They are in the best position to tell you the relative merit of each degree once you get out of school. Ask them about the degrees they and their peers hold, and whether an MS or an MBA is preferred. For both degrees, consider the starting salary and job descriptions you can expect to earn coming out of school—they won’t necessarily be the same.
And, of course, one of the best ways to decide is to not decide at all. Many universities offer a joint degree, such as an MBA / MS in finance. Your education will take slightly longer, but you will have the benefit of the breadth of the MBA and the depth of the MS.
Whatever you do, try not to sweat it. You’re wise to be pursuing either of these degrees. Whether it’s an “MS” or an “MBA” that ends up appearing after your name on the resume, you should find yourself well-positioned for success.
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