Considering an MBA or Masters?
Find the ideal programme: QS World MBA & Grad Tour September 22, 2018 – Dubai
The QS World University Rankings: Global MBA Rankings 2018 and QS World University Rankings: Business Masters Rankings 2018 provide you with a detailed breakdown of the best MBA and postgraduate programmes in finance, management and business analytics around the world.
Struggling to choose between an MBA or another graduate business degree? Find out what academics and employers have to say about the two options.
Any discussion of the differences between the two qualifications cannot be entirely separated from the current economic and financial crisis. With close to 100,000 MBA graduates a year leaving US business schools and universities alone, 40 per cent of whom traditionally enter finance or finance-related careers, the undeniable link between the MBA degree and the financial turmoil of the last 12-24 months has caused many to question both the validity and position of the MBA qualification in today’s globalised education system.
Henry Mintzberg, Professor of Management Studies at Canada’s McGill University, is perhaps the most vocal of the recent critics of the MBA qualification.
“My view is you cannot create a manager in a classroom, let alone a leader. You simply can’t. Management is not a science, it’s not a profession, it’s a practice; you learn it by doing it.
“To claim that you’re training people who are not managers to be managers is a sham, pure and simple, it’s a sham. You can’t do it. You give completely the wrong impression and you send them out with an enormous amount of hubris which is, ‘I can manage anything, even though I’ve never managed anything’.”
The first area to examine is undoubtedly that of the candidate’s experience before they apply. The intention of both degrees is different – MBAs seek to develop appropriate skills on a foundation of a candidate’s life or professional experience, while the majority of master’s degrees build on the academic background of the student.
The second most significant difference between the two graduate-level degrees is that of teaching style. While there have been tremendous developments in the way in which all university programmes are taught, particularly with the introduction of new online learning technologies, MBA and master’s programmes enjoy entirely different learning styles.
Traditional MBA programmes are dominated by what is referred to as ‘case studies’, real-world examples of business issues or problems that students are expected to explore, discuss and reflect on in small groups or ‘syndicates’ of fellow students.
While the more traditional lectures and tutorial classes also feature in some MBA programmes, these are far less common than in their master’s degree counterparts. Master’s programmes, on the other hand, continue to develop their teaching methodologies around the classroom or laboratory-based activities such as lectures, tutorials or presentations.
While small group work can be a feature of some master’s programmes, the emphasis on individual or independent learning is often more significant than in many MBA degrees.
Perhaps one of the best illustrations of the difference between an MBA and a Masters-level qualification can be seen in a specialised area such as human resource and personnel management. Where the generalised approach common in many MBA programmes is sufficient to equip a student for a range of business-related situations, the more specialised nature of a master’s qualification provides the candidate with the precise academic and theoretical framework to tackle a specific area.
In some cases, the difference between the two in an area can also be practical in the sense of the teaching style, the content of the programme and opportunities to develop subject knowledge. Sheila Russ, a recent graduate of Virginia Commonwealth University in the USA, conveys the differences between the two qualifications in the context of a specialised academic area.
“I started in the MBA with a concentration in HR, and then switched to Masters in HR Management (HRM). My reasoning for switching programmes was simple – the master’s offered more opportunity for me to take the classes I wanted. The MBA programme offered a better overall knowledge of business, with 12 classes – but only four of which were electives, so the majority of your course load was chosen for you.”
The differences in such a specialised area as human resources or personnel management are also crucial to employers. Gary Garber, an HR professional in a Chicago-based finance company, is clear on the differences between the two qualifications. “An MBA has a tonne of general business courses and only a few HR ones. As a graduate of Cornell’s Masters in Industrial and Labour Relations (MILR), my experience is the opposite – the MILR has a tonne of HR courses and only a few general business ones.
“Employers certainly consider both degrees, but I think where there are specific HR vacancies, then the level of specialised knowledge the MILR provides you with wins out.”
Russ echoes Garber’s views. “In making my decision to switch programmes, I spoke with several HR professionals I know through our local professional network. They, my advisor, and our dean of business graduate studies, all gave me the same advice.
“In a nutshell, what they told me was that if HR is really what you want to do, then the master’s is your best option. You also have to remember that in specialised fields, a lot of schools have MBA programmes but a master’s degree is something that can set you apart in the industry.”
The right choice for you
While the demand for MBA and master’s programmes continue to grow, there continues to be a healthy debate over the relative merits and disadvantages of both degrees. Your choice of the programme very much depends on two critical factors. First, your ambitions: If you are clear on the type of career or specialism you hope to develop in your future career, then the advantages of a master’s degree often outweigh the more generic, business-focused approach of many MBA curricula.
Second, your background and qualifications: the most highly regarded international MBA or master’s programmes require very precise entry qualifications, whether they are framed in terms of GMAT or GRE scores, professional experience, academic achievements or language requirements. In this context, the very best programme for you must be directly related to your own background – to make any other choice would be to risk fulfilling your potential.