Specialized Master’s Degree or MBA?

In 2013, around 50 percent of students at Krannert School of Management at Purdue University were pursuing a specialized master’s degree. At the time, the school's dean, P. Christopher Early, predicted that this figure would reach three-quarters within five years, leaving just 25 percent enrolled in the on-campus, full-time, two-year MBA. In a 2015 Fortune/Poets & Quants article titled The Hottest New MBA Is Not an MBA at All, contributor Ethan Baron wrote, “there’s been an explosion of specialized business master’s degrees. The MBA is so passé.” Says Baron, “enrollment in many part-time MBA programs—long a profit-making mainstay of business education—has been sliding as well.” In addition, the 2013 Graduate Management Admission Council (GMAC) Corporate Recruiters Survey showed that demand was increasing for specialized master’s degrees. 

Does this mean the MBA might be on its way out? Probably not. The MBA is still the world’s most popular advanced business degree—especially at top business schools. But what this does mean is a growing number of students see a specialized master’s degree as a worthwhile alternative to an MBA. Business schools are taking notice, so students should get used to seeing both options at B-schools schools across the globe. 

There are a number of reasons for the growing popularity of specialized master’s degrees. One is money. A specialized master’s degree program will almost always cost less than an MBA program as most take just 12 to 16 months to complete instead of the two years it takes to complete a traditional MBA program. And because MBA programs offer an excellent return on investment, B-schools can justify charging a pretty penny for their MBA programs, so you’ll pay a premium for that return. Another benefit that attracts students to specialized master’s degrees is a faster path to graduation. 

Specialized master’s degrees are often designed for students with less work experience. This means, students who choose a specialized master’s degree can get an advanced degree without having to wait several years to gain the work experience many MBA programs require. Simply put, students matriculate directly from their undergraduate degree program, so within five years or so after entering college as undergraduates, students can enter the workforce with an advanced degree and start earning a living—a good living.   

Depending on the specialization, specialized master’s degree holders could earn just as much as MBA holders do. In fact, according to the Graduate Management Admissions Council (GMAC), “starting salaries are higher than those offered to individuals with only undergraduate degrees, and some specializations, such as finance, may lead to salaries that are competitive with those earned by MBA candidates.” Besides finance, specialized master’s degree holders fare well in areas such as computer information systems, engineering management, information systems, information technology, information management, innovation and entrepreneurship, and human resource management. 

Take a look at a few other specialized master’s degree options:

  • Master in Applied Economics
  • Master in Construction Management
  • Master in Economic Development & Entrepreneurship
  • Master in Economics
  • Master in Education
  • Master in Entrepreneurship
  • Master in Health Administration
  • Master in Hospitality & Tourism Management
  • Master in Human Resources
  • Master in Industrial Relations and Human Resources
  • Master in Instructional Technology
  • Master in International Business
  • Master in Leadership and Organizational Psychology
  • Master in Marketing
  • Master in Real Estate Development
  • Master in Science in Marketing and Consumer Studies
  • Master in Science in Operations Management
  • Master in Supply Chain Management
  • Master in Public Health 

Although most specialized master’s degree programs offer a less expensive and faster path from an undergraduate to graduate degree, there are a few challenges to consider. Though the GMAC says that specializations, such as finance, may lead to salaries that are competitive with those earned by MBA candidates, the organization also says, “in the competitive world of finance, some employers may not recognize the specialized master of finance degree in the same way that they do the MBA.” The GMAC also says, “a specialized master’s degree does not provide the broader, generalized approach to management that comes with an MBA,” and “focusing on one functional area or skill set may limit one’s ability to create and innovate in the broader business environment.” On the other hand, because coursework is isolated to one particular area of study, “specialized programs are ideal for students who would like to develop a specialty in one area.” 

At the end of the day, the decision to earn an MBA or specialized master’s degree might come down to more than just money or the fastest path to graduation. It will depend on your own individual career goals. You just have to ask yourself, which path will take me there? 


Baron, Ethan. "The Hottest New MBA Is Not an MBA at All." Fortune. Fortune, Inc., 08 Dec. 2015. Web. 07 Oct. 2016. 

MBA.com. "Specialized Master's Programs." The Official GMAT Web Site. Graduate Management Admission Council (GMAC), 2002-2016. Web. 07 Oct. 2016. 

Smith-Barrow, Delece. "Decide Between an MBA and M.S. at Business School." U.S. News & World Report Education. U.S. News & World Report, 25 Apr. 2013. Web. 07 Oct. 2016.