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Masters vs. MBA: Which One is Right for You?

Jul 27, 2020
5 questions to ask yourself before deciding between a business masters degree and an MBA

By Jong Eun Jung

Whether they’re just entering the workforce or have already been on the job for several years, many people decide to go back to school to gain skills and knowledge to help advance their careers. Prospective students who are only a couple years out of school may find themselves facing a crossroads, wondering whether a specialized masters degree or a Master of Business Administration (MBA) is a better fit for their needs. Sue Oldham, Associate Dean of MBA Operations at Vanderbilt Business, and Cherrie Wilkerson, Assistant Dean for the Young Professional Programs, share how you can find out which program is right for you. Here are 5 questions you should ask yourself before applying to a graduate program:

Cherrie Wilkerson, Assistant Dean for the Young Professional Programs

What do you want to learn?

A specialized masters is a one-year program where you can gain skills in a particular industry or function, such as accounting or finance. Because the program focuses on one industry, you will take classes related exclusively to that industry if you enroll in the masters program. However, you will be learning at the graduate level. “The one-year masters program has a slice of the MBA curriculum,” Wilkerson explained. “(For example,) if you’re Masters in Finance, you can take all the MBA electives in finance.” On the other hand, the MBA is a two-year program where you build a functional foundation of business during the first year and then deep-dive into a particular industry during the second year. If you are looking for a well-rounded education in business and want to gain knowledge in a specialized industry, the MBA is a good choice for you.

What are your goals for going to a business school?

People usually choose specialized masters programs to better their chances in the job market of a particular industry. “Let’s say you’re coming out of an undergrad program, and you’re an English major, and maybe you had a difficult time really translating that into a full-time job upon graduation. So a lot of people will then say, ‘You know what, a one-year program is perfect for me, because… I really want to get into finance, but I didn’t really take any business or finance classes in undergrad,” Oldham said. On the other hand, full-time MBAs are for those who are planning to make a big career change or pivot to a new direction. “The bigger the gap from where you are to where you would like to be… if there is a big gap in terms of skill set, a full-time MBA program is perfect for that,” Oldham said.

How much work experience do you have under your belt?

If you are relatively new to the workforce, but you know what industry you want your career to be in, a specialized masters degree may be right for you. “If you want to go into a particular industry, (a masters) would be a good option,” Wilkerson said. “Our employers that recruit for the one-year masters program are looking for entry-level candidates for the most part.” If you have spent several years in the workforce, an MBA may be a better choice for you; according to Oldham, the average MBA applicant has 5-6 years of work experience.

Are you interested in exploring a completely different industry in the middle of your career?

Sue Oldham, Associate Dean of MBA Operations

One of the biggest differences between the 2 types of programs is the experiential learning part of an MBA, which a specialized masters usually lacks. The summer internship program between the first and second years of an MBA allows students to gain experience in a new industry. “Being able to test out a new job, a new function, a new industry that might be very different from what you had coming into an MBA program is probably just a major part of why students would pick an MBA,” Oldham said. “And then based on that summer internship experience, if it turns out that (you) are like, ‘I really liked this,’ you then custom and tailor your second-year experience to complement your summer internship.”

What kind of jobs are you aiming for after you complete your program?

Because people with a specialized masters usually enter the program soon after college, they land entry-level jobs, such as analyst positions, after completing the program. MBAs land more senior-level positions, such as manager, because of their years of work experience before and during the program. Some MBAs also go into MBA-specific positions such as rotational programs or are hired at the company where they completed their summer internship. “The job post-MBA is probably a very different job than someone who’s coming out of a one-year masters program, because essentially, (a masters) might have one year of work experience or zero,” Oldham said.

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