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Should I Get an MBA or an Executive MBA, and What’s the Difference?

Dec 9, 2020
Answering 5 frequently asked questions about the differences between Executive MBA and MBA programs

By Kara Sherrer

If you’ve been researching business graduate degrees for more than a few minutes, you’ve no doubt come across both MBA and Executive MBA programs. At first glance, these programs seem very similar, leaving many prospective students to wonder about the differences between the 2 programs and whether an Executive MBA is better than a regular MBA. To help clarify the differences between an MBA and an Executive MBA, we answer 5 of the most common questions about them below.

What type of career experience is each program looking for?

Bailey McChesney

Bailey McChesney

Executive MBA students tend to be more seasoned than MBA students and have attained a certain level of leadership within their organizations. This is because Executive MBA programs are designed for working professionals who are already in some kind of management role and looking to implement their classroom knowledge straightaway. Meanwhile, daytime MBA programs are targeted towards younger career professionals, and cohorts usually have a mix of students with and without management experience.

“The average years of work experience for our (daytime MBA) program is about 5 years, so some students have had the opportunity to have management experience, but a lot of students haven’t,” said Bailey McChesney, Senior Associate Director of MBA Admissions at Vanderbilt Business.

Can I keep working during the program?

Perhaps the biggest difference between MBA and Executive MBA programs is that MBA students leave their jobs, while EMBA students keep working during the program. As a result, Executive MBA classes are usually held on nights or weekends to accommodate a normal business schedule.

Sarah Fairbank

Since most students are looking for new jobs, daytime MBA programs offer curriculums and career resources that are more beneficial to switching careers and finding a new role. A 2-year daytime MBA program also provides students the opportunity to complete a 10- to 12-week summer internship to gain experience in their chosen field before accepting a new role. “For individuals looking to make a shift in their career or transition, that internship is essential,” McChesney said. “You have the opportunity to gain experience in an industry that you’re interested in, or a functional area that you’re interested in.”

Executive MBA programs can and do broaden students’ career opportunities, but usually not in the same way or to the same degree as daytime MBA programs. “If you’ve been in a finance role, moving into financial operations will make sense because you’ll acquire that broader skill set that will give you enough of the operations to make that small move, but not to turn you into an operations person,” Fairbank explained.

How much curriculum flexibility does each program offer?

MBA programs do have a required core curriculum, but for the most part, they offer considerable flexibility in terms of choosing electives, concentrations, and specialties. “The MBA is a really great way to gain skills… because you’re able to customize your experience. You can really select courses from different concentrations to really enhance your skill set for both a career pivot and for those interested in continuing in the same career path that they’ve been on,” McChesney said.

Juli Bennett

On the other hand, Executive MBA programs tend to follow a lockstep model, offering few, if any, tracks to choose from. For many Executive MBA students, this level of specialization isn’t necessary, because they already bring a significant amount of job-specific knowledge into the program. “The Executive MBAs come in with a specialty already, because of the level of work experience that they bring, versus MBA where they choose a specialty or a concentration and focus on that,” said Juli Bennett, Executive Director of Executive MBA Programs.

Is an Executive MBA degree equivalent to a full-time MBA?

While the Vanderbilt MBA and Executive MBA programs both award MBA degrees, this isn’t the case at all schools. In fact, quite a few Executive MBA programs award specialty degrees that aren’t exactly equivalent to traditional MBA degrees. As you narrow down your list of programs to apply to, make sure to compare each individual program to the others rather than only researching the degrees more generally.

“Not every daytime program is going to look the same, and not every Executive MBA program is going to look the same… you do need to do research at the school level as well, because every program might be structured a little differently,” McChesney recommended.

Should I get an MBA or an Executive MBA?

During the research and application processes, most prospective students will discover that they are a better fit for either the MBA program or the Executive MBA program for the reasons described above. However, some students truly are a potential fit for both programs. In all cases, it’s critical for candidates to sit down and do serious some self-reflection on what their top priorities are and how each of these graduate programs align with them.

“It’s essential for the candidate to really think about what they’re wanting from a program (in regards to) their career trajectory, and what would be beneficial for them in the long run,” McChesney said. “No 2 candidates are the same. Everyone has different goals, everyone has different backgrounds….There really is no right answer (for everyone). It’s really important that the candidate recognize that there’s just a right answer for them.”

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