MBA or MSc – Which is the Right Master’s Degree for You?
By Mansoor Iqbal
MBA or MSc? In the second decade of the 21st century, this is one of the biggest questions in the sphere of business education.
While the MBA most certainly retains its allure and its cachet with employers, the rise of the specialized master’s degree in various FAME disciplines – the MSc in Finance, for example, in recent years has been notably meteoric, with their status as the next big thing firmly established.
Candidates may consider both, but they are very different degrees, targeted at a different demographic who seek different outcomes.
MSc in Finance or the MBA?
The central difference is the experience of candidates. The MBA is targeted at those who have dipped their toes into the professional world, while a specialized master’s degree – be it an MSc or a MIM (Masters in Management) – is for pre-experience candidates who may have only recently completed an undergraduate degree.
So, the choice between an MBA or MSc in finance, or another business function, largely hinges on the stage at which you enter the world of business education. Kiron Ravindran, Associate Dean of the MIM at IE Business School in Spain, reflects, “The science of management is the same whether you opt for a MIM or MBA, in that it looks at how you direct, plan, organize and take care of resources. The difference is in what stage you’re looking at this. While an MBA might look at the challenges from a strategic level, a master’s student is likely to consider things at a more operational level.”
An operational focus offers a good point at which students from non-business subjects who want to transition to a more vocational discipline can switch to business, while those who have already been in business will have already picked up operational skills.
Textbooks or peer learning?
The MBA is a much more general degree as a result. While specializations are on offer in the form of electives, there is a clear focus on providing a rounded education which covers everything from human resources, to logistics, to supply chain management, to corporate social responsibility, and especially to soft skills which pertain specifically to the not inconsiderable challenges of managing human beings, and strategy – taking into account the bigger picture.
An MSc in Finance, on the other hand, would be solely focused on helping a student to gain the toolkit required to succeed in a specific functional role. In order to develop these, the focus would be slightly more academic and theoretical, with a textbook and professor-led approach.
The MBA, meanwhile, can be considered more of a professional degree with a slightly more practical focus. Case studies, real-world projects and teamwork predominate, and there is an emphasis on peer learning.
“While the core courses – finance, strategy, IT, operations, marketing – will be the same, the discussion the professor has with the students and the subsequent discussion which occurs in the classroom will be different,” says Ravindran. “On an MBA, the teacher will play the role of facilitator in a peer learning environment, encouraging the students to bring out the lessons of their own experience. In a master’s, the professor will adopt a more pedagogical approach. Students in the former will see things through the lens of their own different experiences, while those in the latter will learn from multiple textbooks and their professor’s experience.”
So, which is the right form of business education for a recent graduate?
This still leaves a graduate holding a bachelor’s degree with a question. Do you opt to go out into the world and gain some experience before signing up to the executive peer learning offered by the MBA, or should one leap straight into the world of business education with a functional MSc?
Your future plans cannot necessarily be used as a differentiator in the decision between an MBA or MSc, as the fields these two sets of graduates enter are largely the same. If you were focused on being a specialist in one functional area, there might be a case for a program such as an MSc in Finance, but eventually, the typical rules of career progression would see one emerge in a general management role anyway. Plus, many firms which operate in the target industries for MSc students offer graduate schemes as well as on-the-job training.
For those in non-business functions, such as IT professionals, the question would hinge on experience and ambitions. Those who have gained management skills and wanted to tighten them up, or had got a taste for business and wanted to move into a non-technical role, the MBA would seem a better bet. Those who wanted to simply make a technical switch earlier in their career might prefer to do a master’s degree, though this would mean they would enter the business and management sector at lower level, and might miss out on the advantages of peer learning later in their careers.
So, MBA or MSc? There is, of course, no right or wrong answer to this question. A student coming out of an undergraduate degree may simply come to the conclusion that if they are going to sign up for a graduate-level business degree, why wait? There are more and more specialized master’s degrees out there as reputable schools rush to meet demand. There will be, therefore, no shortage of options for the student considering such a degree. However, this increasingly plentiful array of options may well only serve to cement the status of an MBA from an elite business schools as the high watermark of business education.