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MBA or Masters: the dilemma of choice

Thinking business education? Thinking graduate school? Which qualification should a student enroll in - the MBA or the Masters? Tim Rogers of QS TopGradSchool.com investigates.

Having recently celebrated its 100th birthday at one of the world’s most prestigious institutions, Harvard Business School, the MBA has seen much news coverage over the last year 18 months. Feted as one of the essential qualifications to have as a graduate entering the world of business, the MBA is, however, a comparatively youthful study program when set against the older and more established Masters degree. First awarded in 859 in Morocco, the Masters degree is universally recognized as a higher qualification that confers advanced skills on its holder, irrespective of the subject area in which the degree is earned.

MBA or Masters - the differences

The candidate
So, against this background, what are the essential differences between the MBA and the Masters degree, particularly those in the more specialized business, finance and management fields? 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 Masters degrees build on the academic background of the student.  Many Greek students apply for MBA programs with little or no work experience, making them more suitable for Masters, often in very similar subject areas. Konstantinos Tsoukalas, Associate Director of Admissions at Instituto de Empresa, one of Spain’s leading business schools, believes this is one of the most important aspects Greek students should bear in mind.  “Our application process values diversity, entrepreneurship, leadership skills, and an international profile, so experience is really important for our MBA.  Prospective candidates should make sure that they present those qualities in their applications.”

The program
The second most significant difference between the two graduate-level degrees is that of teaching and learning styles. While there have been tremendous developments in the way in which all university programs are taught, particularly with the introduction of new online learning technologies, MBA and Masters programs enjoy entirely different learning styles. Traditional MBA programs 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 programs, these are far less common than in their Masters degree counterparts. 

Masters programs, on the other hand, continue to develop their teaching methodologies around classroom or laboratory-based activities such as lectures, tutorials or presentations. While small group work can be a feature of some Masters programs, the emphasis on individual or independent learning is often more significant than in many MBA degrees. 

Specializations
Perhaps one of the best illustrations of the difference between an MBA and a Masters-level qualification can be seen in a specialized area such as human resource and personnel management. Where the generalized approach common in many MBA programs is sufficient to equip a student for a range of business-related situations, the more specialized nature of a Masters 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 a particular area can also be practical in the sense of the teaching style, content of the program and opportunities to develop subject knowledge. 

The employer’s point of view
The differences in such a specialized area as human resources or personnel management are also important to employers in many countries. Gary Garber, an HR professional in a Chicago-based finance company, is clear on the differences between the two qualifications. “An MBA has a ton of general business courses and only a few HR ones. As a graduate of Cornell's Masters in Industrial and Labor Relations (MILR), my experience is the opposite - the MILR has a ton 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 specialized knowledge the MILR provides you with wins out.” 

MBAs and Masters - the right one for you
Michelangelo Balicco, International Marketing Coordinator at the Politecnico di Milano, an institution that offers both MBA and Masters programs, has this advice for Greek students considering the difference between the two degrees.  “It is most important that students read the admissions criteria for all programs and judge their own background, experience and grades honestly. Where one of our programs requires professional experience, then a student must have this if they want to be successful with their application.”

While the demand for MBA and Masters programs continues to grow, there continues to be a healthy debate over the relative merits and disadvantages of both degrees. Your choice of program very much depends on two critical factors. Firstly, your ambitions: if you are clear on the type of career or specialty you hope to develop in your future career, then the advantages of a Masters degree often outweigh the more generic, business-focused approach of many MBA curricula. Secondly, your background and qualifications: the most highly regarded international MBA or Masters programs 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 program for you has to be directly related to your own background - to make any other choice would be to risk fulfilling your potential.

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