Decide Between an MBA and M.S. at Business School

Delece Smith-Barrow

Prospective b-school students don't just have an eye on an MBA. More are bucking the traditional MBA path in favor of specialized master's degrees in subjects such as finance and accounting, and schools are taking notice.

"I would predict within five years Krannert will probably have three-quarters of [its] students in specialized programs and only 25 percent in a full-time, two-year MBA," says P. Christopher Earley, dean at the Krannert School of Management at Purdue University. Right now, he estimates, 50 percent of students are pursuing specialized degree programs.

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The proportion of potential students interested in specialized master's degrees from business schools has risen by 2 percent between 2011 and 2012, according to survey results released April 10 from the Graduate Management Admission Council.

The specialized degree trend can be spotted at business schools across the U.S. Krannert started offering a master's of economics this year and recently started graduate degree programs in accounting and global supply chain management.

In May, New York University's Stern School of Business will offer a Master of Science in business analytics. The business school at George Washington University will offer a degree by the same name this fall, according to the student newspaper, the GW Hatchet.

But what are the benefits of choosing a specialized degree over an MBA? And who are the best candidates for this kind of degree track?

Business school experts shared their advice on how to decide if a specialized degree fits a prospective student's needs.

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To start, students should make sure they are clear about who is typically interested in each degree path.

Specialized degree candidates "really want to focus and deepen their knowledge in a specific subject area," says Paula Steisel Goldfarb, executive director of MBA and executive MBA admissions and financial aid at Stern. "Whereas for an MBA program, students are looking at broad-based skills. They want to get all their functional knowledge within multiple areas within business."

If students are deeply interested in a specific subject, pursuing a specific master's degree can save them time.

"Because these specialized master's programs are often tailored for people with less full-time work experience, the advantage is you can get, as a student, an advanced degree without having to enter the workforce for a very long time," says Earley of Purdue University.

Specialized master's degrees can be completed in 12 to 16 months instead of the two years allotted for traditional MBA programs, he says.

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Jennifer Layer can speak to Earley's advice. In May she will complete a one-year master's degree in accounting from the University of Iowa's Tippie School of Business. Just a year ago, she graduated from Iowa's undergraduate program after majoring in accounting.

"I knew that I wanted to continue to enhance my accounting knowledge, and specifically tax knowledge, so that I was prepared to really start my career professionally," Layer says.

An added bonus of entering a specialized program was being able to network with her future colleagues immediately, she says.

"I think, especially in a specialized program, the people that I spend the most of my time with are the people that I'm going to be working with for a really, really long time," she says, noting that some of her classmates will work with her at an accounting firm after graduation. Others will work at similar firms, she says.

Having such an ardent focus, though, can sometimes be detrimental to a business student, says Purdue University's Earley.

After graduating from school and working for a few years, students can develop what he calls "functional fixedness," which is a tendency to view the world in terms of a specific functional background.

"If you get a master's of finance, and you work in that capacity for, say, four or five years, it may be more difficult for you to put on the conceptual hat of somebody in marketing or somebody in strategy or somebody in operations. So you have to be careful, I think, to remain flexible in your thinking and how you approach problems," he says.

Another drawback of specialized degrees can be salary prospects after a student graduates.

"On average, the MBA will pay the most, a master's in finance would be second and a master's in accounting would definitely be third," says Chad Oakley, president of the executive search firm Charles Aris Inc.

"The more well-rounded an individual is, probably the more expensive they are. If you bring a good skill set and multiple disciplines, you probably can command a higher salary," he says.

Ultimately, when deciding on a business school degree, it comes down to more than money and choosing the right skill set. Candidates should consider which degree will best meet their career goals, says Goldfarb from NYU's business school.

"For everyone, it's a journey in terms of figuring out where their right path is going to lead and what program is going to be the best one for them," she says. "It's very much an individual decision in terms of where they're hoping their future plans go."

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