Getting In

Why an MBA Is Not Always the Right Choice


View of Princeton University's Whig Hall

Photograph by Oliver Morris/Getty Images

View of Princeton University's Whig Hall

A guest post from Rose Martinelli, formerly the longtime admissions director at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business, where she wrote a popular admissions blog, The Rose Report.

My last two posts focused on knowing yourself, making sense of all the pieces, and sharing what you learned with your circle of supporters. Now it’s time to focus on evaluating educational options by defining two of the most common academic pathways—subject-focused master’s degrees and MBA degree programs.

Subject-focused master’s degrees are typically one-year academic programs that focus on a single topic in great detail, with application of these concepts focused in functional areas. Programmatic features vary by school and program, so make sure to do your homework, especially if particular programs or career support are among your priorities.

MBA programs, on the other hand, are typically two-year programs, although they are now offered in one-year or accelerated formats. These “professional” programs focus on developing the fundamental tools of resource management (accounting, finance, operations, statistics, marketing, human resources, economics, and so forth).

The vast majority of MBA programs require core classes, with the opportunity to pursue majors or concentrations in specific areas of study. The value of MBA programs can be found through the breadth of exposure from academic options and co-curricular activities to professional outcomes. Offered in full-time, part-time, and executive formats, this degree can be taken at various stages in your professional development.

Which type of program is right for you? While there are no right or wrong answers here, I would recommend that your choice be based upon your undergraduate education, prior work experience, and future career goals.

If you do not have an undergraduate business degree, the MBA may be a good option because of its focus on the fundamentals of business and experiential opportunities, as well as the breadth of career support available. Even students who have pursued economics majors or who have done consulting can benefit from the MBA degree if one of the driving reasons for pursuing education is the chance to explore and experiment.

If you have an undergraduate business degree and want additional depth in a particular area, the subject-oriented masters degree may be ideal. Typically, these are smaller programs that provide focused instruction in that area of study. While another option for business undergraduates may be to pursue an MBA, selecting a school with a flexible core curriculum will be important if you do not want to repeat prior coursework. We’ll talk more about that in future posts.

If you are just completing your undergraduate degree and wish to pursue additional education in order to prepare you for your first career step, a subject-oriented masters degree may be just the right choice. Over the past several years, there has been an expansion in these programs, largely fueled by the lack of good employment opportunities for college graduates, as well as the limited number of MBA programs that admit students without work experience.

Whatever your situation, the choice of program is up to you. Next up: the advantages of full-time vs. part-time programs.

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