Business Schools

The Spread of Specialized MBA Programs


More B-schools are setting up concentrations in investment management, arts administration, real estate, biosciences, and other fields

B-school trends come and go, but one that seems to have legs is the creation of specialized MBA programs, particularly by second-tier schools. The schools find them useful for attracting students and cementing their brand identities at a time when competition among schools for the best students is intense. In recent years, they've becoming increasingly common (BusinessWeek.com, 7/19/07) even at high-profile schools. Haas School of Business at the University of California at Berkeley, Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Sloan School of Management, and the Wharton School now offer specialized MBAs, majors, or dual degree programs in areas like real estate, sports management, biosciences, electronic commerce, and health care.

But is a specialized program always a good choice for an MBA student?

Not necessarily. While established programs have placement records on par with those of their general MBAs, many newer programs have not yet established the kind of recruiting relationships that guarantee students high-paying jobs at graduation. And graduates always run the risk of getting hamstrung by their specialties later in their careers, when an industry downturn forces them to look outside their specialties for opportunities.

Chart Your Own Path

Some who have gone through the specialized programs say they are best for those with a firm idea of their future goals, and who are keen to chart their own path. "I knew what I wanted to do," said Carrie Stern Rathod, who received her MBA from Wisconsin's Brand ‐ Product Management Center in 2005 and now works for Procter & Gamble (PG), which recruits regularly from the program. "There's a range of people for whom this program is ideal. If you have an entrepreneurial bent but are not sure you're ready to take the leap yet, the program might be right." But, she added, "I think it would be tough if you wanted to go into consulting or something like that."

For students who aren't comfortable breaking away from the pack or seeking out professional contacts in unconventional ways, a specialized MBA might not be the best choice. This is especially true at less well-known schools, where big companies often don't recruit. Students in these programs agree that making industry connections can require a lot of initiative from the student. "If you have a very specific company in mind, you might need to be a trailblazer in making relationships with those companies," says Rathod.

In some cases, specialty programs are not as well-received by the targeted employers as students would hope. "I've talked to Bain and McKinsey; they don't see what they can get out of us," said Ryan Brown, an MBA student studying services and management consulting at North Carolina State's College of Management. "We have to prove it to them." Brown says that large companies still overlook his program. He has tried to involve a few companies in the Service Management & Consulting Club he founded at NC State, but "they say without a prestige rating, they can't do anything with it." At a higher-profile school, he says, "I would have had that network."

Some students believe that even if the specialized degree doesn't create a major job-search advantage, it can't hurt—as long as you're flexible when talking to recruiters. "You can pick up in the beginning of a conversation that a person might not be interested that you did a certain concentration," said Will Quick, who is entering his second year of a Biopharma MBA at NC State. "The MBA is enough to get me in the door in a lot of cases. I don't have to tell them I'm in a concentration,"

Big Fish in a Small Pond

One of the few groups to benefit from specialized MBA programs are students with less-than-stellar undergraduate records, who find it easier to shine in a smaller program. "A guy like me without a great GPA, who's young and doesn't have a lot, they took me in and gave me the opportunity to be a big fish in a small pond," said Brown, speaking of NC State.

Whether specialized programs allow students to write their own ticket isn't clear, and they are not the right choice for every student. But many self-starters have used specialized programs to create their own path, like Brown, who is "in love" with his internship with Six Disciplines, an entrepreneurial consulting company in Durham, N.C.

Students with a clear focus who are comfortable charting their own course may be the best candidates for specialized MBA programs. Jackie Wilbur, director of career development at MIT's Sloan School says the programs should be evaluated against the goals and personality of the student. "The specialized program is great, as long as everyone is clear what the career trajectory is."

Levy is a BusinessWeek reporting intern.

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