MBA vs Master’s? Part I

Are you currently considering post-graduate studies and are confronted with plethora of master-level degree programs, hard to tell apart? One question you may well be asking yourself is whether you should be going for a MBA program or a Master’s degree. This post aims to help you navigate this complex market and ultimately figure out which type of program is best for you.

To answer this question there is a number of layers that need to be considered:

What kind of learning experience would I like to go through? What is feasible for me in terms of the time, money and energy investments I have to make? How do I feel I learn best – what is my preferred teaching style? Perhaps most importantly, where do I see myself one, three, ten years from graduation?

Which profile do you fit into? MBA vs Masters

This article is organized in key topics which will be more or less relevant to you depending on which stage of your research you are in:

  • Background
  • Main differences
  • Diversity of profiles
  • Different teaching approach
  • Career Impact
  • Cost/Financing
  • How do you know if an MBA or a Master’s is right for you?

Background

Since the launch of the so-called “Bologna Process” in 1999, which aims at homogenizing the higher education frameworks in Europe, the number of Master degrees offered in the 48 countries of the European Higher Education Area (EHEA) has soared. With the number of Master degrees currently on offer in the thousands, candidates have more choice than ever. But this landscape is not necessarily easy to navigate. In particular the difference between a Master’s degree and an MBA is not always clearly articulated.

Technically, any Masters in the field of business administration is an MBA. After all, the acronym stands for Master in Business Administration. In certain countries, this can lead to confusion when literally translating subjects. The German field of study of Betriebswirtschaftslehre for example, translates into Business Administration. Hence, a Master’s degree in that field would logically translate into a “Master’s in Business Administration”.

What further adds to the confusion is that although there are several accrediting bodies (EQUIS, AACSB, AMBA among others), there is no global regulatory framework around what should be called an MBA. Any education provider is free to label their Master’s degrees in business as MBAs. The emergence, first in Europe, now globally of the MiM (Master in Management) has helped segmenting the market somewhat but there are today thousands of MBA programs offered globally, in a variety of formats (full-time, part-time, online), which makes this space hard to navigate.

What are the main differences?

Diversity of backgrounds and profiles: Who is fit to do what?

Generally speaking, the main difference between a Master’s degree in business and an MBA is that the MBA will require considerable full-time work experience from its students. Whether it is the traditional full-time two year MBA, its one year counterpart, the part-time Executive MBA formats or online MBAs, these programs will all have minimum work experience requirements. At the very best full-time MBA programs in the world, the average work experience of candidates is roughly 5 years.

Master’s programs on the other hand are generally meant to be a continuation of academic studies beyond the Bachelor’s level. Some students will choose to work between their Bachelor’s and their Master’s but it is not a requirement in most cases and more often than not will take the form of internships. This, in turn, has a number of implications that further differentiate both degrees.

The MBA is a degree aimed at experienced professionals who want to acquire a strong foundation in business. Although candidates with previous business studies are quite common, typically representing roughly a third of candidates at a top program, they are not the norm. As a matter of fact, the largest bucket by candidate volume is probably that of engineers who wish to broaden their skillset. But even they will not be the majority. The world’s most reputable programs take great care in composing the class and make large room for more “exotic” academic backgrounds, such as lawyers, architects, medical doctors, scientists, to name just a few. The same diversity will be found in terms of previous occupations. Traditional roles in consulting, engineering or finance will be quite common but a top MBA will host a wide range of professions including veterans, pilots or professional athletes. The idea behind the MBA is not only that all these different types of backgrounds will acquire a strong management skillset but also that they will learn from each other, mutually enriching the classroom experience.

Method of teaching: Lectures or experiential learning? 

The teaching style at a Master’s degree is unlikely to depart much from traditional undergraduate studies. Lectures are normally the leading teaching method, although more and more case studies are used.

Teaching at most MBA programs combines lectures and case studies like in Master’s. The difference is that MBA teaching tends to be more experiential, through the use of case studies and project-based work.

This kind of experiential learning is truly immersive teaching method and allows students to leverage their backgrounds. You can think of entrepreneurship classes, asset management practicums, venture labs, or many other kinds of labs. Learning while doing, describes this quite well. This method has proven itself one of the most efficient learning methods. The idea is essentially to leverage the accumulated experience in the classroom by fostering intense exchange between participants.

MBA programs teaching methods are diverse, such as the programs themselves. Do your research and make sure you are choosing the program that is right for you.

The remaining topics will be covered in Part II of this post. 

If you are applying to business schools, the fastest way to know your best way forward is talking directly to the MBA admissions team. Send an email to mbainfo@iese.edu and one of our associate directors will be in touch with you within 48 hours.

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