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Compare and Contrast: MBA vs. Master’s Degree

10 Aug
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You have excelled in your education and may be some years into your career. Graduate school beckons as the next right step in your advancement, but how do you know which degree to pursue? What’s the difference between an Online Master of Business Administration (MBA) and all the other master’s degrees out there? Is one better than the rest? If you didn’t earn your master’s degree right out of college, have you missed your chance?

You’re not alone in asking these questions. The answers can vary according to your experience and aspirations, so read on to explore several similarities and differences between the MBA and master’s degrees in other fields.

How is an MBA like other master’s degrees?

Across disciplines, master’s degrees are postgraduate degrees available to students who have completed a bachelor’s degree and demonstrated knowledge and proficiency in their undergraduate studies. Available in full-time and part-time curricula, on campus and online, master’s programs provide heightened academic understanding while strengthening the proficiencies sought out for career advancement.

People pursue graduate degrees at varied points in their lives and careers, for diverse reasons. They often want to:

  • Acquire advanced professional expertise in their previous field(s) of study
  • Move up professionally with enhanced skills and qualifications
  • Pivot into a new professional discipline
  • Keep their knowledge current regarding new developments within a given field

What have you studied and how in-depth do you want to get?

Master’s programs other than MBAs are typically designed for people at the beginning of their professional careers. Applicants are motivated to improve their qualifications before starting in the job market, and they’re looking to gain specialized knowledge in particular areas. In pursuing a ‘deep dive,’ so to speak, these students self-select as candidates for master’s programs in clearly specified subjects such as finance, marketing or business analytics, for example.

This specificity accounts for a prerequisite maintained by many master’s programs: They look for students with an academic background, or perhaps work experience, in a relevant field of study. Such programs build on the skills and knowledge gained at the undergraduate level as they develop their students’ analytical and technical acumen. They can be excellent choices for those interested in careers requiring subject-matter expertise.

What do you and an MBA program look for in each other?

While many master’s programs focus on one particular topic, the MBA is a single degree that offers a broader view. MBA studies involve multiple subjects—leadership, finance, technology, and so on—and they’re intended for those seeking management roles, business ownership or greater flexibility in their careers.

MBA programs draw on their students’ professional experience, so they typically require two or more years in the full-time working world before students are accepted. While an MBA curriculum may offer electives in other topics, coursework is likely to emphasize leadership and management skill. As a result, MBA programs are best suited for those with goals in general management, executive leadership or entrepreneurship.

There are multiple paths to stronger qualifications.

It’s all too easy to suggest that your choice of degree should depend on how specialized an education you want: Looking for a career in finance? Get a master’s in finance! More holistically minded? Go for the MBA.

Certainly, your goals play a major role in this decision, but there’s more to it than that.

A master’s degree will help you gain professional expertise. Later, however, you may find that adding an MBA to your resume will help you advance into leadership positions.

The reverse may also prove useful. Having earned a broad-scope MBA, you may well discover that the subject mastery afforded by a focused master’s program will increase your professional value as an authority in a given field.

Clearly, timing is an important factor in your choice. As you determine which graduate education is the best fit for this moment in your life and career, consider these questions:

  • Would you rather manage people or get to the bottom of a specific challenge?
  • As you look ahead, do you see yourself leading a company or being an expert in your field?
  • Does the curriculum you’re reviewing develop the skills, understanding and flexibility you need to thrive in your chosen career path?

Your best path forward starts at William & Mary.

When you’re ready to choose the right business school and program for you, look at the wealth of options at William & Mary. To find your ideal opportunity, explore our top-ranked Online MBA program, innovative Online MS in Business Analytics and Online Master's in Marketing programs, and rapid-impact Online Foundations in Business Analytics Certificate program.