Picking a specialised Master’s degree at business school rather than an MBA

MBAs have often been considered as the linchpin of a business school. PR experts Stephanie Mullins and Peter Remon from specialist public relations consultancy BlueSky Education explore how MBA programmes have been seen as some schools’ most attractive offering and regularly branded as the top choice programme undertaken by an aspiring leader. But is the attitude towards these programmes changing, at least in the eyes of prospective students?

Often, we see Master’s degrees pitted against the MBA – yet an MBA is still a Master’s. And though it is seen as a generalist business Master’s for more experienced professionals, there are now increasing numbers of other Master’s programmes that could rival the MBA. In fact, recent data from the GMAT Geographical Trend Report 2021, by GMAC, shows that in Europe testing scores sent to Masters programmes has increased by 6% over the last four years. Whilst, when it comes to MBA testing scores, tests sent has decreased from 34% to 29%.

“As business and society has evolved, so has business education. It means that the needs of organisations and people are more varied – and so ‘business’ as a topic has grown extensively, hence increased interest,” says Nalisha Patel, Regional Director for Europe at the Graduate Management Admission Council. “The increase of choice and coverage of these programmes also offers even more opportunities for those who may not have considered business education before or felt that the timing of an MBA (2-7 years of experience for example) was not suitable for them.”

Does this mean we are seeing business schools focus more on their Master’s portfolio?

One school that certainly believes in the importance of the Master’s portfolio is Advantere School of Management. The Madrid-based business school launched last year with no MBA programme. The business school is launching three Master’s – Talent Management, Finance, and Management – because of the need of organisations to have younger, talented graduates early in their career path.

“Specialised Master’s programmes will increase in their importance in the future as they can swiftly and effectively respond to the demands of young graduates, organisations and society, developing young professionals for a highly competitive, ever-changing job market.”, says Guillermo Cisneros, Managing Director of Advantere School of Management. “Organisations need highly prepared young talent ready and equipped with not just managerial skills but with technological knowledge and strong personal, social values,” and that’s exactly what a Master’s programme offers.

And though Advantere School of Management may be in the minority of global business schools without an MBA, in recent years more business schools have emphasised their Master’s portfolio, launching a whole new suite of programmes. Aalto University School of Business in Finland, for instance, recently launched three new Master’s programmes, catering to business analytics, people management and management in a changing world.

Though the MBA remains important at Aalto, according to their Associate Dean of Teaching and Education, Tomas Falk, business schools must ensure they are teaching topical issues at both levels (Master and MBA). “The launch of new Master’s programmes around the globe is a good thing as it underlines a constant evolution of our field. The best business schools will not only focus on revamping their programme portfolios around the already mentioned topics of analytics, creativity, digitalisation, diversity, sustainability etc. in order to stay relevant but also the way this is delivered.”

Catering to relevant, topical issues is certainly one reason as to why more specialist Master’s are increasing. With the MBA being a more generalist management programme, a Master’s can offer both management but also expertise in a very specific, topical field. One business school that has recently launched Master’s programmes tailored to hot issues is POLIMI Graduate School of Management, in Italy, who last year launched five separate Master’s programmes focused on the field of sustainability.

“MBA and Master’s are not in opposition but simply covering different needs and appropriate in different moments of the careers of managers and entrepreneurs,” says Antonella Moretto, Associate Dean for Open Programmes at POLIMI Graduate School of Management. “For new important subjects, if the purpose is not simply to understand how these trends are revising the business models, but to become a major expert and develop some very strong niche competences, Master’s are a perfect solution.”

And while the MBA programme is certainly still prestigious and showcases how good a leader a graduate can be, in some fields a Master’s programme can be more valuable says Jenifer Lewis, Associate Professor and Director of Degree Programmes at Nazarbayev University Graduate School of Business, in Kazakhstan. “Jobs are becoming more complex and employees need to have significant and specific knowledge to be successful in certain areas. For specific students in certain fields and markets, a Master’s degree might be more important than an MBA”.

While Master’s programmes offer graduates in-depth knowledge and expertise in a specific subject area, they can also be a great way to improve gender parity and ensure more women are getting into management positions, according to Roland Siegers, Director of Early Careers Programmes at ESMT Berlin, who recently launched three new Masters programmes.

“Master’s seem to be a particularly attractive value proposition for women in job markets still dominated by traditional role models which make it attractive to “front load” your training – before expectations of patriarchal societies will make it much more difficult to work and train at the same time,” says Siegers. “This is why we see gender parity being achieved much more easily in Master’s programmes.”

But does this mean the Master’s market will become overcrowded? Aram Karakashian, Director of Global Marketing and Recruitment at Imperial College Business School in London, says, “The Master’s market is already very competitive with many European schools having a well-established portfolio. We are seeing more programmes being launched, focusing on more specific subjects in both the face-to-face and online space. The choice for candidates is growing in the breadth of subjects available and the volume of international schools offering them, making the market more crowded,” he says.

It’s clear to see that Master’s programmes are becoming more popular amongst students. Not only are there more students applying to these programmes, but more business schools are launching programmes focused on topical areas like sustainability, technology, analytics and energy. It’s likely that more specific programmes will continue to be launched, catering to the younger workforce who want management skills alongside the ability to become an expert in their field.