Weighing a Specialized MBA

Emma Collins, MBAOnline

January 7, 2013

Today’s post continues an important conversation about the relative value of different college degrees. Writer Emma Collins introduces blog readers to the idea of the “specialized MBA,” and looks at both the ups and downs of this growing trend. Emma is on staff with a website that provides educational advice for students and their families, and just released 2012 class rankings of the best MBA programs.

The business school marketplace, long a bastion of academic excellence and stability, has been seeing a lot of changes recently. Perhaps most significant is the shift to more nuanced training programs. While most of the nation’s top schools still offer standard and broadly-focused MBA programs, a growing number are also promoting educational opportunities that are much more tailored to specific marketing needs. Many second- and third-tier schools are following suit, often as a means of differentiating their programming and infusing new, potentially competitive aspects to what might otherwise be simply second-best options. Many in the field applaud this shift as a way of preparing students for an ever-shrinking job market. Others see it as little more than a marketing gimmick, however. Different programs obviously have different motivations, strengths, and education potential, though the trend seems to be here to stay; as such, a hard look at the pros and cons has perhaps never been more important.

The mechanism behind a “specialized” MBA is simple. Rather than providing students with simply an overview of many different business topics, the curriculum is focused specifically on one industry or type of work. “Whether they come in the form of an Executive MBA degree in a particular industry or a separate certificate earned in addition to the MBA, they all have a common aim: to give students a foundation in general management, from basic finance to strategy, and an in-depth knowledge of a particular industry,” Bloomberg Businessweek said in an article evaluating the growing trend. Students will typically zero in on case studies and examples pulled directly from the relevant field, and hands-on work and internships are often a big part of the curriculum.  Most of the time, professors are adjuncts who have worked, usually for years on end, in the industry being studied.

A survey of some of the most popular specialized MBA programs currently being offered includes the following:

  • Boston College’s joint MA/MBA program in theology, pastoral ministry, and church administration
  • Johns Hopkins Carey School’s MBAs in biotechnology, nursing, and design leadership
  • American University’s MBA in sustainability management
  • George Mason University’s MBAs in real estate and cyber security
  • University of California-Davis’ part-time wine studies executive MBA program

To be certain, a number of industries stand to benefit from an influx of business graduates with specialty knowledge. This is particularly true of small businesses and entrepreneurial ventures, where the big-box training received in many of the top-ranked programs may simply not be relevant. The most prestigious business schools typically prepare their graduates for work in the corporate world, and the training is usually designed with an eye to preparing students for Wall Street, investment banking, and high-powered executive jobs. Some students leverage this training to start their own entrepreneurial ventures, often with great success. For those who simply want to find jobs in ground-level enterprises, though, a top-notch education is not always useful.

“Business schools have to be responsive to what the consumer is telling us,” Lawrence Ward, associate dean for academic programs at American University, told The Washington Post. “And increasingly they’re saying, ‘I don’t see enough value in a traditional two-year program.’”

At the same time, however, specialized programs can be quite limiting. “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,” Bloomberg Businessweek has said. “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.”

When determining whether a specialized MBA is worth it, students must critically look at a couple of different factors. First, they need a clear view of what they want their education to do. A student who is looking for an “in” into a particularly coveted industry may do well in a specialized program, particularly if she is outgoing and willing to put some work into selling herself and her experiences. Someone simply looking for a shortcut to an MBA might suffer later on, though.

Second, students need to weigh the relative costs. Getting a business degree is usually very expensive, and tuition does not usually discriminate based on quality. A degree from a top-five school very often costs about the same as one from a school with much lower credentials. Getting a specialization can make the financial burden worth the risk of less prestige in some cases—but not always. Much depends on the individual student, the subject area, and the potential for market growth in that sector.

As with so many things in the education world today, a lot depends on subjective facts. The specialized MBA can be both a blessing and a curse, depending on the angle from which it is viewed. The trend seems here to stay, and the options and choices seem to expand every year. This certainly gives students a lot to think about, but the decision of what to study and where is one that should not be taken lightly, no matter how attractive or useful a particular program may seem on the surface.