MBA subjects: Core curriculum and specialisations | TopMBA.com

MBA subjects: Core curriculum and specialisations

By Valeria Renee R

Updated January 22, 2024 Updated January 22, 2024

Starting a Master of Business Administration (MBA) journey is like enabling notifications on a news application: you must learn to filter the influx of information to avoid being overwhelmed and focus on what truly matters to you.

Business school is a path that broadens your general understanding of business while also letting you master specific areas of study that match your career goals. The real value of an MBA lies in the combination of a core set of courses and the option to specialise.

When I started my MBA research, I was overwhelmed by the range of options available. I have quickly learnt that shopping for schools involves more than looking through the QS TopMBA rankings. The process isn’t just about picking a school – it’s about planning my future.

In this article, I want to share the insights I have learnt from researching MBA concentrations. We'll look at the essential courses that all MBA students take and explore the different areas you can focus on, so you can make choices that fit your own career and personal growth.

What do you learn in an MBA?

The Master of Business Administration builds general business knowledge so candidates can rejoin the workforce with a holistic understanding of how an organisation operates. MBA education is often divided into two components: the core curriculum and electives.

You may think of the core curriculum as the foundational pillar of your business education. The MBA core’s purpose is to strengthen students’ critical thinking, problem-solving and leadership skills to prepare them for complex business challenges and diverse professional environments. Typical core subjects include:

  • Accounting
  • Business ethics
  • Business law
  • Economics
  • Finance
  • Leadership
  • Marketing
  • Operations
  • Statistics

Electives are also available for students to tailor their education to their specific career goals. Like any degree, MBA programmes have a specific amount of credits they require students to take in order to graduate. While core areas of study take up most of the academic credits during the first half of the degree, MBA candidates fulfil the remainder of their time in business school by choosing the topics or industries they want to learn about.

Elective courses cover a myriad of topics from HR management to entrepreneurship. Some universities like the Wharton Business School at the University of Pennsylvania even allow you to select courses from other schools within the institution.

For example, the HEC Paris Master of Business Administration curriculum is divided between a fundamental phase as well as a customised phase in which students are able to tailor their degree via elective courses and specialisations.

What are MBA specialisations?

MBA specialisations, also known as concentrations, tracks, or majors, are focused curricula that enable students to develop a niche expertise on top of a general business foundation. By targeting a particular area of business, students advance skills that make them highly attractive to employers in specific sectors.

Due to the vast number of programmes worldwide and areas of interest, there isn’t a complete list of all specialisations available. However, popular specialisation paths include:

  • Accounting
  • Business analytics
  • Entrepreneurship
  • Finance
  • General Management
  • Information technology
  • Marketing
  • Operations management
  • Product management
  • Strategy
  • Sustainability

If their schedule allows, students may graduate with multiple MBA specialisations. Combinations vary as they will deepen on each person’s career path, but popular combinations include marketing and operations, accounting and finance, business analytics and marketing, among others.

MBA certifications, joint MBAs and dual degree MBAs

Another way of specialising your degree is by opting for MBA certifications, joint MBA or dual degree MBA programmes.

MBA certifications can be earned alongside or after completing an MBA programme. These certifications focus on specific business areas or industries, offering in-depth expertise in topics like project management, financial analysis, digital marketing, or data analytics. For example, The Fisher Center for Real Estate and Urban Economics at Haas School of Business, UC Berkeley offers students the option of graduating with an Interdisciplinary Graduate Certificate in Real Estate (IGCRE) for those interested in real estate investment, law and its role in the environment.

Joint degree MBA programmes combine regular MBA education with another graduate-level degree. Common joint degrees include:

  • MBA/JD (Juris Doctor for Law)
  • MBA/MD (Medical Doctor)
  • MBA/MPH (Master of Public Health)
  • MBA/MSW (Master of Social Work)

Joint MBA programmes are designed for individuals who aspire to integrate the comprehensive business knowledge of an MBA with another discipline, such as law, medicine, engineering, or public policy. These programmes are ideal for those who seek leadership roles that require a deep understanding of business principles and the dynamics of a second professional field.

Similarly, dual degree MBA programmes are also the combination of two separate degree qualifications. However, unlike joint degrees, they are often partnerships between two distinct institutions, meaning that candidates graduate with degrees from separate institutions.

Dual degree MBAs are popular among candidates who wish to specialise in international business as many options include partnerships between schools in different countries. For example, the Yale School of Management offers dual degrees with HEC Paris, Hong Kong’s HKUST Business School, or the University of British Columbia’s Sauder School of Business.

How do I choose my MBA specialisation?

Whether or not opting for an MBA with a specialisation is the best move for you will depend on your career goals and the type of leadership position you are pursuing. When weighing out general MBAs versus specialised MBAs, ask yourself the reasons why you’re enrolling in business school in the first place. Are you interested in an MBA because your job requires a graduate degree to move up in the company? The general MBA probably suits you better. Do you want to make a career switch, fast? A specialised MBA will give you the skills and knowledge you need to make that happen by the time you graduate.

As a digital marketer, the notion of ‘niching down’ has been instilled in my brain since the first day at university. A campaign whose focus is ‘everyone’ will never yield better results than one who has taken the time to set specific goals and narrow down to a particular segment of the market.

What’s my mission? What am I passionate about? What matters most to me? These are all questions I continually ask myself as I prepare to apply to business school, but most importantly, think about the life I want post graduation.

The MBA isn’t the end goal, but rather a vehicle that can help me get to the life I want to live. All of this starts with narrowing down to an area of expertise.

This article was originally published in January 2024 .

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