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MBA vs Specialized Business Master’s – Which One is Better for Your Career?

MBA vs Specialized Business Master’s – Which One is Better for Your Career? main image

Sponsored by McCombs School of Business at the University of Texas at Austin

With an undergraduate degree to your name, you may be wondering what else you can do to ensure you stand out in a competitive job market. In some cases, jumping straight back into education can be a great option. But how are you supposed to know which degree is the right one for you?

Since the first MBA launched in 1908, it’s been considered the cornerstone business degree program all over the world. In recent years, it’s faced growing competition from the specialized business master’s, which do well to reflect the diversity of jobs in today’s globalized world and act as a springboard for early business career professionals.

Unsure what to expect from a business master’s degree? Business schools such as the McCombs School of Business are offering specialized curricula in areas like data science, marketing, and more through their specialized master’s programs, something which more traditional MBA tracks can’t offer in terms of depth and specialization. That’s not the only difference though.

Industry demand for those with niche business skills and knowledge

In recent years, the line between technology and business has become increasingly blurred.

Many jobs that exist today didn’t exist 20 years ago, or even 10 years ago: social media managers, SEO specialists, data analysts, user experience (UX) designers, and almost any job related to artificial intelligence (AI) have only been around since the turn of the century. These highly specialized positions often require the specialized training business master’s programs are offering.

With the likes of emerging technologies such as AI, fintech and big data having a dramatic impact on how businesses operate, from customer services to managing finances, advanced technologies are creating exciting opportunities on an almost daily basis.

Specialized business master’s combine in-depth skills in particular fields, such as finance or information technology, together with business decision-making skills. Many students considering non-business degrees in areas such as research or computer science may turn to these business master’s to leverage their technical skills within a specific business context.

Graduates are not just able to work with emerging technologies, but they’re also able to identify business value and opportunities out of those technologies.

The demand is also increasing from organizations and employers for business professionals who have the niche knowledge and skills to work in particular areas of business and fill the needs gap within emerging realms of business such as AI, fintech and big data. Due to the technical nature of these programs, many specialized business master’s degrees are STEM eligible because of requirements around data visualization, coding, or statistical aptitude.

Still wondering how a specialized business master’s can help get you where you want to be? It’s important to understand that there are a variety of factors which can influence whether an MBA or a specialized business master’s is right for you though. For example, where are you currently in your career?

Those who have just graduated and are only getting started may be more inclined to jump straight into a specialized business master’s, whereas those who have more than a few years’ worth of professional experience under their belt may want to consider an MBA instead.

We’ve teamed up with McCombs School of Business at the University of Texas at Austin and spoke to four graduates to find out how a specialized business master’s can be the key to unlocking your career potential – especially in a rapidly developing digital world.

Working in marketing

Nina Laudon graduated from the Master of Science in Marketing at McCombs School of Business in 2019, and is now a Senior Segment Research Manager at Amazon. She shared with us the experiences she gained during her time at McCombs, and talks at length about how her skillset has developed throughout her studies.

“The MS in Marketing was an invaluable step in my career. It armed me with analytical skills, business acumen, and the ability to succeed in an ambiguous environment.

“My professors challenged me to think creatively and come up with innovative solutions to problems, while always guiding my decisions with data. The program taught me perseverance and grit, which will help me succeed throughout my career,” she said.

Having had an avid interest in research, the MS in Marketing offered Nina the opportunity to pursue research in industry.

“I wanted to see the impact of my work more directly than I thought I would be able to in academia.

“I identified consumer insights as a career path I was interested in, and felt the rigorous curriculum in marketing would help prepare me for that role, and I’m so grateful this was the path I chose.

Now, as a Senior Segment Research Manager, Nina is able to apply her master’s theory to her real-life job.

“I do market research across all product lines for Amazon Devices, including emerging devices.

“My role is to be the voice of the customer for both product and marketing teams, helping to discover and share customer stories.

“I utilize both quantitative and qualitative methodologies to go beyond answering ‘what’ customers are doing, but delving into the ‘why’.”

Working in business analytics

Master of Science in Business Analytics graduate Chloe Kwon is a Data Scientist at Walmart Technology. Before turning her hand to tech, Chloe was a business analyst for an oil and gas company where she “learned how to communicate with customers and deliver solutions that fit their current needs.”

When it came to pursuing the MS in Business Analytics, Chloe tells us she wanted to gain a more technical skillset which would, in turn, “provide higher impact solutions to her customers.”

“I felt that I could achieve a lot more with technical skills as opposed to the general business skills you learn in an MBA. Although I haven't discounted an MBA altogether in my future, I will have to see whether there will be enough justification to pursue one,” she said.

Fast forward to today, and Chloe believes the MS in Business Analytics has played a key role in both her academic and professional career.

“The MS in Business Analytics has definitely opened the doors for me in terms of pivoting my career from oil and gas to tech.

“Our data science team at Walmart mainly uses Python as a scripting language and the master’s classes helped sharpen my Python skill as well as SQL, statistics, math, big data tools, and machine learning algorithms.

“We learned the fundamentals of data science through our courses with professors from different departments -- from statistics and programming to marketing and supply chain -- and through our Capstone course, we learned how to approach a business problem by understanding the problem, evaluating the feasibility of different technical solutions, and pitching the impact and value of the solution.

“Without the MSBA program, I would not have accumulated enough knowledge and tools to be able to effectively solve problems as a data scientist.”

Working in finance

James Freathy studied the Master of Science in Finance at McCombs School of Business and is now a Research Analyst at Dimensional Fund Advisors.

When considering what impact the MS in Finance program has had on his career so far, James had nothing but praise for it. He told us: “It allowed me to take my undergraduate experiences both in economics and as a research assistant, and apply those to a field that not only was I always interested in, but that I felt was a natural extension of my previous studies.”

Before enrolling on the program, James’ sole experience was as a research assistant at the University of Texas. And without knowing what type of career he wanted to pursue before the program, he was grateful for the industry exposure the program had given him.

“I wasn’t always sure what type of career I wanted to pursue, but the master’s program allowed me to have exposure across a wide array of fields within finance.

“The research-oriented role I’m in now was always an interest of mine, but was something that I only learnt deeply about from my time in the master’s program,” said James.

Working in information technology and management

Mike Shin studied the Master of Science in Information Technology and Management, and is now a Software Engineer working in the data engineering team at EOG Resources. Originally looking for a master’s in computer science, Mike instead found himself considering the MS in Information Technology and Management, instead.

“The biggest point that the program made that convinced me to join was that it would teach skills useful in a corporate environment.

“Especially after my time in my previous job, I knew I needed more than just good coding skills to succeed in an intense work environment and I believed this program would be able to teach me those skills.”

Prior to studying the MS in Information Technology and Management, Mike was a software developer and tech team lead in a startup. Being no stranger to the software, Mike always knew that a career in development was what he was after, but in which field exactly was another question.

“Thankfully, there were plenty of projects and hackathons in both the MS in Information Technology and Management and beyond that gave me perspective about many fields in the tech industry.

“These were great opportunities for me to find exactly what type of career I wanted to pursue.”

Written by Stephanie Lukins

As the Head of Sponsored Content for TopMBA.com and TopUniversities.com, Stephanie creates and publishes a wide range of articles for universities and business schools across the world. She attended the University of Portsmouth where she earned a BA in English Language and an MA in Communication and Applied Linguistics.

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