6 of the Most Popular MBA Specializations

Six of the most popular MBA specializations or concentrations

If you look online, you can find lists that feature as many as 81 MBA specializations. This amount of choice means there’s likely to be an MBA specialization out there which matches your career goals.

Not all schools offer MBA specializations. Some offer concentrations. Others offer generalized programs that center around required courses in areas such as strategy and finance, and in which students can specialize in a specific area by taking elective courses of their choosing. Combining electives might then allow students to essentially create their own customized program. This is something that can be particularly effective at larger schools, such as INSEAD, where large numbers of elective offerings make it highly unlikely that any two students will end up taking the exact same set of courses.

With these nuances in mind, here is a detailed look at six of the most popular MBA specializations out there, together with examples of how a top business school teaches that particular specialization topic.

1. International business

An international business MBA is aimed at students who are seeking careers in multinational organizations, small and medium-sized companies in sectors affected by international pressures (such as through competitors or suppliers) or students who are interested in the role organizations play in global issues. An MBA in international business will commonly cover a variety of issues affecting global business including: Understanding globalization and cross-cultural differences; the process of doing business in emerging markets; managing a multinational enterprise; and the role of multinational organizations in social and environmental issues.

Cambridge Judge Business School covers international business through their Global Business Concentration. The goals of this concentration are to offer insights into globalization issues affecting organizations and to demonstrate frameworks organizations can use to manage these issues. The concentration includes a capstone project which allows students to apply international management skills gained during the program. There are also electives available and which include ‘Innovation and Marketing in Global Economies’ and ‘The Liberalisation & Regulation of International Financial Markets’. Cambridge Judge’s concentration also features talks and discussions with leaders  representing international organizations, plus a group project focusing on key challenges which are expected to challenge international organizations within the next 50 years.

2. Strategy

A strategy MBA focuses on the skills and knowledge needed to develop the business strategy that enables managers to diagnose situations, make strategic choices and execute their plans and objectives.

“Strategic thinking is important for knowing what to do differently, or knowing what not to do.  The more the business environment changes (new technologies, new competitors and new customer trends), the more important it is to think strategically about how to respond,” says Javier Gimeno, chair of INSEAD’s strategy department.

Strategy knowledge has become more important since large companies have increasingly decentralized strategy development responsibilities. Three decades ago, Gimeno points out, middle managers did not have to develop strategies – they were only expected to be able to execute them well. Since it can often prove difficult to execute a strategy you did not develop yourself, this approach tended not to work so well. That’s why most middle managers today are expected to have the skills to develop and execute their own strategies for a business.

A strategy MBA prepares you to work in strategic consulting, general management and strategic finance roles. While these jobs require the perspective of a generalist, you also need to know how to create superior performance in a competitive environment. This is why you need to have knowledge of marketing, finance or operations and how these things support a strategy. General managers will also need to have strong leadership skills in order to supervise and work with their teams effectively.

While INSEAD is known for its expertise in strategy, the subject is not offered as an MBA specialization. Instead, strategy is integrated throughout INSEAD’s general MBA curriculum and is also the topic of several elective courses. Indeed, members of the strategy faculty teach the very first course in INSEAD’s MBA program – one which emphasizes the importance of having a strategic perspective as a general manager. All MBAs are also required to take a core course in strategy. Examples of the school’s strategy electives, meanwhile, include ‘Industry and Competitive Analysis’, ‘Blue Ocean Strategy’ (a concept developed by INSEAD faculty that is now taught worldwide) and ‘Global Strategic Management’.

3. Marketing

An MBA in marketing prepares MBAs for marketing careers by giving them an in-depth understanding of the concepts, tools and practices associated with modern marketing. Marketing MBA graduates can pursue a variety of careers in a variety of industries including consulting, consumer-packaged goods, technology and healthcare.

At Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business, the marketing MBA concentration “centers around the premise that the fundamental role of marketing is stewardship of the customer asset and managing the firm's brand equity,” states Debu Purohit, marketing professor and area coordinator at Fuqua.

The school’s concentration aims to teach students three essential marketing skills: understanding value, creating value and delivering value. Understanding value is the ability to understand the voice of the customer and identify the drivers of value. Creating value is using the tools of marketing (including the traditional four ‘p’s of price, product, place and promotion) to develop products and services that address consumer need and enhance the equity of the company. Delivering value, meanwhile, relates to the way in which the firm’s offerings can be used to manage relationships with customers, partners, suppliers and competitors. At Fuqua, there are individual courses that look at each of these three skills. 

4. Operations management

An operations management MBA specialization looks at how products, services and supply chains are designed and managed. At Spain’s IESE Business School, these topics are covered in the first year of it flagship MBA curriculum as well as in electives available in the second year:

“Overall, the MBA program ensures students can get both the more concrete aspects of managing manufacturing operations as well as the more strategic dimensions of global supply chain management,” states Carlos García Pont, marketing professor and an academic director of IESE’s MBA program.  

The first year of its MBA features two classes which cover the basics of operations from both a practical, ground-based perspective as well as a strategic point of view. In the second year, students can opt for electives, such as ‘Advanced Methods for Operational Excellence’.

“Operational excellence allows many companies to outperform competition in several industries,” states Pont. The course, which looks at operations planning problems, capacity management and logistics design as well as new strategies, tools and practices, seeks to provide students with a deeper understanding of how to solve complex planning problems and assess operational risk.

Another elective, ‘Managing Global Operations’, is taught in Shanghai and addresses the global operations issues facing Western companies operating in China as well as those in China who are seeking expansion into Europe and the Americas. The course considers key concepts and issues of managing operations in a global context for both the manufacturing and service sectors. Students also have the opportunity to dissect globalization strategies for several different companies and talk to their leaders about current trends in operations globalization.

5. Supply chain management

Supply chain management is a subset of operations management which focuses on the flow of goods or services. The MBA concentration in supply chain management at Penn State Smeal College of Business is designed for anyone who is planning on a post-MBA career in this area, regardless of their past experience. In this concentration, three electives cover what’s known as the end-to-end supply chain: ‘Strategic Sourcing’, ‘Managing Manufacturing and Service Operations’, and ‘Demand Fulfillment’. After taking these, students then take courses in advanced analytic modeling, transportation management or a two-course sequence in the Lean Six Sigma methodology which can lead to a black belt certification (generally equated to possession of a skillset expected of a full-time project leader). Recently, Smeal has added more analytics content as well as new content on omnichannel retailing.

Most students at Smeal end up having two concentrations and many of those who choose to specialize in supply chain management complement this with a concentration in corporate finance, strategic leadership or marketing. Whichever other concentration they opt for, its graduates are said to go on to work in a variety of roles in, for example; manufacturing strategy (demand or supply planning), procurement or process improvement roles with consulting firms, or strategic procurement.

“Since so much of the supply chain profession now is about collaborating with different stakeholders, either customers or suppliers or different departments within an organization, students must develop both strong analytic skills as well as strong soft skills such as effective communication and influencing without authority,” explains Doug Thomas, professor of supply chain management at Smeal.

6. Human resources

An MBA in human resources (HR) teaches you the kind of skills managers need in order to bring in and retain a strong workforce, from initial recruitment to the effective training and development of employees. Michigan State University’s (MSU) Broad College of Business offers a concentration in human resources which teaches students how to create vibrant organizational cultures and motivate employees to create strategic advantages in the marketplace.

The first year of this concentration features classes both at Broad and at MSU’s School for Labor and Industrial Relations in order to prepare students for internships in process improvement, benefits/compensation work, and predictive metrics. During the program’s second year, students receive a more dedicated HR curriculum as they prepare to pursue a professional certification in human resources. Upon graduation, Broad says its HR MBAs are often selected for corporate leadership development programs or HR specialist positions at top 100 companies. 

Written by Nicole Willson

Nicole is the SEO manager of TopMBA.com, as well as a contributing author. She holds a BA in history and sociology, and a master's in library science. Aside from her work for QS, Nicole is a long-time contributing editor and administrator for WikiHow.

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