Do MBA Specializations Make Sense? |

Do MBA Specializations Make Sense?

By QS Contributor

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The proliferation of MBA specializations or, to quote an eminent London-based academic, an “MBA in…” has divided opinion among the business school world.

Professor Simon Stockley of Imperial College Business School in London continues, “the MBA is, by definition, a general management qualification, and therefore we aren’t entirely convinced there can be such a thing as a specialized MBA, an ‘MBA in’ something.”

For others, if a candidate has accrued significant work experience in one industry and knows this is where the future lies, why not specialize with experts on MBA programs who know both general management practises as well as skills unique to that industry?

According to Professor Vladimir Nanut at MIB Management School in Trieste, Italy, “in every industry there are well-qualified people who simply want to progress within their existing field, and a specialist MBA can give them a helping hand in their career.”

For the critics, the main reason for the existence of MBA programs is to teach an overview of business, to fashion versatility and to open wider horizons for career trajectory for their graduates.

For them the question is, why narrow your options down?

Despite this, Professor Stockley’s is not the only voice of caution. There has been a proliferation of specialized MBAs in recent years, with famous examples: the Wine MBA at Bordeaux Management School, the Football Industries MBA at the University of Liverpool, an MBA in Oil and Gas Management at Aberdeen Business School at the Robert Gordon University to name but a few.

In part, this proliferation of specialized MBAs is due to the need for industry experimentation and diversification. The MBA is over 100 years old now and, given the trials and tribulations in the banking and finance industries in particular, deans and program creators are trying to come up with new and innovative ways to educate the next generation of business leaders.

However it’s wrong to suggest that the increase in specialized MBAs is massive.

Currently, though exact figures are hard to clarify, only a small proportion of MBA students are in such courses. By far the largest number of MBA students are still taking the general, traditional MBA course.


The emergence of these niche MBA programs has not been without controversy with strong players in the ‘for’ and ‘against’ camps.

According to Alain Lempereur, negotiation and mediation chair professor at ESSEC Business School Paris-Singapore, specialized MBAs have a definite role to play for students with a clear focus, who want to enter a particular industry.

“Students following a specialized MBA learn the management basics of any general MBA and the particularities of a specific industry [with] industry connections in their particular field of focus.”

However many business schools continue to reject the concept of specialist MBAs outright.

Professor Alfons Sauquets, dean of ESADE Business School in Barcelona, argues that the true value of the MBA lies in giving participants a general management approach and thus an overview of the whole corporate institution. As with all top MBA programs, electives play a key role in a student’s personal development and interests.

“Within the MBA, electives allow participants to place extra focus on a particular area of interest and tailor their MBA in a different way depending on their backgrounds and future goals. [The electives must] work together to give the participant as clear a view of, say, finance as they have of strategy.”

Specialize with a Masters

For Sauquets, there is a place for specialist masters courses but these are targeted at a different group of students than the MBA. They “develop specific competencies in areas such as marketing, operations and finance [and] are aimed at functional managers, rather than future leaders of organizations.”

David Bach, dean of programs at IE Business School in Madrid, suggests that personalization of an MBA program is important but specialization is not: “[Our] strong focus on versatility and diversity is incompatible with the idea of ‘specialized MBAs’ and we therefore do not offer or advocate them. However… IE International MBA students have the opportunity to personalize their MBA experience by choosing from more than 80 elective courses.”

At top US schools, such as Stanford University Graduate School of Business, the issues are different; the two-year course tends to allow MBA students the time for introspection and a close look at the core subjects before, in the second year, being able to specialize into areas they choose.

New dean of Stanford GSB, Garth Saloner, said in an 11 September 2009 interview with the Wall Street Journal: “We think management students in the future will be increasingly required to span fields. Giving them the opportunity to work with cutting edge students in other fields will give them the opportunity to expand their scope.”

The real test, however, may not be what academics think of the relative benefits of generalist or specialist MBA programs but rather the views of potential employers of their graduates. For some major players, the specialist option appears to make a lot of sense.

PricewaterhouseCoopers, for example, says that it “favours MBAs who have specialized in finance for advisory roles in the firm.”

The leading Russian investment bank, Renaissance Investment Management also looks favourably on MBAs with finance, particularly corporate finance expertise, but for them the exact nature of the program is much less important than where it was taught.

“A good MBA is definitely becoming more and more valuable here in Russia,” says CEO, Andrei Movchan, “but I don’t see any sign of employers focusing on specific specializations, rather on which school the MBA is from. There’s a real differentiation between what I’d term plain MBAs and ‘stars’.”

The conclusion seems to be that, while the market for MBAs is growing, employers are yet to fully embrace the value of a specialist MBA. For now, the key criterion remains the perceived strength of the business school delivering the program. The power of the brand seems set to dominate for some time to come.

To find out more about which programs MBA employers and recruiters value for specific industries, produces an annual rating.




This article was originally published in . It was last updated in

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