The career trajectory MBA or Masters?

Think about what is often referred to as ‘career trajectory’ as early as possible, but remember this will not commit you exclusively to whatever decision you make


By Ross Geraghty

Sometimes the list of postgraduate business courses available can seem as confusing as a bowl of spaghetti. For the graduate keen to enter the challenging and potentially lucrative business world, the task can seem daunting at first. Should you be thinking about an MBA, and if so what about a specialist course such as MBA in Oil and Gas or Wine Management? Is an M.Sc a better idea for you and if so, what to specialise in? Finance? International Management? What if your future lies in Ph.D territory? Which of these would serve you best?

City institutions such as banks and management consultancies are proactively taking the lead on business education by telling the top schools what they expect from their new young leaders and managers. And it is clear that they increasingly require an educated workforce that can hit the ground not just running, but accelerating.

Simultaneously, Business School graduates are seeing an increase in demand year on year. Almost all good undergraduate degrees can prepare you for postgraduate business study. But the key question for the aspiring business postgraduate should be: which direction is best for me?

Career Trajectory

You should be thinking about what is often referred to as ‘career trajectory’ as early as possible, but don’t forget that this will not commit you exclusively to whatever decision you make; you can change tack whenever you want. A large chunk of people with Ph.Ds never considered such an undertaking until well into their postgraduate careers. Likewise there are some who planned for academia only to land their ideal careers straight out of their MBA course. While keeping an eye on the future, the nearest step in your education trajectory is the most important. What kind of person should do an MBA as opposed to any of the excellent Masters courses available worldwide?

Essentially, MBAs are a ‘post-experience’ qualification while Masters courses are ‘pre-experience.’ David Bach, Associate Dean of MBA programmes and Professor of Strategy at IE Business School in Spain, says: “Some schools are letting exceptional people on MBA courses with little experience but the minimum tends to be at least three years. We require five years at IE Business School; however we do sometimes take candidates with less experience if they have a brilliant trajectory because we value diversity in our classrooms.”

As a result of this trend towards younger, highly ambitious people, B-schools are taking the lead in good business practice by diversifying themselves and creating courses more appropriate for a less experienced age group. This is where the Masters course comes in. Simon Stockley, Director of Full Time MBA Programs at Tanaka Business School, Imperial College, London, says: “There is a trend for younger people to want to get into Business Schools straight out of university; we therefore started to offer the pre-experience M.Sc in Management programmes.”

Teaching styles

Course focus and teaching styles are another essential difference between an MBA and a Masters. Masters courses still introduce graduates to general management but in a different way. Some cover the same material as parts of the MBA but are more didactic in manner with fewer case studies, less debate and a different style of teaching that is more lecture-based. MBAs tend to focus on teamwork, lots of contribution in class, learning from peers and networking and communication skills.  So if you feel this style is not playing to your strengths, maybe the more didactic Masters course may be for you.

Perhaps you also want to start focusing early. If maths is your strong suit, rather than leadership or communication, and you want to get a head  start early in your career, a Masters in Finance, for example, could be your best option.  The MBA may be too general for your skills and experience at this stage, but you feel ready to start studying very soon. Likewise, if you want to differentiate yourself in management and aren’t ready for an MBA, Masters in Management courses are designed for you.

These differences are what aspiring business postgraduates should be looking at. It’s important to stress that MBAs are far more general in their approach and, though academically rigorous, you’ll learn a set of skills that may not appeal to you if what you want to do is pure finance.

Having said that, the MBA is still rightfully considered a major business qualification, particularly, as Simon Stockley says, “from one of the big schools. Reputation is important and people should do as much research as they can to find the school that has the best fit for them.”

Future leaders

The QS Recruiter Survey shows, as David Bach says, that “the MBA is the degree of choice for management careers in investment banking, consultancies and other industries too.” As Jacinta Low of OCBC Bank, Singapore, says: “We view MBAs as our pipeline of future leaders. As MBA graduates they are expected to accelerate their learning and contribute to the organisation quickly. Their work experience makes them a more stable and mature workforce, compared with other graduates.”

The key thinking, then, is: think about your strengths, about where you want to go, about what style of course suits you best and start to plan your career trajectory early.

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