Should I Do a Specialized MBA?

Concentrations can help secure that first post-MBA job, but for a lifetime of success, general management skills are a must.

Embarking on an MBA is an opportunity to explore a whole range of business areas and skills, dipping a toe into new fields of expertise, and rounding-out your skill set.

For others, the decision comes down to more focused goals: gaining in-depth experience in a specific area. An increasing number of b-schools are offering MBA specializations that allow students to tailor their education with a specific career path in mind.

Having offered specializations in a few areas such as Applied Securities Analysis since the early nineties, the University of Wisconsin began to revamp their program in 2003 based around new centers of expertise, and now offers 12 in-depth specializations.

Prior to its redesign, the program was facing “some significant challenges," according to Ken Kavajecz, associate dean of the Wisconsin MBA.

“Frankly, in the world of MBA programs, this was the only way they we were going to be able to compete,” said Kavajecz of focusing on specializations.

The Financial Times now ranks the Wisconsin program at 33 in terms of placement success.

“We’ve seen employers respond very favorably to our focused approach,” says Blair Sanford, director of Wisconsin MBA’s Career Management Center. “When companies choose our students, they know they are focused in that area.”

Students apply directly to one of Wisconsin’s specialized centers, and from day one, the core curriculum is taught with an emphasis on how each area of business impacts their chosen field.

Take the example of Kemllen Lee, who is taking Wisconsin’s supply chain MBA specialization.

“When I go to conferences – or for instance, in my job search – I was able to speak to different kinds of companies, and speak directly to something that had a financial impact on the company,” says Lee.

MBA specializations: not for everyone

But programs like Wisconsin’s may not be right for everyone.

“There are some really bright students who are just not quite sure and who want to explore during their MBA program, and we wouldn’t be a place where they would be as successful,” says Blair Sanford.

“It all depends on the person and what they want to do,” agrees Kemllen Lee.

“I will say that this is not exactly for everyone, because you get electives, but there are applied learnings and connections to the industry ... so you have to want to be a part of that conversation.”

But for students that are less clear about their long-term career goals, there is still a range of options for tailoring an MBA program. Cornell University’s Johnson School of Management MBA offers immersion programs in the first year that prepare students for their internships. But Cornell has recently also introduced concentrations in the second year of the program.

Randy Allen, associate dean at Cornell Johnson, sees this an important development in terms of giving students an edge in job market.

“We looked at the need to give more guidance and direction to our students, to give them a better way to build depth in areas they are interested in career-wise, and also to be able to communicate those interests by being able to say, 'I did concentration in marketing, or I did a concentration in global,'” explains Allen.

Christian Polman joined Johnson’s program with the clear aim of go into consulting, but used electives to ensure a well-rounded educational experience.

“My second year especially gave me a lot of flexibility in terms of what I wanted to study, so I was able to focus on areas where I didn’t have much knowledge, particularly finance,” says Polman.

The program structure at Johnson offers students the chance to switch direction as they gain knowledge and experience through the course of the program, while still to signaling their commitment to a given field through a concentration.

But Allen stresses that Johnson is still a general management school.

“We really think general management is the right positioning for us and for many MBA schools because the business world is changing so fast,” says Allen. “If you've got the strong functional capability and a general management focus, you can adapt to changes in the business climate.”

An important consideration for even the most goal-focused students is the idea of a T-shaped skill set – balancing in-depth, specialized expertise with a broad base of skills that will allow them to see the big picture. Specialized programs tend to cover the general management essentials in the first year.

“The first year of the program gets you ready for your second, third, fourth job, and so on,” explains Wisconsin's Dean Kavajecz. “The second year gets you ready for your first job.”

So, if you are looking beyond the top-tier b-schools and know where you want your career path to lead, a specialized program with a good foundation in general management could be the way mark yourself out from the competition.

It certainly seems to have worked for b-schools themselves. As Kavajecz says, “when you have these programs that are very niche, they can compete with anybody.”

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