Specialist MBA Degrees Find their Niche in Business Education

General and specialized MBAs both have distinct advantages. Which one prospective students choose will come down to their planned career path

The market for campus MBAs may be reaching a point of maturity, with some highly-ranked institutions closing their flagship business master’s degrees, mostly recently Henley Business School in the UK, which canceled its its full-time MBA for the 2019/20 academic year. Academics are asking whether the MBA degree needs to reinvent itself to remain relevant. 

One outcome of this thinking is the specialized MBA: degrees focused on niche sectors of business, everything from luxury goods management to thoroughbred horseracing industries (run by the UK’s Liverpool Management School). They offer a way for business schools to differentiate themselves from rivals in a competitive and crowded market. 

Specialist MBA programs also go a long way towards addressing concerns that business schools have not effectively responded to new employer demand for more specialist skills, such as digital technology.  

One striking example of this is the Tech MBA at NYU Stern School of Business in New York City. Launched in 2018, the program was developed with insight from senior tech industry executives from such companies as PayPal, BuzzFeed and Amazon. The syllabus builds broad knowledge in fundamental business skills, such as economics and marketing, while also honing students’ core technology skills such as business analytics and product management. 

“In a complex and increasingly tech-driven world, even general managers must possess the minimum level of specialized skills in order to lead teams of specialists,” says Andrea Masini, associate dean in charge of the generalist MBA at HEC Paris. 

Niche MBAs provide in-depth business education in one field, which can help students move into specialist positions in a particular industry. The luxury brand management MBA major at France’s ESSEC Business School, for example, prepares students to work in luxury distribution, retail management or marketing at brands such as Louis Vuitton, Bulgari or Balenciaga. 

Raymond Lutzky, senior director of enrolment and admissions at Cornell Tech, says specialist MBAs only work for people who already know what career path they want to take and have some experience in that area already. “It can help strengthen an already-defined career path and is not a good option for career changers.” 

Many of the specialist programs require prior industry work experience, so people without a background in the field may find it harder to secure a place on a niche MBA.  

Alex Min, CEO of The MBA Exchange, an admissions consulting firm, says that such candidates could do an online course relevant to their desired speciality, which would demonstrate preparation, understanding and passion for it. 

He adds: “Analyze your professional, academic and personal background in search of skills and experiences that are complementary to the specialty.” 

Cornell Tech runs a Tech MBA that teaches students how to lead technology companies. Some tech companies have been known to avoid hiring MBAs without deep specialist knowledge of their industry. Facebook, for example, prefers to employ managers with backgrounds in computer science and engineering, which can make it hard for generalist MBA students to secure employment. 

Like many niche MBAs, Cornell Tech’s program is run over one year, half the time of most other US MBAs. This makes sense, given that students need less time to experiment with different career paths. But because of the one-year format, the Tech MBA students do not have the option of doing summer internships, as they often would in a two-year MBA. Of course, the advantage is a lower opportunity cost of not earning a salary. 

But Masini at HEC Paris, believes that a one-year program is not long enough for students to convince prospective employers that they have mastered the fundamentals of management, and also gained specialized knowledge. 

HEC Paris’ MBA is 16 months long. In the second half of the program, students specialize in areas such as finance, entrepreneurship, digital innovation or sustainability. They also spend an extra four months taking electives or working on a practical project in a field of their own choosing. 

But is a specialized MBA necessary?

As many MBA programs offer students the chance to major in specific fields, is an entire MBA degree in one subject necessary? 

Brandon Kirby, director of MBA recruitment and admissions at Rotterdam School of Management in the Netherlands, says specialist tracks are important for a student to customize their educational journey, but “taking a few courses in any discipline is not going to give a student mastery in that area”.  

He suggests that a specialist MSc degree may be a better option for people who want to focus on a particular industry.  

Although MSc students tend be younger and with less work experience than MBA candidates, Kirby says niche MBAs could be in direct competition with MScs. He believes specialist MScs could “cannibalize” niche MBAs, since MScs are already the flagship programs of many European schools, and are becoming even more popular around the world.  

But is there a risk specialist degrees may pigeonhole people into one type of job or sector, limiting their career mobility? 

Masini warns prospective students that specialization should not be achieved at the expense of the traditional pillars of a general MBA, such as leadership skills, or the ability to work effectively in multicultural environments.  

Without in-depth general management skills, he says niche MBA programs “may be less effective in facilitating career transformation. After all, businesses still need general managers”. 

A broad base of knowledge in business and management can be applied to almost any industry. About three-quarters MBA graduates from HEC Paris, for example, changed sector and function last year. They worked in a wide array of industries, from consulting and financial services to technology, healthcare and consumer goods. 

Specialist MBAs have found their niche in business education, but not at the expense of general management degrees, even if some are closing. Mark Stoddard, director of operations at the Association of MBAs and Business Graduates Association, believes the generalist MBA will certainly survive. “It is still the premium brand business qualification,” he says. 

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