It’s often said that variety is the spice of life. And that seems to be the mantra for MBA programs today. Although a generalist degree, business schools are adding a growing number of “specializations” to their MBA courses that give students a deeper dive into subjects such as big data analytics, entrepreneurship or social impact.
The INSEAD MBA, for example, now features 75 different optional elective courses. Artificial intelligence, blockchain and neuroscience are just a few of the modules introduced in the past 18 months — subjects that were barely discussed at business schools even a decade ago.
The twin forces of supply and demand are behind the increase in personalized MBA programs, with both students and employers demanding curriculum changes, as schools strive to keep a degree that is more than a century old relevant in an age of rapid economic, social and technological transformation.
“We are constantly updating the portfolio of courses to reflect market trends and needs of recruiters, requests from students and new faculty research,” says Andrea Masini, MBA associate dean at HEC Paris.
The French school offers seven MBA specializations, with the latest two — on digital transformation and sustainability, and disruptive innovation — introduced in September this year following a curriculum review. For HEC Paris, a specialization is an integrated bundle of seven courses (144 hours in total) dedicated to a specific subject. Every HEC Paris student is required to enroll in one specialization, unless they do an exchange program with another school.
In addition to specializations, the school offers many optional elective courses, including in subjects such as diversity, strategy and finance.
MBA specializations: reflecting priorities of the corporate world
Masini says there has been a strong appetite for more technical courses around digital innovation and its many ramifications. There’s also a clamour for courses on soft skills and the analysis of ethical and social issues. This reflects the priorities of the corporate world today — many companies are under pressure to transform with technology and consider their role in society or the environment, beyond maximizing shareholder value.
Paula Steisel Goldfarb, NYU Stern’s associate dean for MBA admissions, financial aid and academic affairs, says that customized courses “prepare students for the specific business challenges and problems that they will be required to solve in their fields of choice”.
Stern MBA students can select up to three specializations from a list of 25, such as fintech, luxury marketing, or entertainment, media and technology (or they can choose none). New courses for spring 2019 include commercialization of frontier technologies and financial statement analysis using Python, a programming language. Steisel Goldfarb says the courses “are often developed based on anticipated skills needed in the business world and student interest”.
For instance, Stern recently housed the Creative Destruction Lab, which supports the monetization of science and tech startups. An affiliated MBA course was introduced as a result, to provide students with direct access to the venture development process.
An MBA specialization can add an edge in the job market
For Masini, offering niche courses is a way for HEC Paris to differentiate itself from other schools. “A specialization is the differentiating factor that provides participants with new skills and knowledge that they can use on the job market to transform their career, change industry or function,” he says.
HEC Paris is planning new courses on business analytics, programming, macroeconomics, cross-cultural and conflict management, he says.
But with dozens of MBA specializations, how can students avoid being overwhelmed and make the right choices?
Alex Min, CEO of The MBA Exchange admissions firm, says that career goals should be the primary driver. Generalist MBA degrees offer greater breadth, while specializing in a subject as part of the program offers more depth. “People who opt for the former may not feel ready to pursue a single function or industry,” Min says. “Those who choose the latter are sufficiently confident about their professional plan.”
He adds that MBA candidates should also consider the possibility of changing their career goals in the future. “The more specialized one’s education, the more difficult it may be to switch to another industry. The transferability of a degree is an important consideration.”
With memories of the Great Recession still vivid, many students may want to reduce their risk of future job loss or immobility by getting a degree that can facilitate moves into new fields, Min adds.
An MBA specialization as an investment
Some specializations pay more than others and that may be a factor in a student’s decision, too, because an MBA is a huge financial investment and ensuring a return is important. According to data from PayScale, strategy is by far the best-paid MBA specialization — nearly $150,000 by mid-career. Entrepreneurship, corporate finance, innovation management, and economics are the next best-paid.
However, Min says that compensation is not as important as satisfaction. “If an individual believes a certain specialization is likely to result in a future filled with challenge, impact and pride — that is probably the right choice for them. In most cases, the money will follow.”
Business finance was the MBA specialization with the highest rate of satisfaction (89 percent), according to PayScale, but it also came with high levels of stress. On balance, strategy was best overall — with a 71 percent satisfaction rate, 35 percent stress rate, and a 48 percent score on how meaningful the work was.
Despite the growth in popularity of newer and innovative courses like AI, many business schools report that the traditional fields of finance and strategy remain the most popular among their MBA students. The choice of specializations varies greatly from one year to the next, and there is a concern that students may gain a great deal of knowledge in a subject that may one day become obsolete.
Schools are quick to say that the MBA remains a generalist qualification, despite the increased customization of the degree.
Minh Huy Lai, managing director of the INSEAD MBA program, says: “Employers know that when they recruit graduates from INSEAD they hire a well-rounded and agile leader…Rather than specialists in certain industries.
Nevertheless, having an in-depth knowledge in a subject does help for certain sectors, such as luxury, healthcare and sports.”
10 Most Popular MBA Specializations
- Finance (See all MBA programs in Finance)
- Accounting (See all MBA programs in Accounting)
- Marketing (See all MBA programs in Marketing)
- General management (See all General MBA Programs)
- Entrepreneurship (See all MBA programs in Entrepreneurship)
- Consulting (See all MBA programs in Consulting)
- Information Systems (See all MBA programs in Information Technology)
- Strategy (See all MBA programs in Strategy)
- International Business (See all MBA programs in International Business)
- Healthcare Administration (See all MBA programs in Healthcare)