Graduate Business Degrees: MBA or Masters? | Top Universities

Graduate Business Degrees: MBA or Masters?

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Updated Mar 23, 2021



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Discover the QS World University Rankings: Global MBA Rankings 2021 here

Discover the QS World University Rankings: Business Masters Rankings 2021 here

Released today, the QS World University Rankings: Global MBA Rankings and QS World University Rankings: Business Masters Rankings provide you with a detailed breakdown of the best MBA and postgraduate programs in finance, management and business analytics around the world. The 2019 edition will also see a new ranking of the world’s top master’s in management programs. Struggling to choose between an MBA or one of these four business master's programs? Find out what academics and employers have to say about the two options.

Having recently celebrated its 100th birthday at one of the world's most prestigious institutions (Harvard Business School), the MBA has seen much news coverage over the last year 18 months.

Feted as one of the essential qualifications to have as a graduate entering the world of business, the MBA is, however, a comparatively youthful study program when set against the older and more established master's degree.

First awarded in 859 in Morocco, the master's degree is universally recognized as a higher qualification that confers advanced skills on its holder, irrespective of the subject area in which the degree is earned.

Key differences

Any discussion of the differences between the two qualifications cannot be entirely separated from the current economic and financial crisis.

With close to 100,000 MBA graduates a year leaving US business schools and universities alone, 40% of whom traditionally enter finance or finance-related careers, the undeniable link between the MBA degree and the financial turmoil of the last 12 months has caused many to question both the validity and position of the MBA qualification in today's globalized education system.

Henry Mintzberg, Professor of Management Studies at Canada's McGill University, is perhaps the most vocal of the recent critics of the MBA qualification.

"My view is you cannot create a manager in a classroom, let alone a leader. You simply can't. Management is not a science, it's not a profession, it's a practice; you learn it by doing it.

"To claim that you're training people who are not managers to be managers, is a sham, pure and simple, it's a sham. You can't do it. You give completely the wrong impression and you send them out with an enormous amount of hubris which is, 'I can manage anything, even though I've never managed anything'."

The candidate

The first area to examine is undoubtedly that of the candidate's experience before they apply. The intention of both degrees is different - MBAs seek to develop appropriate skills on a foundation of a candidate's life or professional experience, while the majority of master's degrees build on the academic background of the student.

The program

The second most significant difference between the two graduate-level degrees is that of teaching style. While there have been tremendous developments in the way in which all university programs are taught, particularly with the introduction of new online learning technologies, MBA and master's programs enjoy entirely different learning styles.

Traditional MBA programs are dominated by what is referred to as `case studies', real-world examples of business issues or problems that students are expected to explore, discuss and reflect on in small groups or `syndicates' of fellow students.

While the more traditional lectures and tutorial classes also feature in some MBA programs, these are far less common than in their master's degree counterparts.

Master's programs, on the other hand, continue to develop their teaching methodologies around classroom or laboratory-based activities such as lectures, tutorials or presentations.

While small group work can be a feature of some master's programs, the emphasis on individual or independent learning is often more significant than in many MBA degrees.


Perhaps one of the best illustrations of the difference between an MBA and a masters-level qualification can be seen in a specialized area such as human resource and personnel management.

Where the generalized approach common in many MBA programs is sufficient to equip a student for a range of business-related situations, the more specialized nature of a master's qualification provides the candidate with the precise academic and theoretical framework to tackle a specific area.

In some cases, the difference between the two in a particular area can also be practical in the sense of the teaching style, content of the program and opportunities to develop subject knowledge.

Sheila Russ, a recent graduate from Virginia Commonwealth University in the USA, conveys the differences between the two qualifications in the context of a specialized academic area.

"I started in the MBA with a concentration in HR, and then switched to Masters in HR Management (HRM). My reasoning for switching programs was simple - the master's offered more opportunity for me to take the classes I wanted.

"The MBA program offered a better overall knowledge of business, with 12 classes - but only four of which were electives, so the majority of your course load was chosen for you."

Employer perspectives

The differences in such a specialized area as human resources or personnel management are also important to employers.

Gary Garber, an HR professional in a Chicago-based finance company, is clear on the differences between the two qualifications. "An MBA has a ton of general business courses and only a few HR ones. As a graduate of Cornell's Masters in Industrial and Labor Relations (MILR), my experience is the opposite - the MILR has a ton of HR courses and only a few general business ones.

"Employers certainly consider both degrees, but I think where there are specific HR vacancies, then the level of specialized knowledge the MILR provides you with wins out."

Russ echoes Garber's views. "In making my decision to switch programs I spoke with several HR professionals I know through our local professional network. They, my advisor, and our dean of business graduate studies, all gave me the same advice.

"In a nutshell, what they told me was that if HR is really what you want to do, then the master's is your best option. You also have to remember that in specialized fields, a lot of schools have MBA programs but a master's degree is something that can set you apart in the industry."

The right choice for you

While the demand for MBA and master's programs continues to grow, there continues to be a healthy debate over the relative merits and disadvantages of both degrees.

Your choice of program very much depends on two critical factors. First, your ambitions: if you are clear on the type of career or specialism you hope to develop in your future career, then the advantages of a master's degree often outweigh the more generic, business-focused approach of many MBA curricula.

Second, your background and qualifications: the most highly regarded international MBA or master's programs require very precise entry qualifications, whether they are framed in terms of GMAT or GRE scores, professional experience, academic achievements or language requirements.

In this context, the very best program for you has to be directly related to your own background - to make any other choice would be to risk fulfilling your potential.

This article was originally published in November 2017. It was updated in October 2020.

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