Earlier this year, King’s College London (KCL), one of UK’s most revered universities, opened a new business school in the heart of London. With a large, diverse student body and faculty, a prestige brand and links with top employers, King’s looked like a classic business school — with one notable exception: there was no MBA degree.
Instead, KCL chose to establish a range of specialized master’s programs in fields such as entrepreneurship and marketing.
Such degrees at growing at a rapid rate. According to AACSB International, enrollments to specialized US programs had nearly doubled between 2006-16. In comparison, enrollments to MBAs plunged by 20 percent in the same period.
Many of the specialized degrees are in hot new areas such as big data analytics, while traditional courses in subjects like finance and supply chain management are also faring well. According to figures from the Graduate Management Admission Council, more than a fifth of prospective business school students are focusing only on specialized master’s programs.
For these prospects, the advantage of pursuing a specialized degree is obtaining niche knowledge that is more in-depth than a generalist course, such as an MBA. Employers, meanwhile, are grappling with forces such as digitization and often need advanced technical knowledge.
A new specialized master’s program to hit the market is the Master of Management in Artificial Intelligence (MMAI) at Queen’s University’s Smith School of Business in Toronto. Stephen Thomas, the program’s director, says: “The business landscape is changing. Specialty master’s degrees are attractive to employers transforming their business models, and to prospective students looking to set themselves apart in a competitive job market.”
Smith launched the degree this year in response to employer demand. “AI is transforming every part of business – not just IT and data, but financial management, marketing, customer service, user experience, HR and more,” says Thomas.
“Talent that can bridge the gap between the tech and executive workforce, is in high demand.”
In September, the business school enrolled 64 students into the Class of 2019, which was some 24 more than the target. There were over 1,700 unique inquiries into the course. About 30 percent of the class work at the big banks, 15 percent at IBM, and the rest for a diverse range of organizations in the startup, government, tech and retail spaces. The mean class age is 33 and there is a 40/60 split between technical and business backgrounds.
While many of Smith’s MMAI students are mid-career working professionals, many specialized master’s programs are aimed at fresh undergraduates who have little or no work experience, and are usually highly international. They tend to require the GMAT or GRE and sometimes technical knowledge of the subject area.
ESSEC Business School of France, for example, runs a highly-ranked Master in Finance program that targets students with backgrounds like engineering and economics who want to develop a career in the financial industry. They tend to have less than a year’s work experience, but typically have done an internship in a financial institution. Around half are international.
The specialized courses are generally cheaper than an MBA, because they can be completed more quickly, but some are still expensive. MIT Sloan School of Management, for instance, in 2016 launched a Master of Business Analytics degree priced at $75,000, which is comparable to one year of study on MIT’s MBA program.
Career outcomes will of course be a vital consideration for anyone thinking of enrolling in a specialized master’s course. At ESSEC, 97 percent of the finance master’s students were employed within three months of graduation. The average salary after three years was $109,917, which was a 66 percent increase over the period.
“Employers tell us that students of the Master in Finance are better equipped technically than generalists,” says Sridhar Arcot, academic director of the program. “The Master in Finance allows students to focus and choose electives related to their interests. Such specialization enables them to hit the ground running when they are employed.”
But one problem could be that specialized master’s graduates lack the general management nous needed to move into more senior leadership roles. That may explain why 27 percent of specialized master’s students are considering coming back to business school for an additional program, GMAC data show, such as an MBA or PhD.
At Smith, students can apply some of their credits to a second master’s degree at the school, such as the Master of Management Analytics. Roy Lee, assistant dean for executives programs at NYU Stern School of Business, says that specialized degrees and MBA programs are not mutually exclusive — many students combine both at Stern.
But he rejects the notion that a specialized course could limit one’s career options. Stern, which has a part-time MS in Business Analytics degree (MSBA) for experienced professionals, reports that up to two years after graduation, nearly 50 percent of the cohort has been promoted, or changed careers.
“Analytics is a tool kit — it’s a starting point. In order to make analytics useful you need to marry it with domain knowledge, expertise and creativity,” Lee says, adding that “our objective is to teach students how to use data to make strategic decisions that lead to actionable results”.
Another possible downside to studying a specialized master’s program is the intensity of the curriculum, which typically covers a lot of ground in only 12 months. Thomas, at Smith, notes that the level of intensity is comparable to a full-time MBA program. But he says the trade-off is that you can return to the workforce quicker, so you forgo less earnings to get a degree.
Nevertheless, one potential problem applicants should consider is that the market for specialized master’s graduates could become saturated as schools continue to launch programs at a brisk clip. They may go from being a niche to a commodity.
Lee, at Stern, is optimistic. “[That is] less likely because each specialized degree is focused on a niche audience, which has a limited pool of applicants compared to the MBA market,” he says.
“The specialized master’s degrees also generally offer a shorter and more affordable option, making it cost effective and providing a quicker return on investment in the career space.”