Compare an MBA, Other Management Graduate Degrees

There’s the MBA. A Master of Public Administration. A Master of Health Administration. Master’s degrees in management, arts administration and project management. The choice for those who want to lead companies, nonprofits or government agencies might be overwhelming.

Experts say prospective graduate students interested in management should use their personal career goals as a compass when deciding what type of graduate degree in management to pursue.

“I think it’s really important to know how set you are on your future career goals,” says Kate Agnew, a 2016 MBA graduate from the Sloan School of Management at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

For Agnew, the versatility of an MBA degree was its biggest selling point, she says, because she didn’t want to lock herself into a particular career track and wanted to be able to move seamlessly between the public and private sectors.

On the other hand, Ash Rajaram, a 2015 graduate of the information security and policy management program at Carnegie Mellon University’s Heinz College of Information Systems and Public Policy, chose that program over an MBA to learn managerial skills that he could apply in both private-sector and military contexts, since he is a lieutenant in the U.S. Navy Reserve.

“I thought the Navy and the military would find that more relevant,” Rajaram – a consultant with the Boston Consulting Group – says of his graduate degree, which focused on how to lead cybersecurity efforts.

Here are two questions experts say prospective graduate students should ask themselves to determine whether to pursue an MBA or another type of management program.

1. Where do you see yourself in the next five years?

Experts say students who are uncertain about their professional goals should strongly consider an MBA degree.

Idalene Kesner, dean of the Kelley School of Business at Indiana University, says an MBA prepares students for both for-profit and nonprofit management, since it teaches interdisciplinary skills, such as how to rein in costs and yield a return on investment.

Michael McGuire, executive associate dean of the School of Public and Environmental Affairs at Indiana University, says students who pursue a Master in Public Administration are typically committed to a career in public service.

MPA students focus more time learning how to maximize the social impact of organizations than they do learning about maximizing profits, McGuire says. That emphasis of mission over money is ideal for students whose primary career goal is “making a difference and doing some good in the world,” he says, but it is not the best fit for a profit-oriented career.

McGuire says MPA students generally learn more about policy than MBA students, which makes MPA students better equipped to handle the political controversies that often plague government organizations.

2. Do you want general or specialized management training? 

“Think carefully about the work experiences you have had previously,” Devin Harmon, a graduate admissions counselor at IvyWise and former international enrollment manager at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, said in an email. “If your work matched your personal values and you endeavor to continue it at a higher level of responsibility, then selecting a more specific degree would be best. The drawback is that you could find yourself pigeonholed into a role or industry for some time once you graduate.”

A specialized management program can help students learn how to confront formidable management challenges, such as judging how well an organization is fulfilling its mission, says Ramayya Krishnan, dean of the Heinz College of Information Systems and Public Policy and professor of management science and information systems at Carnegie Mellon University.

For instance, Krishnan says, students in Carnegie Mellon’s information systems management and data analytics programs analyzed social media data and open crime records to gauge community sentiment about police in multiple cities. The project involved data mining skills that could be applied at public and private sector organizations that want to measure and improve their performance.

Bill Haskins, director of the master’s in project management program at University of Wisconsin—Platteville, says a specialized management degree such as a degree in project management can help a student stand out in the job market, since these less-common degrees demonstrate technical expertise.

“MBA programs are everywhere, and MBA graduates quite literally are a dime a dozen,” he says. “So a given job posting might generate 50 or 60 job applicants that are MBAs but it might only generate one or two that have a degree in organizational change, and therefore, those types of resumes tend to float to the top of the pile.”

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