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A More Personal MBA: The Rise of Specialization

If you are interested in earning an MBA, it may be both reassuring and overwhelming to know that many options are available to you. In addition to the more traditional generalist Master of Business Administration, there are also MBA programs offered either fully or partially online, specialized MBAs that enable you to focus on your specific career interests within business, and part-time programs that allow you to work while earning your graduate degree. All of these options have potential benefits and drawbacks, so doing thorough research is important when trying to finalize your list of schools to apply to.

One type of MBA program that has been increasing in prominence is the specialized MBA. According to Poets & Quants, the Association to Advance Collegiate Business Schools (AACSB) found that the number of students in the U.S. who are enrolled in specialized business master's programs reached 148,299 in 2010, a 50 percent increase from the previous year. Similarly, The New York Times cited the AACSB's finding that overall enrollment in specialized programs grew steadily by about 4 percent annually between 2001 and 2010. In 2010, more than 20 percent of all business school students were pursuing specialized degrees, and the number is only growing. Enrollment in such programs is expected to steadily increase, as 73 percent of individuals who took the GMAT in 2012 indicated that they planned to specialize in a specific area, noted Poets & Quants.

Schools have moved towards specialized business programs in order to accommodate student demand. Duke University's Fuqua School of Business has a master's in management specializing in clinical informatics, while UC Berkeley's Haas School of Business has a master's in financial engineering. "We've become highly specialized in the corporate world," explained Joe DiAngelo, Jr. to Poets & Quants. DiAngelo is AACSB's chairman of the board and the dean of education at St. Joseph's Erivan K. Haub's School of Business. St. Joseph's business school has seen a significant expansion in its graduate student population, from 600 to 1200, since it launched specialized programs 10 years ago. This jump is primarily due to St. Joseph's master's programs in fields such as risk management, pharmaceuticals, and food marketing. "We had to carve out niches where there were concentrations in corporations," DiAngelo explained. "Students […] find more opportunities because they have advanced training in those areas. The MBA is really a generalist degree. The specialty MBA makes an entrée into various companies."

The debate about whether the traditional or the specialized MBA is better has been present ever since specialized graduate business education made its way to the United States (such specialized business programs have existed in Europe since the 1960s). However, experts say that traditional and specialized MBAs are not actually comparable, because they serve different student demographics and address very different career objectives.

According to Poets & Quants, traditional MBAs are typically pursued by people who have spent several years in the corporate world and who would like to advance to more senior-level positions. Other traditional MBA candidates are those who wish to make a career transition to another field within business. In contrast, specialized MBAs tend to attract younger folk who have not had as much work experience, and who want to optimize their career options by specializing deeply in a particular area. In fact, as GMAC's 2013 Prospective Students Survey found, many of the applicants for specialized business master's degrees were younger than 24. Whether it be in a conventional field such as finance or accounting, or a more adventurous industry such as restaurants, wine, or aerospace, specialty business master's degrees may give these younger individuals the edge they need for specific roles within a company.

While specialty programs may have the advantage of giving you marketable expertise in a particular area, they also have the potential to limit you to a single industry, writes MBA admissions expert Matt Symonds in Bloomberg Businessweek. "If your heart is set on working in luxury goods, real estate, or energy management, the specialized business degree could be the perfect springboard, despite the latent risk of finding yourself pigeonholed when an industry downturn forces you to look outside your chosen sector," Symonds explained. As a result of this inherent risk, understanding what industry truly interests you and fits your professional goals is particularly important when choosing a specialty MBA degree program.

"It's really about being aware and knowing where you are headed and what you want to do, and then finding the specialization that works for you," says William Wait, the director of admissions at the Wisconsin School of Business, in an interview with MBAPrograms.org. Described by The New York Times as a "pioneer in niche M.B.A. programs," the Wisconsin School of Business offers 10 different specializations in such fields as marketing research, arts administration, and operations and technology management.

As specialty programs are so narrow, it is important that the program you choose has abundant student support and resources that are directly relevant to future careers in your desired field. For example, according to Wait, one of the important features of the University of Wisconsin-Madison's business school is the fact that each of its 10 MBA specializations has a support center with dedicated staff, as well as a faculty director who typically has some industry experience. According to Wait, these centers offer a hybrid of academic advising and career guidance.

Admission into these specialized business programs can be quite competitive. Poets & Quants notes that MIT's Master's of finance program has a student body whose GMAT scores average 731, which is 21 points above the average scores of MIT's traditional MBA class. Similarly, at Johns Hopkins's Carey School of Business, students in the Master of Finance program had an average score of 720, while the students in its conventional MBA program averaged a score of 660.

In addition to solid scores, students applying to a specialized MBA program need to illustrate focused motivation both in their essays and in their interviews. "[Specialized MBA programs] look for a clear set of career goals and passion for the industry," noted Wait. "All schools require measurable metrics [such as GMAT and GPA] as part of the application, but they also really look for applicants who clearly know what they want to do and have great passion for their industry of choice."

"2013 mba.com Prospective Students Survey: Program Demand Report," gmac.com, 2013
Interview with William Wait, by Jamar Ramos for MBAPrograms.org, June 19, 2013
"Specialized M.B.A.'s: The Business of Zeroing In," nytimes.com, January 3, 2010, Nancy Hass
"The Next Big Thing: Specialized Business Degrees," businessweek.com, October 8, 2012, Matt Symonds
"The Rise of the Specialty Master's," poetsandquants.com, July 30, 2012, Paula Lehman

Interview with William Wait, by Jamar Ramos for MBAPrograms.org, June 19