An MBA versus an MSc is not a straight battle

Tom Welsh
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ONE OF the rising movements in professional education is the growth of business masters courses (MSc), whether in general management or in a host of specialisms – from real estate investment to shipping. Over the last few years, many schools have expanded their range of masters courses and have made a real push to recruit more students into them. Some, like the Said Business School, are experimenting with innovative ways of combining the benefits of both. But is an MSc a genuine alternative to an MBA? Despite appearances to the contrary (notably in some similarities of curriculum), it is not.

MBAs and MScs each offer distinctive benefits and, when choosing your programme, it’s important to weigh these benefits against your expected career direction and your previous business experience. And if you fall into an unclear, grey area between the two, speak to schools and check admissions criteria. It’s in no one’s interest to see business students crammed uncomfortably into the wrong course.

Susan Roth, director of MSc admissions at Cass Business School, says the main distinction between MScs and MBAs is that the former is “geared towards the pre-experience market”. An MSc is for “those without any work experience.” In contrast, Cass requires potential MBA students to have spent at least three years in previous, professional employment. According to the typical class profile at the school, where the average years in work is eight, and the average age 31, some must be considerably more senior.

Why should experience matter? Because it affects the way each degree is taught. Professor Dorothy Griffiths, acting principal and head of programmes at Imperial College Business School, says that MScs involve a strong element of teaching the basics. “An MSc teaches you something about the world you’re going into,” she says. “An MBA, in contrast, requires you to reflect and build on your experience.” If you don’t want to be, respectively, overstretched or patronised by an MBA or an MSc, it’s important to choose wisely.

This experience requirement also impacts on how students can learn from each other. Part of the value in an MBA derives from collaboration and interaction with others on the course. One of the arguments for business school diversity is that a varied cohort, whether the differences are of nationality, of sector, of age or of gender, can provide students with multiple perspectives on how to approach a business problem innovatively.

It’s therefore important to judge a potential school, and its programmes, against measures of diversity, but also by whether that diversity will be useful for your particular career progression. It’s all very well joining an MSc programme with 50 per cent of its typical cohort from Asia. But, if that cohort is disproportionately young and inexperienced, you will be missing out on the broader benefits of diversity. As Roth says, “it’s important to be with people you’ll learn from.”

Aside from the MSc in management, which Griffiths describes as a “generalist, postgraduate masters,” most MScs are specialised. Real estate investment and shipping have been mentioned, but schools also offer courses in law and finance, in major programme management, in managerial psychology, and in corporate reputation management.

These are seductive titles. For someone with a strong ambition to progress in one specific profession, they may seem a perfect recipe. But, specialised courses are not strictly comparable to the typically broad-based ethos of an MBA.

MBAs are useful precisely because they are generalist. Even if someone has experience working within an industry, their two or three years involvement will typically have been in a specific area. An MBA is meant to broaden your horizons, not narrow them down to a specialism. An MBA will provide you with the full range of business skills to succeed at a managerial level.

Roth explains that the rationale behind the increasing variety of programmes on offer at Cass, and business schools like it, is the need for a “diversifying portfolio” to accommodate the changing, disparate needs of business students in a dynamic economy.
As such, whereas MScs are not a simple alternative to an MBA, they do have their place. The challenge is to work out, and to be sure of, where your needs and experience levels fit between them.