Thursday 27 August 2015 6:01 am

Is a specialist MBA a sensible option? Funding may be easier to secure but you’ll end up tied down

From aviation and shipping to CSR and music, MBA students are no longer limited to choosing unspecialised programmes which lack technical depth and insight. 
Long favoured in countries like India, where booming industries like healthcare had to recruit capable managers quickly, specialist MBAs have grown in popularity in recent years. So are they the smarter option?
One advantage is that they allow existing managers to study part-time. Traditional MBAs are full-time and last one or two years, but specialist programmes are typically more flexible – an ideal option for anyone integrated into an industry and seeking a more senior role. 
It may also be easier to secure sponsorship from employers or industry bodies that know you’re serious about understanding the commercial success markers of their business. Students taking the Global Energy MBA at Warwick Business School (WBS) have obtained funding from employers like BP and HSBC. 
Specialist programmes don’t necessarily neglect important general skills, like strategy, which feature centrally on a standard MBA course. 
WBS’s Global Energy course “builds on the school’s traditional MBA,” explains professor David Elmes, “with about 75 per cent of the course content revised to reflect its focus on the energy industry.”
And what may be lacking in breadth is made up for in depth. 
“Modules explore the regulatory and political frameworks the industry operates in, and how innovation can work in an industry which needs to take a long-term view of investment,” says Elmes.
There are some downsides. Specialist MBA holders may find it more difficult to move laterally across industries later in their career, says Kellie Vincent, MBA director at the University of Westminster.
“MBA courses are so expensive. They should be providing graduates with returns throughout their careers, not just in the short term.”
Oxford’s Saïd Business School (SBS) has chosen to develop its general MBA rather than branching out. 
“A general course attracts a diverse group of individuals”, says MBA director Dana Brown. It helps students “to build networks beyond their sector and speciality, which is valuable for their longer-term careers.”
Business schools are trying to offer the best of both worlds, incorporating specialist electives into their general MBA programmes.
Roughly half of UK business schools accredited by the Association of MBAs now offer courses where up to 50 per cent of content is geared towards a particular field. 
SBS has recognised the demand, and electives on social finance and asset management have been introduced, as well as one which teaches business conduct in China and Africa.
“These enable MBA students to understand how theoretical approaches are applied effectively to real-life situations”, says Brown, “and provides them with cutting-edge information from their area of interest.”