What Is an MBA?

Welcome to The Online MBA Guide: Your roadmap to the MBA
Our ten-part series will familiarize you with all of your MBA program options while guiding you through the selection and application process. Discover financing options, dive into the MBA curriculum and prepare yourself for life as an MBA.

What Is a Master of Business Administration?

A Master of Business Administration, or MBA, sharpens the skills of aspiring managers and business professionals. The MBA dates back to the early 20th century: as the nation was becoming increasingly industrialized, companies were in need of professionals with strong management skills to lead administrative operations and corporate initiatives in the workforce. The world’s first MBA degree, offered by Harvard University in 1908, approached the concept of management from a scientific point of view; the degree identified a uniform set of skills to standardize the training for business administrators in any industry or field.

Since its introduction to industrial America, the MBA has evolved into a diverse and comprehensive program for professionals in all areas of business and commerce. Today the degree is meant to broaden a student’s conceptual skills in critical thinking, leadership, communication, and problem-solving, while also allowing them to pursue a particular concentration or forge their own path as an entrepreneur. Many schools offer concentrations in popular areas of business administration to help students strengthen specialized career skills. Traditional MBA specializations include finance, marketing, accounting, and international business, with additional options emerging in information technology management, healthcare leadership, and entrepreneurship.

Why Should You Pursue an MBA?

Students, who are unfamiliar with the nuances of the business world may ask, what is an MBA for? In today’s rapidly evolving economy, the MBA is still the most popular professional degree around the globe. The program blends advanced skills in business and management with real-world experience to prepare graduates for starting or advancing in a management career in virtually any field they choose. Employers prefer MBA graduates because of the breadth and depth of their professional skills, field experience, and insider knowledge of business networks and relationships.

You may still wonder, why get an MBA? Is it for me? For students interested in business, earning an MBA can be extremely beneficial at all stages of their career. Those just starting their MBA develop invaluable networking and entrepreneurial skills for future business ventures, while those nearing graduation gain work experience through internships and/or job assistance programs. Post-graduation, MBAs provide graduates an advantage despite an increasingly competitive workforce. Additionally, MBAs are more versatile than other graduate-level business degrees, as the curriculums offer a variety of concentrations and specialized coursework for students to customize their studies according to their interests and career goals.


Median Salary by Master’s Degree Type

Source: Payscale


As for who should consider an MBA program, the benefits for students depend on their individual career goals. MBAs are ideal for those with undergraduate degrees looking to advance in their current role in the workforce, as well as those pursuing a career change. Students considering an MBA who already have a business-related undergraduate degree can sharpen their skills through continued education in a concentration of their choice; students with non-business undergraduate degrees, conversely, can use an MBA to kickstart a career as an entrepreneur or manager. Whatever one’s previous education, most MBA programs require applicants to have ample work experience as a condition of acceptance. While undergraduates with little experience may still be eligible for admission, MBA programs generally favor experienced candidates, as a cohort group made up of students with a shared minimum of experience tends to maximize the benefits for all involved.

So, how hard is an MBA? Earning an MBA is a major accomplishment that offers big benefits to those willing to make the commitment. To start, simply enduring the admissions process can be challenging; expect to plan ahead to gather letters of recommendation, write essays, and take the GMAT or GRE test. Like the MBA program itself, only the highest qualified, hardest working candidates even make it through the door. Once accepted, MBA candidates devote much more time and sacrifice more of their personal life to this degree program than they did as undergraduates. Rigorous coursework, homework, and internship/fieldwork commitments leave little time for anything else outside of school. While it may not be realistic for everyone to stop working while attending school full time, trying to work and balance the MBA simultaneously could make it difficult to focus on either endeavor. An online MBA may be a sensible option for someone looking to maintain a steady income and keep their job while meeting the demands of the degree.

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Careers for MBA Graduates

Even with its challenges, there’s a reason the degree remains so popular worldwide: you can do a lot with an MBA. Whether you’re looking to advance in your current job, find brand new employment opportunities, or transition to an entirely different career, an MBA is the gold standard among business peers and prospective employers. Coursework in the MBA is designed to provide the soft skills employers desire most — including communication, leadership, problem-solving, and time management — with experience in a particular specialty of the student’s choice. The possibilities are endless for MBA graduates, whether they aspire to a career in a traditional business such as accounting, finance, or marketing, or in an emerging field like IT, energy, or global commerce.

Senior Accountant

Senior accountants examine and prepare financial records and taxes for individuals and organizations. While entry-level accountant jobs typically require only a bachelor’s degree, many employers prefer candidates with a master’s degree or, specifically, an MBA with a specialization in accounting. Accountants are always in demand and can expect steady and lucrative employment over the next decade, due in part to globalization, an ever-growing economy, and an increasingly complicated tax system in the U.S.

Chief Financial Officer

CFOs hold executive positions within upper management and oversee all financial operations of a company or organization. They may also oversee mid-level financial managers or teams, though their job typically encompasses high-level responsibilities like fundraising initiatives and budget committee meetings. Along with other executive positions including CEO and COO, the MBA is the most common qualification of top chief financial officers. Though requirements vary, most CFOs of large corporations and those in senior public sector positions have an MBA or master’s degree.

Marketing Director

Marketing directors oversee all aspects of marketing operations for a business, company, or nonprofit organization. They may serve in both an executive and supervisory capacity, and direct marketing, advertising, and promotions, as well as any other departments under the scope of marketing. Many marketing directors with an advanced degree and qualifications can earn six-figure salaries in a senior position.

Vice President of IT

Vice presidents of IT companies are overseeing internal and external operations of their organization at the highest level. The executive decisions made by IT vice presidents direct operations for the entire organization, and include budgeting and resource allocation, outreach efforts, and meeting with board members and/or shareholders. Vice presidents and other top executives are among the highest paid occupations in the U.S.; MBA graduates with extensive work experience can expect the most favorable employment and salary options.

Salary for MBA Graduates

Considering the cost of college these days, many students still wonder, is an MBA worth it? While MBAs range in cost from $2,400 to more than $66,000, the average program costs students between $50,000 and $80,000 over the course of two years. If this looks like a high price tag for a college education, consider weighing the other factors included in assessing the true value of the degree, such as lifetime benefits, and short- and long-term earning potential made possible by earning the MBA. Fortune reported a recent study showing graduates from the highest-ranking MBA schools (with the highest tuition prices) earned more in the long term (over a 20 year period) than graduates of less reputable, less expensive schools. While it may take a while to see maximum earnings from the MBA, top schools participating in the same study reported an almost 100% employment rate for students within three months of completing the program, indicating positive results in the short term for MBA graduates as well.

Exactly how much do MBAs make? Though every position is different, several factors determine average salaries of MBA graduates. Many schools compare the return on investment for MBA graduates at various stages of their career, tracking earnings immediately after graduation, at mid-career, and in the long term (after 20 years of career experience). For example, a typical MBA starting salary is $51,795, with a bump up to $71,483 with increased experience for permanent employees. Median salaries also vary according to different fields and concentrations within business and management careers (see below). Given all of the variables affecting MBA salaries, one thing is clear — MBAs yield greater earning potential than a comparable undergraduate degree. A recent study by the Center on Education and the Workforce reported an increase of 30.6%, or $19,000, for business management and administration graduate degree holders over their undergraduate counterparts.


Median Salary by Master’s Degree Type

Source: Payscale


Generally speaking, yes, an MBA will increase your salary, especially over an ABA or BBA and especially over time. As the chart below demonstrates, MBAs earn the highest salary of all degree levels for the entire duration of a career, but also experience a faster increase in salary than an undergraduate degree. Though starting salary for MBA holders is moderate, once they reach five to nine years of experience they begin to earn nearly $20,000 more over each of the next two decades, compared to a roughly $10,000 increase in salary for BBAs in late career.

Median Salary by Degree and Experience
Source: Payscale

In-depth Interview With an MBA Grad

Anna Frances Wood

CEO of Brains over Blonde brainsoverblonde.com
I was born and raised in the Bay Area and until this summer, never left! I went to UC Berkeley for my undergrad and designed my own major called Organizations and Leadership. I spent four years at Google and then went on to Stanford for my MBA. Since then, I’ve founded Brains over Blonde, a feminist lifestyle platform for women who refuse to choose between femininity and success.

Q: What made you consider an MBA?

A: I was fortunate that business school was on my radar early on, and I always knew I would likely want to pursue an MBA at some point. When my learning started to plateau at Google I was ready for my next challenge and it felt like the right time.

Q: Explain your application process and experience choosing a school.

A: All in all, it was probably a two-year process. One year of just considering if it was right for me. Then the second year began with studying for the GMAT, getting the score I knew I needed for the schools I was applying to, and then applying Round 1. It was a huge personal growth process as the applications require a lot of self-reflecting. I was lucky enough to get into my dream school, so the choice was an easy one.

Q: How was your experience in your MBA program?

A: It was the best two years of my life so far. I learned so much, not just about business, but about life. I got an immense amount of feedback and learned more about who I am, how I come across, and who I want to be. I made friendships that will last a lifetime. The hardest part was my accounting classes, hands down.

Q: How was your experience towards the end of your MBA program? Did your school offer to help?

A: Stanford offers many options to help, but I self-sourced my own internship because I had a pretty specific goal – to work as a startup CEO protege for a female founder. I went to all of her meetings and was involved with key decisions. I thought that would be the best way to prepare myself to found my own company after college.

Q: How has your MBA affected your life after graduation?

A: My life will never be the same. I look at life differently, the possibilities of what I can do, the people I know – those relationships will last a lifetime.

Q: What advice would you give to students who are thinking about earning their MBA?

A: Focus on culture fit; each school has a unique personality. Understand what that is and find the one that fits best with you.

The MBA Curriculum

Throughout your research of MBA programs — and particularly if you have an undergraduate degree — you may be familiar with the basic structure of the average college curriculum. While programs vary slightly, there are typically several different types of classes offered in an MBA degree, including foundation, core, and elective or concentration courses. Students are encouraged to learn all they can about the courses they’ll take before enrolling, though admittedly, it can be overwhelming to compare from school to school. You may still be wondering, however, what do you learn in an MBA program? Read on to explore the various types of MBA courses, in-depth.

Foundation classes

MBA foundations coursework is important for undergraduates entering an MBA with a non-business degree. Classes include subjects like business finance and statistics, and are similar to prerequisites in practical and theoretical concepts; they help program administrators assess a student’s level of competency as well as allow students to build upon general professional skills they’ll need in the workforce.

Core classes

Core courses in an MBA program explore crucial skills for business professionals including accounting, economics, business strategy, and finance. Soft skills such as leadership and communication may also be included in this category. Regardless of a student’s concentration, they are required to satisfy a set number of core credits in key concepts designed to benefit business administrators. A capstone or final project is typically included in this set of mandatory course requirements.

Electives/concentration courses

Electives and concentration courses will vary from one person to the next and largely depend on a student’s area of interest. These types of courses provide in-depth study in a focused area of business administration to prepare students for their particular career path. Common concentrations include accounting, entrepreneurship, and information technology management. The choice of electives depends largely on the program, as some schools allow students to choose from a wide variety of interdepartmental courses, while others require students to choose from a smaller pool of business-oriented special interest topics.

Capstone

The capstone, or final project, is crucial to the process of earning the MBA. By encompassing strategic management concepts, the capstone may be delivered in a variety of ways, depending on each program’s individual requirements. Whether a program calls for students to create a mock business from the ground up, develop a business proposal with a real-life client in-mind, or present their professional portfolio, the capstone is the student’s opportunity to fully realize the skills they have achieved during the course of the program.

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Example curriculum

While programs vary from school to school, we have used Charlton College of Business at UMass Dartmouth as an example of a top MBA curriculum. Below we explain, in detail, which courses are offered in each category of MBA course requirements, and outline what students can expect to learn in each class. Though the MBA curriculum at UMass may be similar to other MBAs, the following is just an example, so be sure to check your individual prospective schools’ website and/or catalog for individual details on your program of choice.

Foundation classes

Foundations classes in the UMass MBA include financial accounting, statistical analysis, and economics concepts for managers. These courses target business graduate majors from non-business backgrounds. Each course is lecture-based and presents a general overview of the basics of each subject in the context of business and commerce. Coursework stresses external financial reporting, applicable economic theory (micro- and macroeconomics), and a case-study-based approach to statistics.

Core classes

The UMass MBA requires 21 credits of core curriculum, including accounting for decision making, advanced organizational behavior, IT management, and marketing strategy. All core lecture courses emphasize experiential learning and student-centered discussion, in order to reinforce crucial problem-solving, decision-making, and strategic management skills. Regardless of concentration, core courses also explore finance, marketing, and operations analysis skills required of all successful business professionals.

Electives/concentration courses

UMass offers MBA candidates a choice of 10 concentrations: accounting, business analytics, finance, marketing, leadership, supply chain management and information systems, environmental policy, health systems management, international business, or public management. Students may also create their own by selecting 3-4 approved electives as their focus area, however, they must total nine elective credits. UMass offers a variety of relevant electives in special interest areas, such as international financial management, interactive marketing, and leading, motivating, and empowering others.

Capstone

The strategic management capstone at UMass is the culmination of core requirements of the MBA degree. With a focus on developing management skills for the global business environment, the capstone course prompts students to explore competition among businesses today and consider strategies for improving operations in the growing international market. The capstone requires the formulation and implementation of a strategic plan of the student’s own.

How long does it take to get an MBA?

The length of time it takes to get an MBA depends on many factors. An accelerated schedule allows you to graduate faster than a part-time program, for example, but this also depends on what options are available at a particular school. Some programs offer students the opportunity to take more than one class at a time, while others may have strict mandates about the maximum course load each semester. And while the credits needed to earn an MBA can range from 30 to 60, students who do not hold a bachelor’s in business must satisfy additional prerequisites, which could extend the length of time it takes to complete their degree. When choosing an MBA, though, students should select a program tailored to their particular scheduling needs.

What Types of MBA Programs Are Available?

Full-time MBA

Full-time MBAs are exactly what they sound like: a full-time commitment. While it may not be possible for everyone to devote the time and money necessary to complete a two-year program full time, this traditional option is designed for students to take their time to explore a concentration in-depth, and to participate in a corporate internship for maximum field experience. In the case of a full-time MBA program, students are afforded the luxury of taking their time to fully master a range of business skills.

Part-time MBA

Part-time MBAs are one of several options created for working professionals. Classes are held once a week on- or off-campus, in evenings or on weekends, to accommodate a student’s regular work schedule. While part-time programs take longer to complete than a traditional MBA, they can be especially convenient for those in close proximity to a campus or education center who want to advance their career while maintaining professional and personal commitments.

Online MBA

The online MBA has become an increasingly popular option for students seeking a highly convenient “study from anywhere” curriculum they can complete in their own time. Many online MBAs are also offered on an accelerated schedule, allowing students to maintain work and family obligations and still graduate in less than two years. As with any online program, availability varies from state to state, so be sure to check with your school before you commit.

Hybrid MBA

The hybrid MBA offers a combination of online and on-campus study. Many hybrid or blended programs offer the majority of coursework online and require minimal campus visits to supplement online classes. Others encompass equal parts in-person and online learning sessions for the duration of the degree. This type of MBA is ideal for a student in close proximity to a campus location who prefers diverse learning methods and appreciates both independent and group study.

Executive MBA

The executive MBA is geared toward mid-career business professionals with an average of at least 10 years experience in the industry. Compared to a traditional MBA that lays a foundation in a range of general business concepts, the EMBA cuts right to the chase for those looking for a fast track to improving their existing business, starting a new one, or advancing their entrepreneurial skills. Classes typically accommodate students with full-time jobs, and programs are faster paced and require less optional electives than the MBA.

Accelerated MBA

The accelerated MBA is exactly that — accelerated. While there are plenty of accelerated MBAs offered on campus, some are offered online, allowing students the dual convenience of a fast-track program that can be completed in the comfort of the student’s own home. Accelerated programs go a step beyond full-time study to concentrate a curriculum into a shorter version of the traditional MBA, typically through longer bi- or tri-weekly intensives instead of shorter courses offered once a week. Some accelerated programs can be completed in as little as one year.

Professional MBA

Similar to the executive MBA but for a slightly different demographic, the professional MBA caters to early-career business owners and executives with less than 10 years of experience in the field. Like the EMBA, professional MBAs are generally offered as part-time programs, with courses offered in the evenings or on weekends to accommodate full-time work schedules. Because the degree is geared toward business professionals still in the early stages of their career, the curriculum of the professional MBA requires additional foundations courses and electives compared to the executive program.

Global MBA

Though every school has their own approach to the global MBA, the degree is similar to a foreign exchange program for business-minded grad students. Global MBA cohorts tend to be relatively small in size, a carefully chosen group of both domestic and international students interested in incorporating global business concepts into their core MBA curriculum. The global MBA is ideal for students seeking a more worldly perspective on business and commerce, through study-abroad opportunities during the program as well as in their careers after graduation.

Modular MBA

The modular MBA is a fully customizable option for experienced business professionals. Like professional and executive MBAs, the modular MBA assumes students have a minimum amount of basic knowledge in fundamental business concepts and does not require as many electives as a traditional MBA. The modular MBA typically convenes infrequently, offering several modules in a particular topic simultaneously — such as finance or management — and allows students to hand-pick modules and courses to build their own curriculum from the ground up.

Dual MBA

The dual MBA offers students the opportunity to earn an MBA and another graduate degree simultaneously. This option is especially convenient for students interested in mastering business administration skills to apply them to a career in public policy, criminal justice, or healthcare. While the dual MBA may not compare to the highly immersive curriculum of the standalone business-oriented MBA, it does allow students to earn graduate-level credentials in two specialized disciplines in the same span of time (and often for a discounted price) as a single degree.

MBA Certificates

MBA certificates are available in specialized areas of business and management to supplement the graduate degree. While not required as part of an MBA program, earning a certificate in a subject like finance, data analytics, or even entrepreneurship can provide students with a highly specialized credential and also go a long way in a job interview after graduation. Certificates typically include some of the same coursework as a full MBA, and are available to both pre-MBA undergraduates and experienced professionals alike.