What Is a Master of Business Administration?

A master of business administration 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 students' 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?

In today's rapidly evolving economy, the MBA ranks among the most popular professional degrees around the globe. MBA programs blend advanced skills in business and management with practical experience to prepare graduates to start or advance in a management career in virtually any field they choose. Employers may prefer MBA graduates because of the breadth and depth of their professional skills, field experience, and insider knowledge of business networks and relationships.

What Do You Learn in an MBA Program?

What do you learn while earning an MBA? The simplest answer is: a lot. Business professionals value MBAs because of their versatility, comprehensive curriculum, and practical application. To prepare graduates for the ins and outs of leadership positions at small companies and large corporations alike, MBA coursework covers all aspects of business administration. Students learn about marketing, accounting, strategy, and finance. Soft skills, such as communication and leadership, are also developed.

The best online MBAs combine formal classroom training with hands-on learning. Students apply newfound knowledge and skills during simulation exercises, collaboration and discussion with peers, and examination of case studies. Final capstones often require students to develop a mock business, present a professional portfolio, or put together a mock proposal for an actual client.

A solid MBA foundation prepares graduates to enter the ever-changing business sector, but these graduate-level abilities can serve beyond business applications. Skills in problem-solving, strategic research analysis, and effective communication translate to managerial potential in many industries and environments.

In an MBA program, participants learn from other business professionals. MBA faculty usually hold extensive leadership experience, in addition to a terminal degree. They bring unique experiences, perspectives, and ideas to the classroom, enriching textbook subjects with practical knowledge and expertise.

What Skills Do You Learn in an MBA Program?

Explore MBA Programs in Over 30 Concentrations

You may still be wondering about what an MBA can do for you. For students interested in business, earning an MBA can be beneficial at all stages of their career. Those just starting an MBA program can develop valuable networking and entrepreneurial skills for future business ventures, while those nearing graduation gain work experience through internships and/or job assistance programs.

After graduation, MBAs provide graduates an advantage in an increasingly competitive workforce. Additionally, MBAs are generally more versatile than other graduate-level business degrees; they offer a variety of concentrations and specialized coursework, allowing students to customize their studies according to their interests and career goals.

Average Salary by Master's Degree Type

Source: Payscale, July 2019

The benefits of an MBA depend on a student's individual career goals. MBAs could be ideal for students 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, many MBA programs require applicants to have several years of work experience as a condition of acceptance. While undergraduates with little experience may still be eligible for admission, MBA programs generally favor experienced candidates -- a cohort group made up of students with a shared minimum experience level tends to maximize the benefits for all involved.

Earning an MBA is a major accomplishment that offers significant benefits to those willing to make the commitment. However, even the admissions process can feel challenging. Expect to plan ahead to gather letters of recommendation, write essays, and take the GMAT or GRE test.

Once accepted, MBA candidates will likely need to devote much of their time to pursuing their degrees. Rigorous coursework, homework, and internship/fieldwork commitments may leave little time for anything else outside of school. While it may not be realistic for everyone to stop working to attend school full time, trying to work while completing an MBA is often quite difficult. Pursuing a more flexible online MBA may be a sensible option for those looking to maintain a steady income and keep their job while meeting the demands of an MBA program.

Careers for MBA Graduates

Whether you're looking to advance in your current job, find new employment opportunities, or transition into an entirely different career, an MBA represents the gold standard for business professionals and prospective employers. Coursework is designed to provide the soft skills employers desire most -- including communication, leadership, problem-solving, and time management -- as well as experience in a particular specialty of a student's choice. The possibilities are nearly endless for MBA graduates, whether they aspire to a career in a traditional business setting (e.g., accounting, finance, or marketing) or in an emerging field (e.g., 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, a 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. Similar to other executive positions, including CEO and COO, the MBA is the most common qualification of top chief financial officers. Though requirements vary, many CFOs of large corporations, as well as those in senior public sector positions, have an MBA.

Marketing Director

Marketing directors oversee all aspects of marketing operations for a business, company, or nonprofit organization. They may serve in an executive or supervisory capacity, directing marketing, advertising, and promotions. 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 oversee internal and external operations of their organizations at the highest level. The executive decisions made by an IT vice president direct operations for an entire organization, including budgeting and resource allocation and outreach efforts. They may also meet with board members and shareholders. Vice presidents and other top executives are among the highest paid workers in the U.S., and MBA graduates with extensive work experience can expect favorable employment and salary opportunities in these roles.

Salaries for MBA Graduates

One of the most commonly cited reasons for earning a graduate degree is the likelihood of increased earning potential. However, not every master's degree holder earns a premium salary relative to the income of a bachelor's degree holder. Therefore, prospective graduate students should calculate their own personal return on investment. In weighing the true worth and benefit of a degree, several factors should be considered, including program cost, long-term and short-term income potential, and lifetime benefits.

More students earn master's degrees in business than in any other field. The total cost of an MBA program can vary widely depending on the school you attend. For example, an MBA from the University of the People -- an online school without traditional tuition -- costs approximately $2,500. Utica College advertises an online MBA that costs approximately $20,000. Online students at George Washington University shell out six-figure investments for their MBA, with tuition costs alone reaching well above $100,000.

Short-term and long-term ROIs are impacted by individual salaries and how long it takes to pay off school debt. Students should remember that more expensive programs do not necessarily lead to higher-paying jobs. Base salaries for class of 2019 MBA graduates average around $85,000. Certain MBA concentrations can help increase the ROI by preparing students for high-paying business administration jobs in healthcare, finance, and marketing.

In short, there is no one-size-fits-all formula to calculate the ROI of every MBA program. Students must consider their own finances and projected degree costs, along with potential earnings and job growth projections in their local economy.

Median Salary by Master's Degree Type

Source: Payscale

Average Salary by Degree Level

Degree Job Title Salary
Associate of Business Administration Operations manager $59,000
Bachelor of Business Administration Operations manager $58,000
Master of Business Administration Operations manager $78,000
Source: Payscale, 2019

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 the University of California, Berkley for my undergrad and designed my own major called organizations and leadership. I spent four years at Google and then went on to Stanford University 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.

What made you consider an MBA?
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.
Explain your application process and experience choosing a school.
All in all, it was probably a two-year process: one year considering if an MBA was right for me and one year studying for the GMAT, getting the score I needed for the schools I was applying to, and then applying. It was a huge personal growth process as the applications require a lot of self-reflection. I was lucky enough to get into my dream school, so the choice was an easy one.
How was your experience in your MBA program?
It was the best two years of my life so far. I learned so much -- not just about business, but also 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.
How was your experience towards the end of your MBA program? Did your school offer to help?
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.
How has your MBA affected your life after graduation?
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.
What advice would you give to students who are thinking about earning their MBA?
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

As you look at MBA programs, you will likely become familiar with the basic structure of the average curriculum. While programs vary slightly, there are typically several types of classes that learners complete while earning an MBA, including foundation, core, and elective or concentration courses. Although it may feel overwhelming, students are encouraged to look into the different courses they can take before enrolling to get a better idea of what they might learn in an MBA program. Read on to explore the various types of MBA courses.

Foundation Classes

MBA foundation coursework is important for undergraduates entering an MBA with a non-business degree. Classes include subjects like business finance and statistics. These help program administrators assess an individual's level of competency while also helping students build 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 like leadership and communication may also be included in this category. Regardless of a student's concentration, they must satisfy a set number of core credits related to key concepts designed to benefit business administrators.

Electives/Concentration Courses

Electives and concentration courses 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 available pool of electives depends largely on the program --some schools allow students to choose from a wide variety of interdepartmental courses, while others require students to choose from a smaller group of business-oriented special interest topics.

Capstone

The capstone or final project is crucial to the process of earning an MBA. Encompassing many strategic management concepts, a capstone may be delivered in a variety of ways depending on a 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 a professional portfolio, capstone courses provide students with an opportunity to fully realize the skills they developed over the course of the program.

Example Curriculum

While programs vary from school to school, this guide uses the Charlton College of Business at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth as an example of a top MBA curriculum. The following sections discuss courses that are offered at UMass Dartmouth and outline what students can expect to learn in each class. Though the MBA curriculum at UMass Dartmouth may be similar to other programs, the following is just a representative example. Be sure to check the websites and/or course catalogs of your prospective schools for details on your programs of choice.

Foundation Classes

Foundations classes in UMass Dartmouth's MBA program 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 an overview of the basics of each subject in the context of business and commerce. Coursework stresses external financial reporting, applicable economic theories like micro- and macroeconomics, and case studies related to statistics.

Core Classes

Core Classes

UMass Dartmouth's MBA requires 21 credits of core classes, including accounting for decision making, advanced organizational behavior, IT management, and marketing strategy. These lecture-based courses emphasize experiential learning and student-centered discussion to reinforce crucial problem-solving, decision making, and strategic management skills. Core courses explore the finance, marketing, and operations analysis skills required to succeed as a business professional.

Electives/Concentration Courses

UMass Dartmouth 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, and public management. Students may also create their own concentration by selecting 3-4 approved electives as their focus area; these classes must total nine elective credits. UMass Dartmouth 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 Dartmouth is the culmination of core requirements for the MBA degree. With a focus on developing management skills for the global business environment, this capstone course prompts students to explore competition among businesses and consider strategies for improving operations in a growing international market. The capstone requires students to formulate and implement a strategic plan of their own design.

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 taken each semester. Students typically need to complete 30-60 credits, although learners who do not hold a bachelor's in business must usually satisfy additional prerequisites, which can extend the length of time it takes to graduate. When choosing an MBA, students should select a program that matches 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 lets students explore a concentration fully and participate in a corporate internship to gain ample field experience.

Part-time MBA

Part-time MBAs are one of several options created to meet the needs of working professionals. Classes are typically held once a week. They may be held on or off campus and in the evening or on weekends. While part-time programs take longer to complete than a full-time MBA, this option can be 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 more convenient, "study from anywhere" curriculum they can complete on 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 -- be sure to check with your school about online options 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 include equal parts of in-person and online learning sessions throughout the program. This type of MBA may be well-suited for students in close proximity to a campus location who prefer diverse learning methods and appreciate both independent and group study.

Executive MBA

The executive MBA is geared toward mid-career business professionals with roughly 10 years of experience in the industry. Compared to a traditional MBA, which lays a foundation in a variety of general business concepts, the executive track cuts right to the chase for workers 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 a traditional MBA.

Accelerated MBA

The accelerated MBA is exactly that -- accelerated. While there are plenty of accelerated MBAs offered on campus, some are also offered online, allowing students the dual convenience of a fast-track program that can be completed from the comfort of their home. Accelerated programs go a step beyond full-time study to concentrate a curriculum into a shorter version of the traditional MBA. This is typically done 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 executive MBA, professional MBAs are generally offered as part-time programs, with courses available in the evenings or on weekends to accommodate full-time work schedules. Because the degree is geared toward business professionals in the early stages of their careers, the curriculum of a professional MBA requires additional foundations courses and electives compared to the executive program.

Global MBA

Though every school has its own approach to the global MBA, this degree is similar to a foreign exchange program for business-minded grad students. Global MBA cohorts tend to be relatively small in size, made up of 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 well-suited for students seeking a worldly perspective on business and commerce and provides ample study-abroad opportunities during the program.

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 it 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. It allows students to handpick 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 may be especially convenient for students interested in mastering business administration skills for a career in public policy, criminal justice, or healthcare. While the dual MBA may not compare to the highly immersive curriculum of a standalone, business-oriented MBA, it does allow students to earn graduate-level credentials in two specialized disciplines in roughly the same period of time as a single degree (and often for a discounted price).

MBA Certificates

MBA certificates are available in specialized areas of business and management; these are often used to supplement a 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. Certificates can also be useful during the job hunt after graduation. MBA certificates typically include some of the same coursework as a full MBA and are available to both pre-MBA undergraduates and experienced professionals.

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