College graduates and current business professionals use master’s degrees to find a new position or advance their current career. However, learners interested in business have a tough decision to make: choosing between a master of business administration (MBA) or a master’s in business.
Both an MBA and a master’s in business lead to high-paying careers, as employers search for employees with a graduate degree. While both degrees can have a profound impact on your career, the two options can lead you down very different paths.
An MBA typically appeals to experienced business professionals who want to advance their careers, and increase their earnings. Most careers following an MBA are managerial, so professional experience and education are both highly desirable for employers. Some MBA programs even require applicants to possess at least one year of professional experience, along with a bachelor’s degree.
A master’s in business is best for current professionals who want to become experts in their niche. For example, someone working in supply chain management may want to earn a master’s in business with a focus in that field. While these master’s degrees can lead to leadership roles, most students who pursue these degrees either lack professional experience or want to transition into a specific field of business.
Comparison of MBA and Master’s in Business
An MBA draws from the learner’s professional experience and teaches new managerial and leadership skills. Many MBA programs require previous work experience. Because many MBA students are busy professionals, colleges and universities often offer flexible part-time MBAs that allow students to work while earning their degree. Other schools offer accelerated MBA programs for professionals who want to complete a master’s degree as quickly as possible.
During an MBA, students often cover business topics unrelated to their desired field. This gives graduates a comprehensive business education, allowing for an easier transition into a new industry or role. Specific topics covered by MBA students typically include finance, marketing, management, leadership, accounting, and organizational behavior. Created for students with work experience, MBA programs help graduates advance their careers and land managerial positions.
Median Salary: $88,000
Length: 2 – 3 years
Master's in Business
A master’s in business teaches employable skills to students who may not have much, or any, professional experience. Most master’s in business programs let students select a focus, such as business analytics, finance, or economics. After students select their area of focus, the bulk of coursework covers that topic. The goal of most master’s in business programs is to teach new skills for learners interested in changing their careers.
Because many master’s in business students plan on switching fields, not all programs offer flexible part-time options. However, online learning options allow some students to continue working while completing the program. Master’s in business programs typically take a few years to complete, but the investment pays off for many graduates. Generally, a master’s in business program does not require previous work experience.
Median Salary: $83,610
Length: 1.5 – 2 years
Classes and Curriculum
Program curriculum varies based on numerous factors. These include whether you select an MBA or master’s in business, and any specialization you may add to your degree.
An MBA provides a comprehensive business education. MBA programs require business courses in all areas, including accounting, finance, analytics, ethics, management, and marketing. Many MBA programs strive to create leaders and managers, so students must have a firm grasp on all facets of business.
MBA concentrations range from common fields, such as accounting, finance, or economics, to niche areas, like marketing analytics or product marketing. Programs that do not require a concentration typically allow for plenty of freedom when selecting electives, which serve as a good way to specialize an MBA. Most MBA students have plenty of real-world experience, so not all programs require an internship.
A master’s in business focuses on one field. For example, a student interested in accounting would likely earn a master of science in accounting. This business degree requires numerous accounting courses, such as accounting theory, fundamentals of business law, and internal accounting. Other master’s in business focuses include economics, finance, and marketing.
Because most master’s in business students have little or no professional experience, some colleges and universities require an internship. If not required, schools may require a group project or capstone project instead.
It’s important to note that, while these are outlines of coursework typical for these programs, that curriculum can vary widely from school to school. Prospective students should carefully research each school’s course offerings to find a degree that fits their interests.
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Regardless of which master’s degree you plan on earning, expect to spend at least 1-1.5 years completing the degree. Still, various factors impact how long an MBA or a master’s in business takes to complete.
Learners must decide whether they plan on studying full or part time. Full-time options are best for students with limited commitments. Part-time options are best for learners juggling coursework with jobs and families. While a part-time option takes longer to complete, busy learners may find it fits their needs best.
As an MBA program often requires previous experience, many MBA students continue working while earning the degree. An MBA student may therefore be more inclined to select a part-time online option. Part-time programs significantly vary in length, though students generally graduate in 2-3 years. While part-time options for a master’s in business are less common, these programs take a similar amount of time to complete.
Full-time students complete degrees fastest, with some programs averaging 18 months in length. While full-time students complete their degrees faster, they also commit to a more rigorous schedule. Situations vary by student, but someone pursuing a master’s in business is likely better suited for a full-time program than an MBA student.
Future students have two other factors to consider that influence program length: accelerated courses and online learning. Accelerated courses are short and intensive, usually lasting 7-8 weeks. Completing accelerated courses allows you to take fewer courses at a time, but complete more courses throughout the school year. Online education facilitates flexible learning and accelerated courses. Many online programs take less time to complete than their on-campus counterparts.
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Salary and Job Potential
MBA and master’s in business degrees both lead to advanced business roles. However, due to the complexity of large businesses, a graduate of either degree program will find a vast and varied job and compensation market.
According to PayScale, the average MBA graduate earns $88,000 per year. The real wages earned by MBA holders vary widely — operations managers earn an average wage of $78,000 while chief financial officers earn over $150,000.
Master’s in business graduates also earn highly variable salaries. The concentration you choose heavily impacts potential earnings. For example, students earning master’s in business in accounting can become certified public accountants and earn an average wage of $66,163. A student earning a master’s in business in economics could become a data scientist and earn an average wage of $96,072.
The industry also impacts potential salaries. Some industries, such as consulting, technology, or financial services, pay higher average wages than industries like nonprofit, government, and hospitality. Some industries may also prefer applicants with one degree over the other. For example, an MBA graduate may thrive in the healthcare industry thanks to their leadership and administrative skills. A master’s in business graduate may find more success in a logistics company where they provide a crucial skill, such as supply chain management.
The job outlook for most careers following either degree is positive. According to the BLS, the projected growth for jobs for CPA accountants and data scientists is 6% and 16%, respectively. While careers and pay vary widely, both an MBA and a master’s in business lead to growing fields.
Switching Careers vs. Advancing Careers
Picking between an MBA and a master’s in business also depends heavily on career goals. Generally, an MBA allows current professionals to advance their pre-existing career. Most MBA curricula focus on teaching management, leadership, and general business skills, priming graduates for upward mobility within their current business or industry.
Alternatively, someone looking to switch careers may benefit from a master’s in business. A master’s in business teaches specific skills, preparing graduates to leave their current industry. However, some current professionals find that mastering a specific field of business helps them advance their career. The specialization you choose for your master’s in business influences your career trajectory.
Prospective master’s degree applicants should note that both MBA and master’s in business programs do not always require a bachelor’s degree in business. While most MBA programs require professional experience, institutions tailor their MBA curricula to specific industries, including human resources, information systems, and health care management. A master’s in business provides even more flexibility, allowing students with no background in business to transition into the field.
Program requirements, available courses, and career outcomes vary by institution. If your goal is to switch or advance your career, research schools and programs that align with your goals. Some schools specialize in career advancement, while others focus on helping students switch fields. Ultimately, the institution you choose may have the biggest impact on your career.
Is an MBA more highly regarded than a master's degree?
Both an MBA and a master’s degree in business prove expert-level business knowledge, as long as you complete your degree from an accredited institution. However, employers may look at the degrees differently depending on specialization, the school awarding the degree, and how the degree aligns with the job’s requirements.
Before choosing either option, see which degree has better outcomes for your current or desired industry. In some instances, an MBA may be held in higher regard than a master’s in business.
Is an MBA harder than a master's?
The difficulty of a program depends entirely on the institution. Both an MBA and master’s in business are graduate-level programs, and meet the same rigorous academic standards. So, neither option is inherently easier than the other.
The difficulty of each program also depends on the student’s background. Because an MBA focuses on career development, a professional with 5-10 years of business experience may find an MBA easier than a traditional master’s. Alternatively, a recent bachelor’s degree graduate has an easier time getting enrolled in a master’s in business program. Regardless, both options prove expert-level competency.
Which MBA is most demanding?
A full-time, accelerated MBA is the most demanding. These programs require students to study year-round, five days a week. In return, learners complete the program more quickly than a traditional part-time MBA.
Because MBAs draw from students’ professional experience, no specialization is more demanding than another. An institution typically requires the same core courses for every specialization, so students only complete a few courses related to their field. The MBA option you choose will likely be as demanding as any other MBA offered by the school.