Choosing an MBA program General or Specialised – how to CLARIFY your priorities

Course: General or Specialised?

This is a detailed look at one of the first elements of our unique CLARIFY headings, enabling you to focus exclusively on MBA programs that meet all your personal needs!

In outlining the types of MBA program available, we consider elsewhere the relative merits of full-time or part-time study. This article focuses specifically on the pros and cons of generalised or specialised provision, with links to features on specialist MBA in Engineering MBA, Finance MBA, Education MBA, Health MBA and Hospitality/Tourism MBA.

The MBA has long been considered a general management qualification, yet there has been huge growth in recent years in the number of business schools offering specialist MBA programs in areas ranging from education or engineering to finance, sport and tourism.

Why should this be? Do we conclude that a drift towards specialisation is simply part of a natural process of evolution or is it evidence of a regrettable dilution of traditional MBA standards?

Breadth before focus?

Purists argue that the whole point of the MBA is its breadth, which is inevitably compromised if there is too much emphasis on one particular sector. Specialist programs, they claim, are little more than marketing gimmicks created by second-tier business schools for second-rate students.

This argument falls flat, of course, when you become aware of the number of elite institutions offering specialist courses!

Another claim from the traditionalists is that a specialist MBA can actually limit your future career progression. The thinking here is that it is very risky to close off career options. Students are exposed to so many new ideas and concepts in the first two to three months of their MBA, the warning goes, that even those who think they have very clear career goals soon start to change their minds.

In the opposite camp, advocates of the specialist MBA argue that, if the die-hard generalists would only climb down from their ivory towers, they would recognise that the specialist MBA is a valid qualification that reflects the changing realities of the business world.

A specialist MBA program, they say, means that you can tailor your qualification to be of maximum practical use to you in the workplace, while simultaneously giving you a broad functional and strategic perspective on general management.

It may mean that you have to accept a narrower range of electives, and there may be some restrictions on the modes of study available, but the program will also contain the classic elements of an MBA. Otherwise, it can't be called an MBA!

In the United States, some schools have taken things ever further. The prestigious Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth, for example, offers a dual degree program in which you can combine an MBA with a stand-alone degree in an area such as law, medicine, public health or international relations.

On the downside, this approach means that you would have to undertake anything from three to six years of full-time study.

Combining general and Specialist

A different approach, recognising the need to balance generalist and specialist demand among potential applicants, is to offer a broadly-based MBA but also allow you to follow a specialist pathway.

For example, the Newcastle Business School MBA, at Northumbria University in England, has a core program covering the essential principles of managerial practice, leadership development, strategic management, research skills and an examination of contemporary issues in business management. On top of this, themed options allow you to explore a specialist complementary business area, including marketing, finance, human resource management, tourism, hospitality and operations management.

Only you can decide how far you should go down the specialist track when selecting an MBA program. If you are not exactly sure of what you want, you might do better to ensure that you keep open as many options as possible

Don’t stop now…

We have considered here some of the key issues in determining whether a general or specialised program is the right one for you. Continue to CLARIFY your objectives by working through all the CLARIFY links to identify the best routes to achieving your MBA:


You can proceed in any order you like and take as long as you need to explore each area thoroughly.




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