MBA vs. Master’s in Finance or Economics: An Overview

For many individuals looking to advance their careers in business, earning a master of business administration (MBA) degree may seem like an obvious way to get ahead. But if you work in the world of finance or economics, getting a specialized degree might be a better alternative.

Both MBA and non-MBA programs have specific pros and cons, so it is essential to evaluate your long-term goals before choosing which route to take. It comes down to figuring out the types of skills you are trying to obtain and what job you see yourself pursuing once your diploma is in hand.

Key Takeaways

  • MBAs are more expensive to obtain than a master's in finance or economics.
  • MBA programs are broader, while master's programs in economics and finance are deeper.
  • A master's in finance or economics typically requires a stronger background in mathematics.
  • Median salaries may be higher for MBAs, depending on the job.

MBA

Professionals often obtain a master of business administration degree after spending a few years in the workforce. In fact, some MBA programs require that applicants have practical work experience before admission.

An MBA will cover finance and economics, but it will remain more general and include other business subjects. Nearly all advanced degrees in business are going to require solid math skills. However, MBA classes require much less abstract mathematical theory than graduate classes in economics and finance. Working knowledge of algebra is often sufficient for success in an MBA program.

Many employers prefer job candidates whose education encompasses the bigger picture, and an MBA certainly fits that bill. There's a benefit in learning something about a broad range of disciplines, from marketing to accounting and information systems. In a typical MBA program, students get exposure to all of these areas. In the process, they gain an understanding of how different parts of an organization relate to one another.

Earning an MBA can be expensive. If you want to attend a top-tier school like Wharton or Harvard, plan on spending over $150,000. Smaller private schools and even state universities are generally less expensive. However, it is still easily possible to spend anywhere from $75,000 to $100,000.

The good news? A 2018 survey by the Graduate Management Admission Council found that MBA recipients tend to take home more than those who follow a narrower track. MBA grads earned a median starting salary of $105,000 in that report, compared to $85,000 for those with a graduate degree in finance. MBA graduates may end up working in the technology sector or for financial firms. They may also find positions in sales and marketing for product and service companies or at consulting firms.

Master's in Finance or Economics

Pursuing a master's degree in finance means taking a deep dive into topics such as investment analysis, corporate finance, forecasting, and risk analysis. In an economics master's program, students can expect to take on microeconomics, macroeconomics, and econometrics. These more focused programs tend to attract students who are particularly strong in quantitative analysis and critical thinking.

Specialized programs do have some significant advantages compared to MBAs. For starters, graduates develop specific skill sets. That can make them more attractive to employers looking for experts in a particular field or subject.

The cost of obtaining an advanced degree in economics or finance varies depending on the educational institution. However, it is generally much lower than the price of an MBA. The National Center for Education Statistics estimates "that graduate degrees cost anywhere from $10,000 to 25,000 and up per year. Public institutions typically cost less than private schools."

On the other hand, classes in economics and finance often require taking extensive prerequisites in mathematics. For example, graduate-level economics students usually must take courses in differential calculus, integral calculus, and statistics before being admitted to the program. Furthermore, top universities prefer applicants who complete classes in linear algebra, multivariate calculus, and real analysis.

Many finance graduates go on to work at major corporations, global banks, and mutual fund companies. Economics majors often work in the private sector. However, many also enter academia or go into research roles after receiving a master's degree.

Special Considerations

CFA

If you plan on working in the realm of investments, there’s something else you might want to consider when choosing a graduate program. Many of the professionals in this field go on to earn the chartered financial analyst (CFA) credential. CFAs must demonstrate competence in areas such as accounting, ethics, money management, and securities analysis.

Some MBA programs help prepare you for a CFA designation, especially those with concentrations in finance.

Finance professionals can make their road a bit smoother by choosing a master’s program that incorporates much of the content for the CFA exam. That reduces the amount of preparation they’ll have to do later. A list of graduate programs recognized by the CFA Institute is available on the organization’s website. Many of the programs affiliated with the CFA Institute are aimed toward a master's degree in finance.

Work Experience

According to the Graduate Management Admission Council, employers see employment history, not just a graduate-level diploma, as a key driver of future success. Even if you obtain a specialized degree, companies are likely to look for some relevant work experience. It often pays to work for at least a couple years after earning an undergraduate degree, rather than rushing headlong into a graduate program.