Young professionals and recent college grads who wish to advance their careers often turn to a Master of Business Administration (MBA) degree as a way to achieve their professional goals. While there are exceptions, MBA programs are generally two-year commitments that may instill training and knowledge in specific fields (finance, marketing, technology, etc.). as well as management skills that require soft and intangible skill sets (teamwork, leadership, negotiation).

The latter approach attempts to develop managerial skills with the hope of advancing a professional's career. This comes with added responsibilities, expectations, and a larger scope of assignment. In other words, many young professionals pursue an MBA in order to better position themselves for a high-level vice president, CFO, COO, or CEO job in the future.

An MBA program generally emphasizes a case study approach as it develops and molds future business leaders out of class participants possessing varied educational backgrounds, work experiences, career goals, and skill levels. 

It is possible, however, to gain higher levels of responsibility and visibility within your organization by pursuing an advanced degree in business that is not an MBA. The academic universe offers a variety of programs that are tailored to individual goals and circumstances.

How MBA Programs Work

An MBA is a one-size-fits-all product, instilling just enough functional knowledge (in statistics, accounting, finance, etc.), while equipping and molding students with business skills that may be leveraged in a number of future situations and settings.

Real-world case studies can involve finding the optimal debt-to-equity mix for a publicly-traded company, solving logistical scheduling problems for a transportation company, or coming up with a differentiated and innovative marketing campaign for a brand new product.

Most MBA programs push students to secure a summer internship with a company and/or an ongoing consulting project with an organization, as part of the emphasis on grooming future managers.

Alternative Master's Programs in Business

While the media may be heavily skewed in its coverage towards the one-size-fits-all approach of a MBA, young professionals – given their career interests and personal goals – may instead be better suited to either a more specialized and technical program or a research-intensive, academic program.

There is a broad array of advanced programs being offered by colleges and universities across the United States. For instance, a professional can obtain a graduate degree in the following fields:

  • Master of Accounting
  • Master of Taxation
  • Master of Finance
  • Master of Entrepreneurship
  • Master of Statistics
  • Master of Actuarial Science
  • Master of Risk Management / Insurance
  • Master of Organizational Behavior
  • Master of Management
  • Master of Economics
  • Master of Business Analytics

How Flexible Are Master's Programs?

Programs within specific functions of a company or organization, such as the above, can typically range from nine months to four-year programs. An applicant without a spouse or family can opt for a shorter and more intensive one-year or two-year program. However, those who want to keep earning a salary and/or have family obligations to fulfill can often request the dean of the program to extend the duration of their program, in order to pursue a part-time schedule.

Universities are motivated to attract talented candidates into their master's programs for positioning and ranking purposes. Therefore, they can offer flexibility for those they are confident have the ability to complete the requirements of the advanced degree.

An MBA is not typically required to make partner at a CPA firm, so it may make sense for a degreed accountant or CPA to invest their time and money in a master's degree in accounting or taxation instead. This allows him or her to focus on priority areas or interests such as regulatory compliance, estate planning or financial reporting.

Clients of the CPA firm can spend hundreds of dollars for each hour of the CPA's time, and they will want practical, immediate and effective solutions to their accounting or tax problem. A research or consulting firm may also want similar expertise from an accredited statistician or an economist.

Should a professional decide to become a specialist in their field and work on cutting-edge issues or advances, a graduate-level degree (such as a master's or Ph.D.) can provide the opportunity to conduct research in emerging issues and areas deemed important either by business interests, the government or the academic community. Generating new findings in your field can be an exciting way to contribute and shape initial impressions on new areas. A summer internship at an investment bank or Fortune 500 company after your first year in the MBA program, won't get you there. You'll probably be working on a cookie-cutter process improvement project or product analysis assignment instead.

The Bottom Line

If you want to become a generalist manager, CFO or division president, an MBA may be the right tool for you. However, if you enjoy being a subject matter expert, such as an economist, estate planner, tax accountant, statistician, risk management consultant or an actuary, you may want to consider an advanced degree in your field.