The Rise of the Specialty Master’s


While the MBA degree is largely an American invention, specialty business programs have been a part of the European university landscape as early as the mid-20th century. London Business School offered a 12-month Masters in Leadership and Strategy for higher-level executives in 1968. By the 1990s, companies such as Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, Google and Apple were approaching the school with requests for “highly relevant academic and technical skills and knowledge transferable to any career,” according to a statement provided by a London School of Business representative. London’s Master’s in Finance degree was first offered in 1993 and was the first of its kind worldwide.

U.S. business schools have put up a significant effort in the game of catch-up in the area of specialty MBAs. The Master’s in Finance degree in the U.S., according to a study conducted by the Graduate Management Admissions Council which manages and tracks applicant data based on the GMAT exam, is currently the most rapidly growing of all domestic specialty MBA programs, attracting an 83% in interested applicants over the past four years. MIT Sloan received 1,441 applications for just 120 available seats in the latest cohort its Master’s in Finance program that entered this July. Only four years ago, when MIT started the program, its pilot class was composed of just 27 students.

The abridged programs are growing, moreover, at a time when applications to full-time MBA programs have been in decline for at least two years at many schools. They’re obviously shorter than an MBA, generally accept younger students with less or no work experience, and cost much less than a two-year MBA experience. In some cases, however, the qualifying scores on the GMAT exam can be even higher than they are for MBA programs. For MIT’s Master of Finance program, students have an average GMAT of 731, 21 points higher than the school’s MBA class. At Johns Hopkins’ Carey, the average GMAT for students in its Master of Finance program is 720, considerable higher than the 660 for Carey’s MBA students.

In any case, the programs are exploding. St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, for example, has doubled the graduate population of its business school from 600 to 1,200 over the span of a decade since it launched its specialty programs. This jump solely has to do with programs such as the school’s MS programs in food marketing, pharmaceuticals, and risk management. According to DiAngelo, who, in addition to sitting on the board of AACSB, is also the education dean at St. Joseph’s Erivan K. Haub’s School of Business, the population of full-time MBA students has remained the same.


“We had to carve out niches where there were concentrations in corporations,” he says. “Students get a bigger bang for their buck. They find more opportunities because they have advanced training in those areas. The MBA is really a generalist degree. The specialty MBA makes an entrée into various companies.”

The demand for these programs is coming from company executives who sit on the various executive boards of the business schools themselves or who are long-term, consistent recruiters and provide yearly feedback.

Most business schools have a board of representatives from different industries who provide insight into current corporate trends. For example, at St. Josephs the “Board of Governors” has dictated which specialties the school has invested in.



Dean Daniel Smith at Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business says the school’s MBA in Accounting was a direct result of conversations around the table of the Dean’s Advisory Council, a group of senior managers from a wide variety of industries based in the greater Bloomington area. Smith recalls the buzz that started about 15 years ago among the council’s accounting firm representatives firms. According to Smith, these companies and the Big Four firms that recruit heavily at Kelley were willing to go beyond the traditional hiring of MBAs with extensive work experience in order to hire students with deep technical skill sets in specific areas, including auditing, forensic accounting, and information systems.

“We found that accounting firms were implementing more specific, in-depth consulting practices,” Smith said. “Transaction services like mergers and acquisition require deep knowledge of certain accounting practices, such as fraud detection.”

That’s a world apart from the typical MBA education in general management. In general, the career paths of MBA students are much different from those attracted to these specialty programs. MBAs, who already have between three and five years of professional experience on average, have already made a mark on their career and plan to use a higher degree to either transition to a new are of expertise or leverage themselves into more senior positions with their current employers.

Specialty program students, on the other hand, generally enter grad school with liberal arts or engineering undergraduate experience and are looking for specific business knowledge in order to land more narrowly defined jobs. MIT’s Master of Finance grads, for example, typically head into asset management, quantitative trading, financial risk assessment, and investment banking.

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