The Highest Paying MBA Concentrations of 2017

“The essence of strategy is choosing what not to do.”  Michael Porter

“Strategy is a pattern in a stream of decisions.”  Henry Mintzberg

“Plans are only good intentions unless they immediately degenerate into hard work.”  Peter Drucker

No business topic inspires more pithy quotes than strategy. And no activity is more revered in the C-suite. Perhaps that’s because – good or bad – strategy touches every area of an operation. It’s is an extension of a firm’s reason for being; it is the ongoing task of re-design so firms can align activities and deploy resources. It is a means of measuring market shifts and managing change to gain an advantage. Looking at the big picture, strategists identify the risks, limits, and tradeoffs ahead. In a nutshell, strategy is the art of depicting the possible – and stretching it further.

Strategy is also the perfect training ground for future CEOs. Perhaps that’s why you’ll find luminaries like Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi, and Zynga Founder Mark Pincus rise out of the “Big Three” consulting firms. Strategy teaches its practitioners how to gain buy-in at every level – not to mention the importance of flexibility, fleetness, and follow through. It is more than dusty cases or tangled frameworks translated into PowerPoints. It is the game plan – the vision, roles, and tactics – that coordinates all efforts…and ultimately determines survival.


Those are heavy responsibilities. That’s why MBA students who specialize in strategy made more than their peers. According to PayScale data provided exclusively to Poets&Quants, MBAs earned a $94,800 median in early career when their concentration was strategy. That’s $13,900 better than any field of study. By mid-career, strategists were pulling in a $150,000 median annually – better than all comers as well. This was also the fourth consecutive year where strategy topped concentration-based pay with PayScale, a leading collector of salary and benefits data that partners with organizations like Google and U.S. News & World Report.

Entrepreneurs enjoyed one of the largest increases in pay between early and mid-career.

Beyond strategy, real estate was kind to MBAs (at least early on). In this concentration, early career pay – which covers 1-5 years of experience – stood at $80,900. By mid-career, which PayScale defines as 10 or more years of experience, that compensation had reached just $112,000. This ranked as the smallest growth between early career and mid-career pay, behind even supply chain management (+$37,200) and information systems (+$39,300). Technology management fell into this same category. It placed third in early career pay at a $78,200 median, but slowed to $119,000 by mid-career.

Some concentrations, however, increased in value over time. Take innovation management, where students made a $62,600 median early on. By mid-career, this same concentration yielded annual pay of $134,000, more than double earnings at early career. Entrepreneurs made a similar jump. Early on, they racked up $70,300, which ranked middle of the pack among concentrations. However, that number rocketed to $139,000 by mid-career, second only to strategy. The same dynamic occurs with marketing ($61,400 to $123,000) and finance ($69,300 to $130,000).


In terms of early pay, technology management ($78,200), corporate finance ($77,900) and operations management ($75,400) place just behind strategy and real estate. When expanded to mid-career pay, corporate finance continues to rank third behind strategy and entrepreneurship at $138,000 – a $60,100 gain between early and mid-career no less.

Numbers seem a little low? That may have something to do with the sample, which is comprised of 50,530 salary profiles from MBAs who visited PayScale from August 2015 – August 2017. Overall, 190 business schools are represented in the sample – with each school boasting 50 or more profiles. Like years past, the sample features programs ranging from top tiers like Harvard and Wharton to lower tiers like St. Louis and South Florida. In other words, the enormous paychecks cashed in by Top 25 schools are balanced out by the wider net of schools.

PayScale’s  pay data is also pegged to the national median, which is the 50th percentile. In other words, half of the respondents earn more than the median and the rest pull down less. The median pay also extends beyond standard base compensation. It factors in bonuses, commissions, and profit sharing. However, it excludes equity, retirement, and non-cash benefits like healthcare. PayScale also doesn’t adjust numbers to accommodate regional pay differences. Moreover, PayScale supplied just the 25 highest-paying concentrations, which is why areas like human resources and healthcare were excluded from this list.

This methodology is informative in evaluating earnings growth over the past three years. Looking back at PayScale MBA numbers from 2014 – which doesn’t include any duplicate data from 2017 – it is clear that MBA pay has grown little in key concentrations over the past three years. Strategy is one example. Since 2014, early career pay has grown by just $2,600, though mid-career pay climbed by $5,000. Slow growth is also reflected in the entrepreneurship space between early career ($70,300 vs. $68,100) and mid-career ($139,000 vs. $138,300). Corporate Finance and Operations Management MBAs only enjoyed early career pay raises of $900 and $600 over the past three years respectively. However, those concentration enjoyed corresponding mid-career jumps of $15,200 and $6,200). In a few cases, MBAs have even lost ground since 2014. Exhibit A: Marketing. While early pay rose $2,100 in this concentration, mid-career pay declined by $1,200.

However, MBAs can take heart when their pay is compared to undergrad business majors. In the corporate finance concentration, for example, MBAs have a decided advantage over undergrads at both the early career ($77,900 vs. $59,700) and mid-career ($138,000 vs. $90,000) markers – and that’s just for one year! You’ll find similar gaps in Marketing ($15,700 more at early career and $39,300 by mid-career) and Business Management ($13,900 better at early career and $29,800 more by mid-career).

Alas, money isn’t everything and PayScale takes great pains to measure the pulse of MBAs. During the survey that website visitors complete when they access PayScale data, MBAs traditionally answer a Yes or No question about the level of meaning they find in their work. Last year, PayScale added questions about MBAs’ level of job satisfaction and stress.

For MBA pay and satisfaction rates, go to next page.

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