The Rise Of Specialized Master’s Programs In Europe

Marika Russo was bored of working with mice. After earning her Ph.D. and post-doc qualification, she was working in a lab in the U.S., carrying out experiments on rodents — but she wanted a change, in particular one that would take her back to Europe. After some research, Russo decided the way to make it happen was to enroll not in a MBA program but in a speciality master’s program in business, the Master of International Health Care Management at Milan’s SDA Bocconi University.

“I joined the master’s because I wanted a qualification which would bridge me over into a different kind of work,” Russo says. “I needed something that would prepare me to enter a different job market. Learning subjects like economics was something new and absolutely fascinating to me.” Following her master’s, Russo landed a job in Switzerland working for Japanese pharmaceutical firm Taneka. “This master’s gave me the opportunity to do something that I love, that I didn’t even know existed before,” she says. And these days she spends more time with humans than rodents. 

The big-brand general management qualifications, the MiM and the MBA, are still by far the biggest programs at all the major business schools in Europe. Most business school prospects want to take them, believing that they offer a solid and transferable set of skills that will propel them into a good job and guarantee a satisfying career. But things are changing. These days in Europe, a long tail of smaller, niche master’s courses are bubbling along under the surface, and business schools are offering a huge menu of master’s courses for those who see their future not in general management but as specialists who utilize the knowledge they have picked up in their undergraduate degrees. In continental Europe, it’s still the case that those with undergraduate degrees in business naturally move on to a MiM — but engineers, scientists, and those with humanities backgrounds who don’t want to abandon their unusual skills sets increasingly find a specialized master’s to be an attractive option. 

A look around the top European business schools shows just what a varied menu is out there to cater to this growing group. Imperial College Business School in London, which has a strong STEM pedigree, offers MScs in Business Analytics, Climate Change, Management & Finance, International Health Management, and Innovation, Entrepreneurship & Management. At St Gallen in Switzerland, you can take a master’s in Management, Organization Studies, and Cultural Theory (in German), or one in Quantitative Economics. They also offer a Finance degree. HEC Paris runs master’s in Entrepreneurship, Sustainability and Social Innovation in English, and Médias, Art et Création in French. Looking farther afield, specialized master’s are springing up in all sorts of interesting places: The Smith School of Business at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, recently launched a Master of Management in Artificial Intelligence.  


Cristina Sassot, director of admissions at Barcelona’s ESADE Business School. LinkedIn photo

What has driven this flourishing? Europe’s regulation of higher education played a big part. Since the standardization of education across the EU in 2010 known as the Bologna Process, the idea of a three-year undergraduate degree followed by a two-year master’s has become standard across the continent. Master’s programs in general have become more appealing to students, and a pan-European market has opened up. The big business schools in Europe also report that every year their master’s degrees attract more students from the U.S. and Asia. As the general population of master’s candidates increases, it becomes more economically viable to create more specialized courses. 

From a student’s perspective, what is so appealing about a specialized master’s? “One of the main factors is that the job market requests more knowledge, right from the start of a career,” says Cristina Sassot, director of admissions at Barcelona’s ESADE school. “But it’s not the only reason. From the student’s point of view, they don’t feel ready to start their professional career or they don’t know which direction to take when they finish. Studying an MSc, especially abroad, gives you one more year to specialize in a subject and to do an internship through which you will reaffirm your expertise in the professional career you wish to start.” The “soft” skills and life experience that students gain from living abroad and attending a business school with an international student body also make them more appealing to potential employers. 

Students are also taking more control over their careers, right from the get-go. HEC Paris says has seen a 20% increase in students applying to specialized master’s courses in the past few years. “One of the changes I’ve seen over the last, I don’t know, 10 years is that young people have much clearer ideas about the things they want to do earlier in their career,” says Eloic Peyrache, dean of HEC Paris’s MSc in Management program. “On campus, we do work on trying to know yourself more, and I think it’s an important step. The idea of helping students to know exactly who they are, what they want to do, and what they’re the best at doing is something which is more and more important, and we do more on that. So I think students get clear ideas of what they want to do much earlier than they used to.” 


The upshot is that a lot of students who graduate in subjects such as engineering, biology or political science “realize that they want to add a business component to that because they don’t want to be stuck,” says Dean Peyrache. “The kind of career that they have access to is not the right one for them and they see that.” Adding some management strings to their bows seems can seem like a sensible choice. Some choose MiMS, but others want to remain true to their educational roots. 

If they go down the specialized route do students risk becoming siloed, and falling down a rabbit-hole of specialisation that cuts them off from the rest of the business world? At the big schools that doesn’t happen, because there is a good degree of cross-fertilization between the various programs. “A lot of the concentrations from the MiM will have joint classes with the specialized master’s,” says HEC’s Peyrache. “And the master’s in finance will have some common classes with the MBA.” The way these courses are built, he says, is that they have some classes unique to the specialized master’s but shared core general management training. That way, even the most niche master’s students can mingle with the general population, and they get to broaden their horizons by mixing with people with different backgrounds. 

And because schools can’t be expected to know everything, they often collaborate with other organizations. Peyrache points out that HEC leverages its contacts with other non-business engineering schools and research bodies to offer students courses within their specialized master’s courses on super-niche topics like robotics or space entrepreneurship. That sort of super-specialization even within a specialized master’s program is common. Students in Bocconi’s Master of International Health Care Management split into three groups, for example, looking at either global health and development, pharmaceutical and medical technology, or health care management. 


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