The Rise Of Specialized Master’s Programs In Europe

Roman’s Brian Golden: Employers are “lining up” for students who come out of their specialized master’s programs. Gordon Hawkins photo

The direction of travel for business schools is to create more of these courses, not least because the world is just getting more complex all the time. “Deeper knowledge is needed for some employment,” says Brian Golden, vice dean of MBA programs at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management. Rotman introduced a finance master’s 11 years ago and has since added master’s programs in risk management and management analytics. What they have learned, Golden says, is that the best way to run specialized master’s courses is to basically co-create them with employers, who know better than anyone what skills are needed in the workplace.

“We worked with employers to design these courses,” Golden says. “We asked them what skills they need, and we designed the master’s courses around what they told us. We almost reverse-engineered them. Employers are lining up for the students who come out of those programs.” 

Specialists from industry are welcomed into the classroom to teach courses, which means that the school can offer these specialisations without having to scan the world to find faculty with unusual knowledge.

“There will always be a market for generalist (programs) and that is still our biggest program, but our new master’s programs have all been very specialized. We are working closely with industry to design them, and we create students who have a pipeline of entry right into their businesses,” Golden says. 


Lisa Umenyiora, director of careers at Imperial College Business School, London. Imperial photo

Does that mean that specialized master’s graduates spiral off into obscure corners of the business world after graduation? Not really. They still tend to go on to work at the same high-level firms as their generalist peers, just in different roles. “Consulting and finance are still a popular career choice for these students,” says Lisa Umenyiora, director of careers at Imperial College Business School, London. “However, their role is often aligned to a particular sector or department within consulting, depending on their program content.  We see our specialized master’s students go into a wider variety of roles at a breadth of companies and sectors including technology, clean energy, health care, and fintech.” 

At London Business School, among the most common jobs for specialized master’s grads are data analyst roles at tech firms; energy analyst roles in the renewable energy sector; finance analyst roles in sustainable investments; advisory roles at health care consultancies; and business development roles at fast-growth start-ups. Many set out on their own course: 23% of students from LBS’s Master in Innovation, Entrepreneurship & Management start their own businesses after graduation.

A specialized master’s is a good choice for someone who knows where they want to be, or at least who doesn’t want to stray too far from their current path, says Marcin Wolf, who graduated from Poland’s Warsaw School of Economics after majoring in quantitative methods in economy before working in private equity and investment banking and passing his CFA Level II exam. He then enrolled in LBS’s Master in Financial Analysis program.

Why an MFA and not a MBA? “I decided to take my MFA because the curriculum appealed to me in particular,” Wolf says. “The tangible, finance-related courses with top-notch professors lured me to the MFA program. Also, I wanted to continue my career in investment banking so a finance-oriented program, in my opinion, highlighted my passion and motivation related to finance.” Word of mouth within the industry also played a part in his choice. “I got incredibly positive feedback from previous Polish MFA students, who encouraged me to apply for this particular program,” Wolf says. 


For someone with unusual or niche skills, is a specialized master’s that capitalizes on their rarity always better than an MBA?

“It depends on what you want to achieve,” Marika Russo says. “I have a lot of colleague with MBAs, and I see that there is a difference between the jobs we do. In terms of finance and management skills they are stronger. But when it comes to background knowledge I am stronger. Which you choose really depends on the roles you want, and what you feel comfortable with. An MBA certainly gives you a bigger overview. I didn’t feel comfortable with moving into financial management-type roles. I wanted to stay with something more technical.” 

There will always be a market for MBAs and MiMs, because some will always want a general management education that gives them options in their careers. But those big, gold-standard courses find themselves ever more squeezed by the proliferation of specialized master’s programs that allow people to give a practical twist to their undergraduate degrees — and that offer them the tools to make a satisfying career in areas they love. As students become aware of their career options earlier in life — and as schools find innovative ways of delivering courses by partnering with employers or other institutions — niche master’s will only become more attractive.