Why You Need to Choose Your MBA Concentration Carefully

mbaFor several years, “experts” have been sounding the alarm that MBAs are “obsolete.” Based on declines in the number of business school admissions applications, some believe that MBA degrees are no longer desirable and no longer a necessary stepping stone on the path of career success. While this decades-old dilemma is certain to continue — and proponents of advanced business degrees will continue to tout their benefits, which go well beyond financial and career gains — there’s a new debate raging within the world of business education: How specialized should a degree be?

Few students enroll in programs with the idea of getting a “general” MBA these days. Many choose programs that at least include a concentration, allowing them to study a particular area of business, such as marketing, in addition to the general principles of business that form the foundation of any MBA program. In some cases, business students forgo the MBA degree altogether and choose more specialized Master of Science programs, for example, a Master of Science in Accounting or Finance. Applications for this type of program have risen almost 25 percent, indicating that many students are looking to develop a deeper and more comprehensive understanding of their intended career field.

Still, when choosing a concentration for your MBA, there are a few things to keep in mind.

Choosing the Right MBA Concentration

The idea of specialization when it comes to MBA degrees doesn’t offer much middle ground: Most people either think it is a great idea or a terrible one.

Those in favor of specialization note that specialists tend to make more money, largely because they are more in demand. If you have skills that very few others people have, you have a better chance of not only landing a great job, but commanding a higher salary for it. In fact, the more specialized your degree, the more money you’re likely to make. For example, the average salary for someone with a general MBA ranges from $50,000 to $94,000 annually, while someone with an MBA with a concentration in shipping and logistics earns an average of $182,000 per year. Other top paying specializations include Internet marketing ($128,000 average annual salary) and business planning ($117,000 average annual salary).

Not only do specialized jobs pay more, but in many cases, there are more opportunities for specialists. Again, competition tends to be limited, since while most people with general MBA degrees tend to have similar skills, whereas specialists can bring more to the table. More importantly, though, there is more growth in many specialized areas. Simply put, employers want professionals who can manage the intricacies of an ever-changing business landscape.

And of course, you can’t overlook the personal fulfillment aspect of specialization. Many people choose to specialize because they have a passion for the subject. They may wish to work in health care, or have a strong interest in Internet marketing, and taking specialized courses affords the opportunity to explore that interest. Rather than taking multiple courses that aren’t interesting and feeling frustrated or bored with a program, specialized degree programs keep the passion for learning alive and foster more engagement.

The Dangers of Specialization

While there are plenty of good reasons to turn an MBA degree into a specialized degree, there are some who caution against becoming too specialized. They argue that being more of a generalist qualifies new graduates for a wider array of open positions — and more opportunities down the road. In fact, one Stanford economist even found that more top-level executives are generalists rather than specialists and theorized that while specialists may excel in one or two key areas, top execs need to be able to function in multiple areas. In other words, the broader the range of experience and roles that a leader has, then the better he or she can manage all of the different aspects of an organization.

Another potential problem with specialization is the potential that you can specialize yourself into obsolescence. If you are an expert in a particular area that ceases to exist, or at least diminishes in importance, you may find yourself out of a job. Most MBA programs avoid this by requiring all students to complete certain foundational courses before moving on to specialty courses. This allows them to build the base of knowledge that will serve them well anywhere, while also providing the specialization that makes them in demand.

In the end, it’s up to the individual to decide whether a general or specialized path is best. However, given the career and earning potential of specialization, it’s clear that concentrating in one area has some significant benefits that can’t be overlooked.


  1. says

    I had never thought of this problem before. I don’t have an MBA so I don’t know much about the process of getting the degree-I wonder if it takes longer to become a specialist? I’m guessing it must. Scary to think that you could specialize yourself into obsolescence!

  2. says

    I promised myself that if I went back for my MBA my company would pay the entire bill for it and since I’m not at an executive level I don’t see that happening. I would probably specialize in a sports MBA concentration if I did.

  3. says

    I was actually looking at going back for my MBA to take advantage of the tuition reimbursement at my job, and didn’t realize that there were so many different concentrations to choose from. It seems that most stories I read say the same thing as your post, there are both positives and negatives to being specialized in a certain area or being more general!

  4. says

    I got an MBA, with a project management specialization. The program was a dual-degree program (my other degree was MS in Technology Management). But, other than the PMP that I was able to get as a result of my education, I wouldn’t really call it that useful. The PMP has been very useful though. The MBA classes were literally 3 extra (6 credit hour) classes after the MS degree, so I’m not sure how representative that is.

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