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MBA or Specialized Master's? 4 Factors to Consider

November 30, 2017

Earlier this month, the Wall Street Journal wrote that “Business schools are facing a tough business problem.” The newspaper was joining a list of venerable publications that have pronounced the “death” of the MBA. From The Economist: “MBAs are no longer prized by employers.” And Fortune: “The Hottest New MBA Is Not an MBA at All.”

While “death” is most certainly an exaggeration, it is true that fewer people are applying for MBA programs today than in recent history. It’s also true that an increasing percentage of business school applications are now for non-MBA degrees. Specialized master’s degrees now draw roughly 20% of all business school applications, according to the Graduate Management Admission Council.

“Specialized master’s degrees now draw roughly 20% of all business school applications.” – Click to tweet

At Thunderbird, we offer four graduate degrees, all specialized master’s degrees: the Master of Global Management (available on-campus and online), Master of Arts in Global Affairs & Management, Master of Applied Leadership & Management (online only), and Executive Master of Global Management. (Explore the difference between the MGM and MAGAM here.)

If you’re debating whether the kind of specialized master’s that Thunderbird offers would serve you better in your career than an MBA – or vice versa – here are four factors to consider.

1. In almost every organization, global mindset is a prerequisite for success

 “In today’s changing landscape, a global mindset has become a prerequisite for helping to build deep client relationships and to navigate economic and regulatory differences around the globe,” says Ken Bouyer, director of inclusiveness recruiting at Ernst & Young. He’s not alone: most employers want managers who have strong global mindset. Why? Because today, all business is global business.

 “In today’s changing landscape, a global mindset has become a prerequisite.” – Click to tweet

Some people have a naturally higher Global Mindset than others. But anyone can grow their Global Mindset, and improve their ability to thrive in global business. A perfect example: all graduate students at Thunderbird take the Global Mindset Inventory assessment shortly before beginning their programs – and then once again just before they graduate. Across the board, students’ scores improve significantly, as the figure below illustrates (blue bars are incoming students’ scores and grey bars show students’ scores just before graduation).

MBA v Specialized Master's DegreeFor people who are looking to do business globally, or work in a global organization, then a master’s program with a specialized focus on global business – like Thunderbird’s programs – can offer better preparation than a broader program like an MBA. In a truly global-focused master’s program, the global perspective infuses everything. It’s not just an add-on at the end of the regular program. It’s not just a few extra courses. It’s the lens through which courses are taught. 

2. Experiential learning develops the soft skills that employers prize most

While many MBA programs encourage students to do internships, and some offer educational experiences outside of the classroom, Thunderbird takes experiential learning to a whole new level. Consider, for example, Thunderbird Consulting Laboratories/TEM Labs, which gives students full-time, on-site consulting work in dynamic economies like Angola, Kenya, Mexico, Romania, Cambodia, and Peru, among others.

 “Experiential learning develops the soft skills that employers prize most.” – Click to tweet

Why does experiential learning develop the soft skills that employers prize most? Because it is experience by which you develop the soft skills that your future employers prize. In a Wall Street Journal survey of nearly 900 executives, 92% of respondents said soft skills were equally as or more important than technical skills. And the top 10 skills identified by the World Economic Forum in its Future of Jobs report are exactly the kinds of skills developed through experiential learning:

  1. Complex problem solving
  2. Critical thinking
  3. Creativity
  4. People management
  5. Coordinating with others
  6. Emotional intelligence
  7. Judgment and decision making
  8. Service orientation
  9. Negotiation
  10. Cognitive flexibility

3. Diversity is good business and collaboration is THE path to innovation

Diversity is good business--and that includes a diversity of skill sets and training, not just the standards that come with the traditional MBA. A study by BCG and the Technical University of Munich of 171 German, Swiss, and Austrian companies found “a clear [positive] relationship between the diversity of companies’ management teams and the revenues they get from innovative products and services.” The conclusion: When it comes to innovation, increasing diversity by adding women and people from other countries, industries, and companies does pay off.

“Diversity is good business and collaboration is THE path to innovation.” – Click to tweet

But the ability to work effectively within a diverse team is not innate. That’s why Thunderbird has a “collaborate to graduate” cohort model, where students learn to work together – including across cultural divides – in order to succeed. It’s great preparation for the real world of global business. And it’s essential because collaboration is key to innovation. As Tamara Christensen, who teaches an executive education program at Thunderbird, puts it, “If you want to innovate, you’re going to have to collaborate.”

4. Multicultural experiences make you more creative

The kinds of multicultural experiences that are the hallmark of Thunderbird's specialized degrees actually make you more creative – and creativity is #3 on the most-wanted skills list. Research conducted by William Maddux and his colleagues at INSEAD reveals that “multicultural experiences enhanced idea flexibility and an awareness of the underlying connections between ideas.” But not all experience is created equal. Researchers found that "this creative benefit mostly accrued to individuals who had spent time learning about the underlying meanings and functions of different cultural behaviors, while they were living abroad.”

“Multicultural experiences actually make you more creative (#3 on the most-wanted skills list), INSEAD report finds.” – Click to tweet

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