What Is an MBA?
Updated September 26, 2022
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An MBA is a master's degree in business administration. This degree teaches students how to plan and supervise business activities for different types of organizations.
If you work in or aspire to work in business, management, marketing, or finance, you may have heard about the benefits of various business degrees, including MBAs. A master of business administration (MBA) can lead to more job offers and higher pay after completing in-person or online mba programs. Read on for our guide on the value and meaning of an MBA degree.
Who Should Pursue an MBA?
Several types of learners benefit from earning MBAs. Recent bachelor's-level graduates may decide to pursue MBAs before gaining professional experience. Established business professionals may become interested in earning MBAs to advance in their current field. Others may pursue MBAs to transition into new careers.
MBA candidates can seek employment in many industries, including marketing, financial services, consulting, and manufacturing, where they work as managers, consultants, and accountants.
Pros and Cons of an MBA Degree
An MBA offers several significant advantages over a bachelor of business administration. Many employers prefer applicants with MBAs over undergraduate-level candidates for advanced positions. Earning an MBA can lead to higher pay and knowledge to help students advance in their fields. However, MBAs can also incur more stress and debt than other business degrees.
Deeper skill development: MBAs cultivate business skills in greater depth than undergraduate degrees.
Higher potential earnings: Earning an MBA can lead to a higher salary immediately upon graduation.
Networking opportunities: Cohort models are common in MBA degrees, meaning students can maximize peer networking opportunities.
Increased job market value: Many employers prefer candidates with MBAs to bachelor's-level applicants.
Potential stress: Master's degrees incur more stress than undergraduate degrees.
Potential debt: MBAs can carry high price tags and can leave students in debt for years.
Time expenditure: An MBA can take 2-5 years to earn, enrollees should consider if they can spare the time.
Uncertain ROI: An MBA is not a good fit for some business positions, which does not justify the investment of time and money.
Featured Online MBA Programs
How Long Does an MBA Take to Complete?
A traditional, full-time MBA program typically takes two years to complete. However, many schools also offer accelerated, full-time MBA programs that enrollees can complete in one year.
Part-time MBA programs can sometimes take up to five years to complete, while executive MBA programs typically allow students who work full time to earn MBAs in two years while taking courses on a part-time basis.
Paying For an MBA Program
The average two-year MBA program costs $50,000-$100,000, depending on the school or course delivery format. However, there areaffordable MBA options out there, such as online programs, that usually cost less. Students can handle the cost of an MBA more easily by leveraging MBA scholarships, student loans, and federal work-study programs.
Employers sometimes subsidize MBA costs for their employees. From their perspective, more educated employees can better perform their job responsibilities and lead other employees.
What to Expect in an MBA Program
Most MBA programs hit on a few common touchstones, including organizational behavior, economics, and finance. Most MBA programs allow learners to choose electives related to their concentrations.
Traditional and accelerated MBA programs typically have rigorous course loads. However, programs intended for part-time students who work full time usually emphasize less take-home work.
MBA course structure places less emphasis on individual work and focuses more on group projects and presentations. Learners need to demonstrate their ability to work effectively with others to mirror healthy, functioning organizations.
Enrollees also cultivate strong leadership and self-advocacy skills. For example, many programs admit students of less academic ability based on resumes indicating their professional ambitions.
The following information presents a few of the essential skills taught in MBA programs.
Soft Skills Taught in MBA Programs
- Clear communication
- Creative problem-solving
- Critical thinking
Hard Skills Taught in MBA Programs
- Business development
Accreditation for MBA Programs
When shopping for an MBA program, take regional accreditation into account — a marker of quality assurance that can strongly influence your learning experience and professional opportunities.
In addition to regional accreditation, check if prospective programs hold programmatic accreditation from the following accrediting bodies for MBA programs: the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business, the International Accreditation Council for Business Education, and the Accreditation Council for Business Schools and Programs.
What Kinds of MBA Specializations Are There?
Most learners who pursue MBAs explore concentrations that align with specific careers and skills. Enrollees can choose MBA programs based on available specialties or their intended career setting, such as accounting, finance, or human resources.
The following list of MBA specializations explores common options for enrollees.
An executive MBA suits working professionals who have already accumulated significant business experience. Graduates strengthen their leadership skills and leave their programs prepared to work as top executives.
- Leadership foundations
- Ethics in global management
- Top executive
- Administrative services manager
MBA in Entrepreneurship
An MBA with a specialization in entrepreneurship arms each graduate with the skills to launch their own businesses. Generally, this type of MBA tailors to learners with extensive business experience.
- Managing organizations
- Small business accounting
- Small business owner
MBA in Finance
An MBA in finance prepares learners to work as financial managers. Students learn to create investment and business development strategies for organizations.
- Corporate finance
- Introduction to investment management
- Financial manager
- Personal financial advisor
MBA in International Business
An MBA in international business tailors to business professionals working in large, globalized businesses that must meet the demands of growing global markets. Enrollees explore international trade and investments to bolster their cultural competencies.
- Regulatory issues in global business
- Global economics
- Global business development manager
- Export manager
MBA in Management Information Systems
An MBA in management information systems teaches learners to plan and implement information management technology for organizations. Students learn about cybersecurity, data analysis, and supply chain management.
- Data analysis
- Decision modeling
- Information systems manager
- Information security officer
MBA in Project Management
MBAs in project management prepare students to work as project managers to set and meet organizational goals in industries like construction and manufacturing.
- Foundations of leadership
- Project budgeting
- Construction manager
- Engineering manager
MBA in Sustainability
An MBA in sustainability explores sustainable management practices. Though this degree typically prepares learners for natural sciences and nonprofit managerial work, other industries now increasingly implement these principles.
- Green operation practices
- Sustainability and economics
- Sustainability specialist
- Nonprofit or social services manager
MBA in Marketing
An MBA in marketing prepares individuals for work in the marketing sector while covering business administration fundamentals. Graduates can pursue work as advertising managers, market researchers, and various specialists in advertising and marketing.
- Fundamentals of corporate branding
- Digital marketing
- Advertising manager
- Market research director
MBA in Consulting
MBAs in consulting prepare enrollees to work in specialized consulting roles within organizations and consulting firms. This specialization covers essential corporate problem-solving and business development strategies in consulting.
- Foundations of corporate strategy
- Corporate negotiations
- Business consultant
- Business analytics manager
MBA in Human Resource Management
MBAs in human resource management equip students to work as human resources managers, who oversee hiring, dismissals, and employee disputes. The program teaches learners to work as a conduit between employees and upper management.
- Organizational behavior
- Conflict resolution in the workplace
- Human resource manager
- Chief human resource manager
What Kind of Salary Can You Earn With an MBA?
MBA graduates enjoy very high earnings when compared with other college graduates. An MBA can offer a pathway to top-earning positions within your field. The top earners among MBA graduates — chief executives — earn a median annual salary of $185,950. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) data indicates that in industries such as manufacturing, median earnings of CEOs exceed $200,000.
The following information compares the median annual salaries for the nine highest-earning MBA careers.
|Career||Median Annual Salary (2019)|
|Operations Specialities Managers||$125,040|
|Human Resources Managers||$121,220|
|General and Operations Managers||$103,650|
|Administrative Service and Facilities Managers||$98,890|
|Business Operations Specialists||$71,450|
At 25,000 members strong, AMA brings together the largest management-related professional associations in the world. This organization offers the internationally recognized AMA Certified Professional in Management credential.
A nonprofit based in Toronto, BBPA advocates for the advancement of Black business professionals in Canada and North America. Among this organization's student resources is its national scholarship for Black students in business programs.
YEC is an invitation-only organization for outstanding entrepreneurs under 45. Many organizations partner with YEC to provide scholarships, including the $5,000 Kitchen Cabinet Kings entrepreneur scholarship.
As one of the oldest professional organizations for women in business, ABWA represents 15,000 members nationwide. The organization's Stephen Bufton Memorial Education Fund provides women business majors with scholarships every year.
Interview with an Expert
Dr. Noam Wasserman
Dr. Noam Wasserman is dean of the Sy Syms School of Business at Yeshiva University in New York City. He was a professor of entrepreneurship for 13 years at Harvard Business School and the founder of an entrepreneurship center at the University of Southern California. He won the top teaching awards at each school. Wasserman is also the author of two bestselling books: The Founder's Dilemmas: Anticipating and Avoiding the Pitfalls That Can Sink a Startup (Princeton University Press, 2012) and Life Is a Startup: What Founders Can Teach Us about Making Choices and Managing Change (Stanford University Press, 2018).
Where did you get your MBA?
Harvard Business School.
What do you do for your career now?
In 2019 I became the dean of the Sy Syms School of Business at Yeshiva University. In this role, I get to exercise all of the muscles I built both outside academia and inside it: crafting strategy for the business school, developing curricula, mentoring new faculty, inspiring high-impact research, collaborating with the president and other deans on joint efforts to strengthen the university, working with donors to power new initiatives, tapping student leaders to help us further strengthen the school, and lots of other fun activities.
This fall, we will debut a completely new MBA program, designed for the post-COVID era and focused on developing high-demand marketplace skills, like business analytics and entrepreneurship/innovation. We are also introducing highly sophisticated online MS programs in real estate and accounting to complement our longtime in-person MS in taxation program.
What advice do you have for someone considering pursuing an MBA?
Start with a sense of your direction, but be open to discovering the unexpected. I entered Harvard planning five potential pursuits once I earned my MBA. The first semester knocked two off the list and added one that I'd never heard of before: venture capital. The next semester added yet another that I'd never thought about doing before: academia.
Lo and behold, the two fields added to my list — venture capital and academia — turned into my pursuits for the last two decades.
What was the hardest part of getting your MBA?
FOMO [fear of missing out]. There are so many things going on on campus that you could spend all day listening to CEO talks, attending club events, and doing myriad other activities.
My fourth child was born just before my leadership final, and I always want to make sure I have enough time for my family. So I had to learn how to draw clear boundaries between career and family, enabling me to make the most of my time while I'm on campus but also make sure to leave to get home for dinner.
What was the best part of getting your MBA?
Besides discovering great new unexpected career opportunities, the best part was getting out of my comfort zone.
By nature, I am a reactive learner, listening to the professor and questions from other students in order to absorb new information. One of the reasons I chose Harvard Business School was that it would force me to adopt a different style. Every course required you to throw yourself into discussions and hear 80 sharp minds pick apart the holes in your argument (on top of any pushback from the professor). After all, half of every course grade is class participation.
Doing so helped me find a happier medium between my natural mode and the much more active participation required by the program.
What do you think has been the biggest advantage to your career after completing your MBA?
In my academic career, I draw on both real-world knowledge and the ability to tap multiple disciplines. Both of those attributes came from my real-world, pre-MBA work experience and the MBA classroom, in contrast to the more narrow lens that's developed in the PhD programs from which academics typically come. Even when I was doing my PhD at Harvard, I made sure to delve into three different disciplines instead of the typical single-discipline doctoral training.
Now I'm drawing on the leadership and entrepreneurial skills I developed pre-MBA and during the MBA.
If you could go back to working on your MBA, what would you have done differently?
Find at least one more course outside my existing strengths to stretch myself, such as business history, operations/analytics, or marketing.
Can you describe any ways in which your MBA program was more or less rigorous — or challenging — than you expected?
The biggest challenge was the need to get out of my comfort zone and natural learning style.
Another challenge was the need to prioritize pretty strictly: which activities are most important to do this week, which case studies deserve the most attention today, and which classmates should I get to know better before we leave campus?
How, and who, did you network with within your MBA program? What advantages did that bring?
During the first year of the MBA program, you take all of your courses with your 80-person section, so most networking during that year was with the same subset of MBA classmates.
During the second year, when you're taking electives, you have to push yourself not to just hang out with the familiar faces in each classroom, but instead to find new gems with whom to interact. After realizing that, I developed some of the most important relationships that I've tapped post-MBA.
I also was fortunate to develop close relationships with many of my professors, one of whom became my most important mentor over the last 20 years, and several others of whom were key to my doctoral experiences and my faculty career since then.
Common Questions About MBA Degrees
What Is Meant by "MBA Degree?"
An MBA degree means "master of business administration", which is a type of master's degree that caters to experienced or aspiring business professionals.
What Does an MBA Stand For?
MBA stands for "master of business administration," differentiating the degree from master of arts and master of science programs.
When Should I Get My MBA?
Some learners apply for MBAs immediately upon earning their bachelor's degrees, while others pursue MBAs after years of work experience.
Is an MBA Different From a Master’s Degree?
MBA programs are more intensive than typical business master's programs. Also, MBA programs often do not require learners to have an undergraduate degree in business.
Matthew Sweeney received his Bachelor of Arts in English with a specialization in English literature from Portland State. His writings on music and culture have appeared in the publications Eleven PDX Magazine and Secret Decoder. In his free time he enjoys reading, cinema, hiking, and cooking.
Header Image Credit: Eva-Katalin | Getty Images
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