MS vs MBA – Which is Better and Why?
MS vs MBA – this is a perennial question which troubles many an applicant as he/she stands at the cusp of deciding on the right program to pursue for further career growth. Should one pursue an MBA just because it is the more popular option? Is an MS instead going to be a better alternative because it will (in most cases) be lower cost? Is pursuing an MBA after MS anyway going to be a necessity? These questions don’t have simple answers, and many applicants will try to answer them through familiarity (doing what one’s circle of influence has done) or basic research (for example, comparing only salaries for the graduating class between programs and using that as the predominant factor for decision-making). Good decision-making, though, will take into account a number of factors. Through this article, we try and highlight the most important ones.
MS vs MBA – Basic Differences and Distinctions
Right at the outset, it is important to destroy a few of the myths that have enveloped the issue. Here are some of them.
Myth 1: MS programs are restricted to science and engineering:: This is false. While the Master of Science (MS) nomenclature may make one assume that MS programs are only specific to science-related areas, this is not true. There are plenty of MS programs focused on business-leaning areas (such as Business Analytics, Marketing, Finance, and Operations), and many other areas too.
Myth 2: MBA programs offer faster career growth:: Again, not true. Much of one’s career progress will depend on one’s professional performance, and will not have a direct relation with whether one has pursued an MBA or an MS. Of course, relevance of the skill set matters (i.e. if one is aiming for growth in business oriented roles then one is better served with an MBA).
Myth 3: MS programs are easier to gain admission to:: Not! MS programs at the top universities are just as competitive as MBA programs are. Great test scores, strong profiles, and excellent applications are pre-requisites to get into either program.
Myth 4: An MS is just a stop-gap. One will anyway need an MBA later:: Plenty of professionals reach the pinnacle of their career (C-level positions in corporate organizations) without an MBA. Some others get executive education in business and leadership at a later stage of their careers when poised to achieve very senior roles (this is not the same as getting an MBA).
Myth 5: An MS is lower cost, so higher value:: While it is true that attending a full-time MS program will typically cost less than an MBA, the value that one gets is a function of the outcomes (including salaries) and growth that one achieves from a program. MBA programs typically have higher salaries for graduates right after the program, and higher salary growth as well. They also typically cost significantly more than an MS.
Beyond the myths, here are other factors to consider when choosing between the programs.
MS vs MBA – Specializations and Jobs
The MS is a much more specialized program than an MBA. In that sense, it will of course restrict one to a specific area within business or science. For example, an MS program in Marketing will necessarily require one to pursue career options only related to Marketing. An MBA, on the other hand, gives one the flexibility to move into a more general role, such as those on General Management or Consulting, away from one’s functional specialization, if one so desires.
MS Programs in STEM, and Visas
Some STEM programs do offer 24-month extensions to Optional Practical Training (OPT), an option that can be a boon for international students, at least in the initial part of their career after they graduate. However, this cannot be the criteria to choose an MS program over an MBA. One must look at skills and scope of education offered, and relevance to one’s future career, before making a decision.
Applying to a top MBA/MS program?
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Career Growth for an MS vs MBA Graduate
Many top applicants often ask us this question (or a close variant of it) – Can I be CEO of a firm one day without an MBA? We feel there are multiple issues with this approach. First, aspiring for a designation rather than a career path is always dangerous as it puts the end before the means. Second, it betrays a lack of understanding of how people make it to top roles (including CEO roles). True, many of them do have an MBA, but then many others do not. It is also difficult to ascertain whether the MBA was the key decision factor in helping them make it to the top.
A more relevant question could well be – will an MS or an MBA help me excel in my chosen career, achieve growth, and have broader impact over time through my work? This question will have better answers too. For example, if one is excited about the potential of internet technology and wants to be a product manager for a tech product, an MS may well be more relevant than an MBA. Similarly, MS programs in business too offer excellent opportunities across functions. In the past, for example, we have covered the IMC Medill program and how it is an excellent option for professionals considering careers in marketing communications.
MS vs MBA – Average Salaries at Graduation
MBA graduates (from universities of similar stature) typically have higher starting salaries and salary growth than MS graduates do. This may vary according to function and program though, and will be a function of employer demand within a particular function. For example, Business Analytics and specialized Marketing/Finance MS graduates can sometimes get roles with similar salaries and growth as for MS graduates.
Over time, salary growth and career growth will reflect the individual’s performance and importance to his/her employer and lose a strict link with the graduate program attended.
MS vs MBA – Mobility and Recognition
MS programs, by their nature, are meant to be niche. As a result, their acceptability across employers and companies is going to be lesser. On the other hand, the MBA will be more accepted across geographies and industries. This may not necessarily be a factor for all professionals, but it may be a point of consideration for international applicants pursuing their MS or MBA in a foreign geography.