MBA vs master’s degree: 4 key facts you must know before applying

master's degree vs MBA
People walk out during lunchtime at Raffles Place financial business district in Singapore on June 26, 2023. Source: AFP

Many of us can’t choose between a master’s degree vs MBA. 

The “master’s degree vs MBA” debate is a tough one. It pits the two most popular postgraduate degree types against each other for good reasons.

Picture this: you’ve graduated, secured your first job, and have experienced life outside of uni for a few years — but the thought of wanting more in your career keeps floating at the back of your mind.

Worse, you got passed over for a promotion at work simply because you weren’t “qualified” enough, as was the case for one Product Manager. 

“Education tends to give an overview of any particular field,” Steve Heckman wrote on Quora

“When studying for my Project Management Professional (PMP) certification, we studied 10 knowledge areas in project management. And even though I already had 15+ years in Product Management (PM), there was still a lot I learned, and then [I] spent another two years taking courses online with the Rochester Institute of Technology and the University of Maryland.”

But most of the time, certificates alone won’t cut it.

master's degree vs MBA

Master’s degree vs MBA — which makes more sense for your career? Source: AFP

Why so many are thinking about master’s degree vs MBA 

More than half of those thinking of going to business school (55% of individuals surveyed) in 2021 said they’re doing this to get a pay raise, according to a survey by the Graduate Management Admission Council

Another 46% wanted to manage other people and 44% hoped to secure a senior leadership position in the future.

These are findings among local students. International students, on the other hand, want to go to B-school to be able to find work outside their home country — and this applies to those seeking a business master’s and MBA.

Regardless of your reason, you need to make an informed decision before you invest your time, money, and effort into this new phase of your life.

Let’s start by breaking down what you need to know about a master’s degree and a Master of Business Administration (more commonly known as an MBA).

In recent years, there have been changes to both types of postgraduate degrees — where applicable, these have been added to the section below.

Master’s degree vs MBA: What’s the difference?

As you would have probably figured out, an MBA is a master’s degree. Both have the word “master” in their titles.

And despite what your friends, family and colleagues tell you, there are big differences between the both of them. They are not the same.

A master’s degree can be any of the following:

  • Master of Arts (MA): An MA covers subjects within the arts or social sciences, such as communications, education, languages, linguistics, literature, geography, history and music. 
  • Master of Science (MS, MSc): An MS or MSc covers various science fields, such as biology, chemistry, engineering, health and statistics. Certain fields, like economics and social sciences, may fall under both arts and sciences, depending on the university that classifies their master’s programme. 
  • Master of Research (MRes, MPhil): An MRes trains a student to become a researcher, which is ideal for those who want to pursue a PhD or enter a career in research. An MPhil is an advanced research-based degree which allows the candidate to focus on a particular topic in-depth with the chance to work on a single large research project alone.

Meanwhile, an MBA is a specialised master’s degree that’ll advance your knowledge, skills and network in business and management roles.

There are subjects where you can get either a master’s degree or an MBA, such as the following:

  • Business Analytics: How to use data in supporting the decision-making process of a business, how to build links between the impact of advertising on sales, how historical data predict stock returns, and many more.
  • Supply Chain Management: Explores the supply chain sector including logistics, procurement, and risk management. 

The MBA version will have core courses focused on business and management.

The master’s degree version will have less or no such core courses.

master's degree vs mba

You can choose to study a full-time, part-time, online MBA, and more. Source: AFP

What are the different types of MBA?

Over the years, the nature of MBA programmes has gradually changed in line with current market demands.

Here’s a breakdown of the MBA programmes that are available at business schools across the globe.

1. Full-time/part-time MBA 

The most common MBA is a two-year full-time MBA, which is offered by many world-renowned institutions, particularly US business schools. 

The extended period offers several benefits, including extensive opportunities to gain practical experience during business simulators and consulting projects.

Other options include a one-year full-time MBA (common in the UK and Europe) or even studying the MBA part-time.

2. Online MBA 

Online MBAs offer students the chance to complete degrees from the comfort of their own homes, anywhere in the world. 

Usually, it covers the same content as a regular MBA and is typically delivered by the same faculty with the added benefit of not having to pause your life and career to go back to school physically. 

master's degree vs mba

Learn about global trends with an international MBA. Source: AFP

3. International/Global MBA 

An International MBA or Global MBA is like a regular MBA but usually involves you travelling to one or more cities throughout the programme. You can spend days and even months in a foreign country.

The goal is to give you a broader view of on international business and management trends.

4. Executive MBA

Executive MBA (EMBA) degrees are taught part-time, often during evenings or weekends.

They’re designed for mid-career professionals who want to continue working and immediately implement their knowledge and skills in their organisation as they develop. 

This means it’s more common for companies to sponsor EMBAs than MBA degrees.

5. Specialised MBA

While an MBA is generally considered a generalist degree, some programmes offer the opportunity to major in specific fields.

Typical specialisation types include subjects like entrepreneurship, human resources, or marketing. 

master's degree vs mba

Is it time for you to head back to university? Consider these four factors.. Source: AFP

Master’s degree vs MBA: 4 things you should think before starting your postgrad journey

While both master’s and MBA degrees are excellent choices for career development, each takes on a unique approach to career advancement. To help you make a decision, here are five things you should think of before deciding on a master’s degree or MBA:

1. Determine your career goals

Think about what you’re passionate about and your career goals. These factors can help you determine the career path that’s best for you, thus simplifying the choice between an MBA and a different master’s degree.

An MBA might be ideal for those who enjoy problem-solving or aspire to leadership roles such as marketing manager, as it provides specialised knowledge and leadership skills tailored to business roles. 

If your goal is to become a business researcher or professor, an MPhil or MRes as it is solely focused on academia, and not industry.

If you want to pivot into a more technical side of business, such as analytics, or aspire to become a Chief Technology, an MSc in Business Analytics is relevant.

2. Specialisation and industry relevance

An MBA may be the ideal choice if you are strongly inclined toward roles like entrepreneurship, finance, marketing, or corporate leadership.

If you have interests in diverse fields like science, arts, education, or technology, pursuing a master’s degree in a non-business discipline can provide you with a versatile skill set applicable to various industries. 

This means you will have a  broader selection of career paths upon graduation. For example, a Master of Arts in English is an excellent qualification for candidates in areas as wide-ranging as education, publishing, law and even business.

master's degree vs mba

MBA programmes can be costly, with tuition, fees, and living expenses — from US$30,000 to US$120,000, according to Education Data Initiative data from Nov 2022. Source: AFP

3. Cost of investment

You should evaluate future earnings and career prospects against the upfront financial investment you make in your postgraduate studies. 

MBAs can be costly, with tuition, fees, and living expenses — from US$30,000 to US$120,000, according to Education Data Initiative data from Nov. 2022.

The average cost of an MBA is US$61,800.

However, MBAs may offer strong ROI.

According to a 2022 Graduate Management Admissions Council (GMAC) survey, 92% of corporate recruiters and 95% of staffing firms planned to hire recent MBA grads.

The survey also showed that projected starting salaries for MBAs were significantly higher than those for bachelor’s graduates.

Master’s degree programmes typically cost less than an MBA,  from $50,000-$85,000 for two years. The median master’s degree costs $28,890 per year or $57,780 for two years.

Having a master’s degree can help you land higher-paying jobs in some fields including healthcare, manufacturing, and cybersecurity. 

4. Duration of programme

You should consider the impact of committing to a longer programme on your career and personal life. 

MBA programmes are typically full-time and can last two years or more. During the first year, students usually complete in-person coursework split over two semesters.

In the second year, students participate in one or more internships to prepare them for a business career.

Part-time or executive MBA programmes designed for working professionals take longer due to their reduced course load.

Meanwhile, the duration of a master’s degree varies based on your chosen type and career objectives, but most programmes follow a similar timeline. Globally, a common timeframe for completing a master’s degree is around one year

For example, programmes such as Master in Computer Science, Master of Education, and Master of Accounting usually take one year to complete, depending on the institution.