How to Choose the Right Business School Specialization

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In choosing the right business school, you'll need to consider more than tuition cost and academic prestige. You'll also need to decide which business specialization—if any—fits best with your professional goals and interests. The area of concentration you choose will affect not only which MBA programs you apply but also your future earnings potential. 

General or Specialized?

General MBA programs take a broad-based approach to learning, teaching skills that students can apply in a wide range of business situations. These programs typically last two years and are a good choice for students with only a general professional background or unrelated academic degree who do not have a very specific post-graduate goal. The primary drawback is that you won't receive the kind of specialized training that plays to your unique interests and abilities.

Specialized programs allow students to tailor their education to very specific academic or professional business interests. Although some programs take two years to complete, others can be finished in just one year. Some fields of specialization are fairly common, such as entrepreneurship or finance, while others target very specific sectors of the global economy, such as petroleum engineering, or require highly specialized knowledge, such as computer engineering.​

Choosing a Business Specialization

Attending business school is a major investment in both the short and long term. In the short term, there's the cost of tuition, supplies, and living expenses to consider. In the long term, you've got potential income to think about. The average starting salary for someone with an MBA in electrical and computer engineering is more than $100,000, which isn't bad given that a typical business school can cost well over $30,000 to attend.

On the other hand, some specialized MBAs don't offer particularly dazzling average starting salaries, nor do graduates earn significantly more as their careers advance. Someone specializing in nonprofit management can expect to earn about $45,000 as a new graduate, but by mid-career, the average salary is only about $77,000. Not bad, but nowhere near as lucrative as the $130,000 your average mid-career economist earns.

Of course, most academic advisors say you shouldn't let money be your only concern (or even your primary one) in considering which specialization to choose. Graduate school is your opportunity to pivot to a promising new career or to focus all your energies on your professional goals. Consider the following factors before applying to an MBA program:

  • Think about what you want to do with your business school education after you graduate.
  • Make a list of potential business specializations and then consider the pros and cons of each.
  • Decide how much money you want to make and find business specializations that will live up to your financial expectations.
  • Talk to people who work in your fields of interest to find out what they like and don’t like about their jobs.
  • Research potential employers in a range of business specializations. Would you be happy working for any of these companies?
  • Some business specializations, such as accounting and human resources, require continuing education. If that’s a problem for you, consider other specializations.

Once you've determined which area of specialization you'd like to pursue, it's time to begin researching graduate business schools to find the programs that fit your interests best. Admission to B-school is highly competitive among the most prestigious programs, so prepare to apply to more than one school.