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MBA vs Master's in a Specialized Field: What's the Difference?

By DeVry University

June 3, 2020
6 min read

You know you want to pursue an advanced education – but you still have questions about which degree is right for you and your desired career path. While breaking down the differences between an MBA vs master’s degrees in specialized fields might seem confusing at first, depending on what you’re interested in studying the answer can be fairly simple.


When it comes to choosing a master's degree program, here are the differences students need to know to make an informed decision.

Is an MBA the Same as a Master's Degree?

The first thing to understand is that an MBA, or Master's in Business Administration, is a type of master's degree. Students in an MBA program will study a broad range of business topics – whereas students in a specialized master’s degree program will focus more on one specific area of business. This means there are variations in each degree program’s structure, topic scope, applicable industries and program length.

Regardless of the type of master's degree you choose to pursue, you are likely to find many courses relevant to your future aspirations. Understanding the details of each offering can help you narrow down the choices and select the degree program that will help prepare you to succeed in your industry.

MBA Degree Programs

When it comes to earning your MBA, many schools offer a variety of paths to choose from. For example, you might be able to complete the standard core coursework and earn your degree, or you may be able to layer on a specialization in a specific area of study by taking a few extra courses. Depending on the path you choose, programs often include between 10-16 courses.

MBA programs are typically designed to help students gain communication, collaboration, problem solving, technology and management skills. Courses can span a wide range of business topics including accounting, finance, economics, human resources management, leadership and marketing.

Completing a standalone MBA without a specialization is often the quickest route, but if you're interested in honing your skills in a specific area of business, then an MBA program that offers specializations might be a good fit for you. For example, DeVry University's Keller Graduate School of Management offers the following MBA specializations:

  • Accounting

  • Business Intelligence and Analytics Management

  • Entrepreneurship

  • Finance

  • Global Supply Chain Management

  • Health Services

  • Human Resources

  • Information Systems Management

  • Marketing

  • Project Management

Adding a specialization to your MBA program at Keller typically requires the successful completion of a few extra courses to earn your degree. An MBA with a specialization in finance, for example, includes an in-depth study of Business Economics, Corporate Finance, Strategic Marketing, International Finance and other relevant topics.

Whether you choose to add a specialization or not, an MBA program is a great way to advance your business and management skills and gain hands-on experience that you can apply at work.

Specialized Master's Degree Programs

Earning a master's degree is a great option for someone with a designated career path in mind. Compared to an MBA, a specialized master's degree takes a deeper dive into your preferred area of study. You'll still gain essential business skills, but you'll leave with a greater breadth of knowledge and hands-on experience in your chosen field.

Specialized master's degree programs will often consist of a few essential business courses, with the remainder of the program being degree-specific classes. So, you might begin your studies by learning about accounting, management and business processes, but the bulk of your program will be structured around learning the most important career skills that will be relevant in your chosen field.

Typically, most master's degree programs require around 13 to 15 courses, depending on the area of study. At Keller, for example, students can choose from the following master's degree programs:

  • Accounting

  • Accounting and Financial Management

  • Human Resource Management

  • Information Systems Management

  • Information Technology Management

  • Network and Communications Management

  • Project Management

  • Public Administration

Of course, timelines and specific courses per degree can vary, especially if you have already earned credit hours in a relevant program. At Keller, some of the classes you've already taken may qualify for course waivers*, meaning your previous achievements can help you reach your next goal sooner.

Find the Right Program for You

Earning an MBA or a specialized master’s degree is an educational achievement you can be proud of. Your education can help prepare you to face the challenges of the modern business world. However, there may be variances in job qualifications and skills gained depending on the degree program you choose.

The most important differences between an MBA vs master’s degrees in specialized fields are the subject matters and industry-specific skill-building offerings. Let’s look at the offerings in Human Resources at Keller as an example:

  • A specialized master’s degree in Human Resource Management is a program designed for professionals looking to prepare to advance their careers in HR. Your education would focus on skills and knowledge that can directly apply to jobs in Human Resources, including training and development, staffing, and negotiation skills which can be beneficial for someone with a concrete career path in mind.

  • An MBA with a specialization in Human Resources typically focuses foremost on business skill development, but also includes HR-specific topics like managing organizational change, and employment law. This pathway can be a great way to learn all you want to know about business, while still gaining an edge in human resource-related topics.

  • A standalone MBA without a concentration will help you to hone your technology, collaboration, problem-solving and management skills while strengthening your understanding of today’s business world. If you are pursuing a leadership role, a standalone MBA may be an excellent fit. However, aside from what you’ll learn in your core classes, it likely won’t offer specific subject matter to refine your skills and knowledge for a designated industry.

As you can see, each path has its own unique benefits to offer. It’s always best to take a moment to evaluate your education and career goals, so you can better determine which program might be the best fit for you. When in doubt, speaking with an admissions representative can help you to better understand the programs and benefits at a particular university.

Build on Your Expertise

Your decision to pursue an MBA or another master's degree is one that will likely require some time and thought. Fortunately, the modern world offers a number of opportunities to suit your needs. Whatever your passion or area of expertise, there's a degree program that can expand your knowledge and skills in that field.

Plus, today's graduate programs offer the opportunity to earn your diploma in a way that works for you. Whether you study onlineon campus or on-the-go, the availability of flexible learning options make going back to school manageable for busy adults. Pursuing your MBA or master's degree while continuing to gain on-the-job experience at work is a great way to put your education into action almost immediately.

Ready to pursue your graduate degree? Explore Keller Graduate School of Management's MBA and specialized Master’s Degree Programs or contact us to get started.

*Eligibility and application of course waivers varies based on the type of course waiver credit earned, the student’s enrolled location and/or the student’s state of residence. For more information, please refer to the Course Waiver section of the Keller academic catalog.

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