Weigh Being a Generalist, Specialist in Business School

generalist or specialist mba

This post originally appeared on Stacy’s “Strictly Business” MBA Blog on U.S.News.

After the Great Recession hit in 2008, business schools started ramping up their menu of specializations to meet the demand of students eager to differentiate themselves as experts in a given area.

This expansion into concentrations has become a way for schools to innovate while they educate the next generation of business leaders. It has also become a way for them to distinguish their own MBA programs from other top business schools.

Unlike a master’s degree in finance or accounting or other specialty, an MBA is by definition a generalist program, which exposes students to many different disciplines – both hard disciplines like finance and soft like organizational behavior.

If you’re contemplating business school, think about whether you’d prefer a general management approach or one that offers majors or concentrations. Choosing to be a generalist or specialist at business school depends heavily on your end goals.

Advantages of being a generalist: Business schools want to fill their classes with students who will not only get hired after graduation but eventually run the firm.

Most applicants see business school as a way to grow as a leader and advance their career. The degree imparts a strong foundation of general business knowledge, allowing students to gain a greater understanding of how various departments operate.

Although students typically come to b-school with a clear career goal in mind for after graduation, an MBA program is actually an excellent time to explore a variety of subjects and experiences that may ultimately redirect your path. For long-term flexibility in the global marketplace, career-switchers need a breadth of courses to prepare them for the myriad management responsibilities they will encounter in whichever sector they end up.

The only potential drawback to a general MBA is that you may not acquire the depth of knowledge required for a particular position. However, that broader know-how and wider range of career opportunities that come from earning an MBA at a top program is almost always worth it.

Advantages of being a specialist: MBA specialization is a good move for individuals who know exactly what they want to do with their career and who want to build a stronger skill base in that area.

If you already know that you’re interested in an area like digital marketing, real estate, business analytics, social innovation, health care and so forth, then earning an MBA with a concentration can make you even more marketable. Recruiters like to see a strong focus on a particular field or functional area.

In today’s competitive job market, having that specialization on your resume, bolstered by a supporting internship or extracurricular activities, will help you stand out from the crowd. Students who specialize can also grow their niche network during the MBA program and then be ready to hit the ground running on day one.

Drawbacks of being a specialist: While specializing in a certain area of business is fine, know that it can be limiting.

One could even argue that you should just earn a degree in that specialty instead. Depending on the career path you have chosen after graduation, by specializing you could inadvertently pigeonhole yourself and narrow your job prospects, especially if you’re a career-changer.

A recent Harvard Business Review article detailed how Tulane Assistant Professor Jennifer Merluzzi and Columbia Business School Professor Damon Phillips studied the records of almost 400 students, who in 2008 and 2009 graduated from top U.S. MBA programs and then entered the investment banking field.

Among their findings, the researchers discovered that, “specialists were definitely penalized by the market. Not only were they less likely to receive multiple offers, but they were offered smaller signing bonuses. In some cases the specialists earned up to $48,000 less than their generalist peers.”

The classroom experience may also differ notably for specialists. Instead of classes with individuals who have multiple, diverse perspectives that enrich a traditional MBA experience, participants in the same specialization will likely have similar backgrounds and professional experiences from which to call on.

Ultimately, when you’re running a company, chances are you won’t be pulling together the financial models or balancing the books. Understanding those aspects is important, but you don’t need to be a master – ideally you will hire others to do the deep dive.

My friend and executive at a Fortune 100 company, who has thousands of employees reporting to him, once explained his role to me. He said, “I know what needs to be done and I get people to do it for me.”

Whether you choose to pursue a general or specialty MBA, pay close attention in all of your classes – even the areas you would plan to outsource when you have the budget.

Image credit: EIO on Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
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