MBA or MS — What’s the Difference?

Wednesday, January 6, 2021

While these two options are similar, there are key differences between them. Which one is right for you? It depends on your career goals!

What is an MBA?

An MBA degree offers general business knowledge across many disciplines, such as accounting, finance, leadership, and management. If you’re looking to gain a wider understanding of business, an MBA is for you. Along with the comprehensive business skills you’ll gain from a wide range of courses, you can also choose to specialize in a specific area. By graduation, you will develop a comprehensive set of skills that apply to a wide range of industries and career tracks. An MBA is a great choice if you’re looking for career advancement and to manage teams. 

See five reasons why you should consider an MBA degree.


What is a specialty master’s program?

This degree focuses on one particular field of business. For instance, at the Carlson School, you can join one of eight specialty master’s programs, including Business Analytics, Finance, Supply Chain Management, and more. After your studies, you will be seen as an expert in the chosen field. An MS is a great choice if you’re early in your career and looking for a change or a busy working professional looking to gain more knowledge to become a leader in a specific area of business. 


How do these options compare?

CategoryMBASpecialty Master’s Degree
Types of coursesGeneral business knowledge with the ability to take electives to specialize in a specific areaSpecialized courses that focus on one area of business
Length of programTypically two yearsTypically less than two years
Point in careerMidcareer and looking for a career pivot or advancementEarly in career, working professional, or looking to pivot careers


What’s the difference between an MBA specialization in a field and the corresponding specialty master’s program?

In many MBA programs, you will have the flexibility to tailor your coursework and specialize in a particular field of business. For example, you can earn an MBA with a specialization in finance. Another option is to enroll in a Master of Science in Finance (MSF) program. What’s the difference? Curriculum, time, and student body.  

In the MSF program, you will focus exclusively on the world of finance, taking 39 credits on topics including Fundamentals of Finance, Introduction to Python Programming, Corporate Valuation & Modeling, and Quantitative Portfolio Analysis. Those courses are required to graduate and you are guaranteed to take them.

If you are an MBA student, while you will cover many of the above topics in your coursework, you will also focus on aspects of a business outside of finance. If finance is an area of interest to you, then finance courses can be taken as electives to earn a specialization.

The length of the program typically differs too. Most Full-Time MBAs, including at the Carlson School, last two years while many MS programs can be completed in just one year.

Finally, students in each program are usually at different points in their careers. Many specialty master’s students are early in their career and working toward becoming an expert in their field while MBA students are typically more in the middle of their career. 


How do I know which program is right for me?

This is a challenging question to answer, as it is a very personal one. The first suggestion is to make an appointment with an admission counselor. This will allow you to work through some of the more nuanced questions you may have when doing your initial search. By meeting with an academic counselor, you can get individualized guidance that suits your specific needs and goals.

Before meeting with a counselor, think about how you wish to proceed in your career. Are you passionate about finance and see yourself working as a financial analyst long-term or short-term with your eyes on leadership? You may not even know what your long-term goals may be, which is why part of the process is reaching out to counselors, as well as meeting with current students. Informational interviews with alumni, current students, and working professionals in the field in which you wish to dive to will help provide you with a bit more clarity as to the benefits of each program.

Share a little bit about yourself and let our seven-question program finder help you discover the best Carlson School master’s degree for you. 

Admissions Contact:

If you have questions about the application process or a program, please reach out to the following:

Master of Business Administration (MBA) - Full-Time, Part-Time, Online, and Executive

MS in Business Analytics

Master of Business Taxation

MS in Finance

Master of Human Resources and Industrial Relations

Master of Marketing

MS in Supply Chain Management