Q&A: Master's Degree vs. MBA (Differences and How To Decide)

By Indeed Editorial Team

Updated July 18, 2022 | Published November 5, 2020

Updated July 18, 2022

Published November 5, 2020

The Indeed Editorial Team comprises a diverse and talented team of writers, researchers and subject matter experts equipped with Indeed's data and insights to deliver useful tips to help guide your career journey.

A master's degree is an advanced postsecondary academic credential that you typically earn after completing undergraduate studies. For aspiring business professionals, the primary master's-level options are a Master of Science in business and an MBA. If you're trying to decide which graduate degree option is right for you, it's important to understand the scope and applicability of each one. 

In this article, we explore the major differences between a master's degree and an MBA and offer valuable advice to help you choose between them.

What's a master's vs. an MBA?

The key characteristics of a master's degree versus an MBA, and the primary points of difference between them, are as follows:

Master's degree

A master's degree is a graduate degree that encompasses a range of focuses, including but not limited to: 

  • Accounting

  • Business

  • Education

  • English

  • Finance

  • Fine arts

  • Law

  • Marketing

  • Mathematics

  • The sciences

The master's-level discipline that a student pursues isn't always a direct extension of their undergraduate studies. For example, a Bachelor of Arts in English can prepare you for a master's program in the same field, but the versatility of English allows you to pursue an advanced degree in almost any of the areas mentioned above. Similarly, given the broad array of roles found in the corporate world, various types of master's degrees could qualify you for employment in the business sector.

Related: Master's Degree: Definition, Elements and Benefits

MBA

An MBA, or Master of Business Administration, is a specific type of master's degree that focuses on the management of business resources, including money, materials, time and people. Business administration is a highly specialized field that covers a wide range of topics. The specific coursework may vary depending on the program you choose but generally includes:

  • Business analytics

  • Customer relationship management

  • Data analytics

  • Financial management

  • Marketing research and analysis

  • Operational management

  • Statistics

Related: Should I Get an MBA in 2022? When It's Worth the Effort

Major differences between a master's degree and an MBA

These are the major differences between a master's degree and an MBA:

Focus of study

An MBA focuses on the study of business administration, which is a broad field encompassing many business-related topics. The purpose of the program is to equip individuals with the knowledge required to lead an organization to growth and success, so the focus of study is necessary wide-ranging.

In contrast, a master's degree tends to focus on a narrow area of study within a particular discipline. For example, a Master of Science in accounting would primarily cover topics associated with that field. The degree is ultimately applicable to a career in business but largely limits your expertise to one area.

Related: Types of Accounting Degrees

Admissions process

The admissions process can vary between an MBA program and a master's degree program for a different major. MBA admissions can be quite rigorous. Aside from an application and essay, MBA programs commonly ask that candidates submit evidence of one to two years of related work experience. Another common requirement is a specified minimum score on the GMAT, a graduate admissions exam that covers mathematics, grammar, critical thinking and analysis topics.

For other master's programs, admissions requirements tend to differ depending on the field of study. For instance, entrance into a master's program for engineering may require you to submit one application to the college or university you'll be attending and one application to the engineering program directly. Then you're to pass the GRE, another type of graduate-level entrance exam, which covers math, grammar and critical thinking topics.

Related: 10 Graduate School Interview Questions (With Sample Answers)

Prerequisites

The prerequisites also vary greatly between an MBA program and other types of master's programs. MBA programs generally look at students' grade point averages for admission, whereas the coursework you've completed at the undergraduate level may not have as much bearing. That being said, a strong background in mathematics, economics or another business-related field can increase your chances of admission.

For other master's programs, the prerequisites, again, can vary tremendously depending on your field of study but often regards your coursework and GPA more equally. For example, a program in the sciences is likely to require specific coursework in a broad range of scientific disciplines. Similarly, a master's program in fine arts may require undergraduate prerequisites related to English composition, linguistics, grammar and other related coursework.

Related: Tips for Choosing the Right Master's Degree Program

How can you choose between an MBA and a master's degree?

If you're trying to decide between an MBA and another kind of master's degree, follow these steps for guidance:

1. Determine your interests

Think about what you're passionate about and what interests you. 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. For example, those who enjoy problem-solving or aspire to leadership roles would be suitable candidates for an MBA program, as the field of business administration caters to such qualities.

Related: Should I Get a Master's Degree? 9 Factors To Consider

2. Determine whether you want to focus on business

Since an MBA focuses strictly on business and management, it's most appropriate for those who are certain they'd like to pursue a career in business leadership. In contrast, a master's degree in another field can set you up with 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.

Related: What Can You Do With No Experience and an MBA?

3. Consider your qualifications

Your existing academic achievements can help guide your path in graduate school. Look into the eligibility requirements for the programs you're interested in, whether they're for an MBA or another type of master's degree. If the MBA requirements include professional experience, ask yourself whether that's something you're capable of achieving before starting your graduate studies. If not, and your undergraduate record includes coursework requirements for a different field, you may want to consider a master's degree in another subject.

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