MBA vs. MS: Choosing Which Is Better for You

Written by Coursera • Updated on

Learn the differences between these two popular business degrees to figure out which is the right path for you.

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Choosing the right graduate program can feel like a major decision. Any time you pursue a new time and financial commitment, it’s reasonable to want to understand how your options align with your goals.

Both a Master of Business Administration (MBA) and a Master of Science (MS) degree can offer a comprehensive graduate-level business education, however an MBA will provide an interdepartmental look at how businesses run, while an MS will provide a nuanced understanding of one particular area of business.

The biggest difference between an MBA program and a business masters program is who the program is designed for. Typically, an MBA candidate will enter their program with a few years of work experience, while an MS student will enter their program with little or no experience working in business.

Let's take a closer look at the differences—and similarities—between MBA and MS degrees.

What is an MBA degree?

An MBA is an advanced degree focusing on high-level business leadership and managerial skills.

Typical MBA coursework

MBA programs are slightly different from school to school, but will typically have a combination of core curriculum and elective courses. Through core curriculum, MBA programs will cover a range of foundational business topics, including areas such as:

  • Management

  • Strategy

  • Finance

  • Marketing

  • Ethics

  • Communications

Students will often have the opportunity to dive deeper into individual topics of interest with elective courses and concentrations. Some potential MBA concentrations (sometimes called specializations) may include:

MBA salary and job prospects

With this widespread education, earning an MBA degree can equip you for senior and executive-level positions across many areas of business, and can prime you for leadership positions that oversee multiple departments.

Many students pursue an MBA degree after a few years in the workforce in order to advance their careers. There are full-time and part-time programs, which allow for MBA candidates to continue working while attending school. Depending on the type of program, an MBA will typically take between one and five years to complete.

Some companies that hire the most MBAs include management consulting firms like McKinsey, Bain, BCG, and AT Kearney; tech companies like Amazon, Google, and Microsoft; and accounting firms like EY and Deloitte [1]. For the class of 2021, the median base starting salary (excluding signing bonuses and benefits) of an MBA recipient in the US was projected to be $115,000 [2], though that number can vary quite a bit depending on the business school attended.

Learn more about MBA salaries.

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What is an MS degree?

An MS degree, also globally known as an MSc, is a Master of Science. MS degrees can focus on scientific areas of interest, like biology, engineering, or statistics, or they can suggest a scientific approach to social sciences, such as psychology and economics.

Master's degrees in business are more likely to align with the latter interpretation. These degrees will typically offer a depth of knowledge in one chosen area of business, such as:

  • Finance

  • Data analytics

  • Accounting

  • Management

  • Marketing

Typical MS coursework

Like MBAs, MS programs will vary by school. Business masters programs may incorporate some foundational knowledge across all business sectors, but the bulk of the coursework will concentrate on your chosen field, effectively making MS graduates experts in their particular area of business.

Depending on the program, full-time and part-time enrollment options may be available, and it will typically take between one and two years to earn your degree.

MS salary and job prospects

This path prepares students for specialized careers within their chosen field. It can serve as a starting point for a career shift or to level-up in a particular sector. Prospective MS students do not necessarily have prior work experience in business, and many programs are designed for students with less than two years of work experience.

MS starting salaries vary across disciplines. For the class of 2021, the projected median base starting salary (excluding signing bonuses and benefits) of an MS recipient in the US in the fields analyzed ranged from $55,000 (Accounting and Management) to $75,000 (Data Analytics) [2].

What are the differences between an MBA and MS?

Both MBA and MS degrees offer an intimate understanding of the mechanisms that drive business, as well as opportunities to network with future colleagues. An MBA will offer a broader understanding of business, while an MS will explore in-depth knowledge in one key business area.

MBAMS
Covers a range of topics across all business sectorsCovers one specific area of business in depth
76 percent of applicants have at least three years of work experience [3]75 percent of applicants have less than three years of work experience [3]
Generally one to three years to complete, depending on the programGenerally one to two years to complete, depending on the program
Median starting salary is $115,000 [2]Median starting salary is between $55,000 and $75,000, depending on concentration [2]

For a more specific comparison, take a look at the iMBA and iMSM (Master of Science in Management) programs at University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign’s Gies College of Business, both offered on Coursera.

Master of Business AdministrationMaster of Science in Management
Degree typeMBAMS
Total tuition$23,040$11,052
Total credit hours72 (18 courses plus 3 capstone projects)36 (9 courses)
Time to complete2-3 yearsAbout 1 year
Required core areasLeadership and management, managerial economics and business analysis, value chain management, financial managementMarketing, strategic business management, leadership, process management, global business, communicating with data, and finance
SpecializationsStrategic leadership and management, managerial economics and business analytics, value chain management, financial management, global challenges in business, entrepreneurship and strategic innovation, digital marketing, business analytics, mergers and aquisitions(Informal) Business value and project management, global business challenges, business data management and communication

MBA vs. MS: Salary after graduation

Median starting salaries after completing an MBA are higher than those of an MS, though this salary discrepancy is likely tied to the fact that most MBA recipients have already spent a few years in the workforce, while most business masters recipients have not.

Here are some of the median starting salaries in the US for MBA and MS recipients across disciplines:

MajorMedian starting salary (class of 2021)
Accounting (MS)$55,000
Analytics (MS)$75,000
Business Administration (MBA)$115,000
Finance (MS)$65,000
Management (MS)$55,000

Data from the Graduate Management Admission Council (GMAC)[2]

MBA/MS dual degrees

Holding a dual degree is typically not necessary in order to enter any business field, however some students choose to pursue both their MBA and MS at the same time. They might do this in an effort to make their credentials stand out to potential employers, or because they simply love the subject matter and want to keep learning.

Schools that offer a joint program will recommend different schedules depending on the specific degrees you’re interested in; some will start with MBA classes, while others will begin with MS coursework. You’d need to check with your school to learn the path they recommend.

Since there is usually an additional cost associated with earning a dual degree, the majority of students pursuing a master’s in business will choose either an MBA or MS degree.

How to decide between an MBA and MS

In deciding whether an MBA or MS is right for you, consider the type of business experience you've already built up, and revisit your career goals. If you envision yourself as a future leader of an organization at large, perhaps you’ll want to look into MBA programs. If, on the other hand, you see yourself rising to the top of a specific team within an organization, you might want to consider an MS program that aligns with your future team.

As you look into various MBA and MS programs, you might also consider reaching out to friends and colleagues who hold advanced business degrees, or contacting admissions counselors at your school of interest with any questions.

Either way, both MBA and MS degrees can be great options to build a solid foundation that can propel your business career forward. Choosing the right one for you ultimately comes down to your own goals.

Getting started with a business degree

Learn more about the different types of business degree programs and continue your education on Coursera. Pursue your degree from anywhere with online classes while gaining the knowledge and skills you need to move forward in your career.

Join today and start exploring new business courses and more than 5,000 others—many of which are free to audit!

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Article sources

1. Business Because. "Which Companies Hire The Most MBAs?, https://www.businessbecause.com/news/mba-jobs/7095/which-companies-hire-the-most-mbas." Accessed April 28, 2022.

2. Graduate Management Admission Council. "Demand of Graduate Management Talent: 2021 Hiring Projections and Salary Trends, https://www.gmac.com/-/media/files/gmac/research/employment-outlook/2021_crs-demand-of-gm-talent.pdf." Accessed April 28, 2022.

3. Graduate Management Admission Council. "The Global Demand for Graduate Management Education: Application Trends Survey 2021, https://www.gmac.com/-/media/files/gmac/research/admissions-and-application-trends/2021_gmac_application_trends_survey_report_final.pdf." Accessed April 28, 2022.

Written by Coursera • Updated on

This content has been made available for informational purposes only. Learners are advised to conduct additional research to ensure that courses and other credentials pursued meet their personal, professional, and financial goals.

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