What Is an MBA Degree?

Master of Business Administration (MBA): Learn about this graduate-level business degree, how to get one, and what you can do with it.
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Learn about how you can accelerate your career with this popular business degree.

What does “MBA” stand for?

A Masters of Business Administration, or MBA degree, is a graduate-level business and management degree with a focus on leadership and managerial skills. By earning this degree, you can equip yourself with the skills and knowledge to accelerate your career, transition to new industries, or even launch your own businesses. 

It’s the most common and one of the most versatile graduate degrees available.

What can you do with an MBA?

By earning this degree, you can build a foundation for a new career or prepare yourself for better, often higher-paying opportunities. You can gain functional job skills and a well-recognized credential to potentially attract recruiters and hiring managers in a variety of fields.

A 2018 survey of business school graduates found that twenty percent of alumni found work in products and services, seventeen percent in technology, and fifteen percent in finance and accounting. Others found jobs in government, nonprofit, manufacturing, consulting, healthcare, energy, and other industries. [1]

Types of MBA programs

An MBA degree program isn’t one-size-fits-all. Consider your lifestyle, career goals, and current employment situation to decide which program is right for you. Here’s a look at some common types of MBA degrees:

Full-time MBA

Traditional two-year programs typically involve taking a full course load, much like an undergraduate degree. These programs are best suited to students who don’t have to work full time and can comfortably fund their degree without bringing in a regular paycheck. 

Part-time MBA

Part-time MBA programs, sometimes called professional MBAs, offer flexibility and enhanced work-life balance for students who wish to pursue a degree while working or raising a family. Students with an established career can continue earning valuable work experience while learning job skills that can be applied right away. 

Working and learning at the same time can help to relieve the financial burden of graduate tuition. Some employers offer tuition assistance or reimbursement for employees who pursue a graduate degree while working. 

Executive MBA

Executive MBA programs, also known as EMBAs, are geared toward leaders and executives with several years of managerial experience. Since most students in these programs are working professionals, the format tends to be part time with classes on evenings and weekends. Expect a faster-paced learning environment with less immersion than a typical program. With the skills you learn from an EMBA, you can often build off of your work experience to maximize your impact in your organization.

Global MBA

Global MBAs (sometimes called international MBAs) are similar to traditional MBAs but with a focus on international business principles and strategies. Students tend to come from countries around the world. This could be a good option for students who wish to work at international companies. Sometimes global MBA programs offer or require a study abroad component. 

Earning your MBA: Online vs. on campus

No matter which type of degree you decide to pursue, you might have the option to complete your coursework on a college campus, online, or a hybrid of the two. Each method comes with its own set of benefits. This decision is all about how an MBA program best fits into your lifestyle.

Online MBAs

Online programs through accredited universities, like the iMBA from University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, offer access to the same professors and learning materials as on-campus programs with the added benefit of a flexible schedule. You can learn from virtually anywhere on a desktop or mobile devices—no need to quit your job or relocate to attend a highly-ranked business school.

These programs are sometimes less expensive than their on-campus counterparts. Since you can learn at your own pace, you’ll have the option to work full time (and bring in a regular paycheck). 

“If a student is comfortable in joining and being fully engaged in an online setting, then an online degree will provide them with more opportunities to establish connections,” says Fataneh Taghaboni-Dutta, Clinical Professor of Business Administration at the University of Illinois. “I say more because in terms of time needed to ‘speak’ or ‘meet’ others in an online environment, it’s less taxing than doing the same for in-person settings.”

On-campus MBAs

If you choose to pursue an on-campus MBA, you’ll typically attend classes in person on a fixed schedule. These traditional MBA programs often attract candidates who want to take advantage of the facilities, extracurricular activities, and overall community of a university campus. 

Networking often takes place face to face, both with professors and other students. But you may have to consider relocating, particularly if you have your eye on a specific school or specialization. 

What do you learn in an MBA program?

As you pursue an MBA, you can learn a wide variety of business fundamentals, including economics, marketing, finance, strategy, organizational behavior, and accounting. Outside the core curriculum, you can typically customize your experience through concentrations or specializations, elective classes, and experiential learning opportunities with actual companies. This can help you to develop some of the leadership skills necessary to run a business—and these skills transfer to many career paths. 

While curriculums vary from school to school, here’s a look at some classes you might see in an MBA curriculum:

  • Digital Marketing

  • Foundations of Leadership

  • Business Strategy

  • Organizational Management

  • Managerial Accounting

  • Operations Management

  • Investments

  • Corporate Finance

  • Cultural Psychology

  • Business Ethics

How long does it take to get an MBA degree?

Typically, a traditional full-time MBA degree takes one to two years to complete. Some programs offer MBA candidates with an undergraduate business degree or substantial professional experience an accelerated MBA program to earn their degree in as little as a year. 

Part-time, online, and executive MBAs can take anywhere from eighteen months to three years to finish, depending on the curriculum and course load. 

Is an MBA worth it?

Pursuing an MBA can be a significant financial commitment. It’s important to define your goals when deciding whether the investment is right for you. Through an MBA program you’ll have the opportunity to expand your professional network, elevate your career prospects, and increase your earning potential. 

“The training you receive in an MBA Program prepares you to deal with ambiguity and provides a buffer against uncertainty,” explains Hayden Noel, Assistant Clinical Professor at the University of Illinois. “You would be better equipped to take advantage of changing opportunities post-COVID. You will also become more effective as a leader and better understand the different functions of your organization. This leads to more positive outcomes in your current job.”

The training you receive in an MBA Program prepares you to deal with ambiguity and provides a buffer against uncertainty.

When surveyed, of the nearly 11,000 respondents, four out of five business school alumni rated the value of their graduate education as outstanding or excellent. Nine out of ten would still have pursued their degree knowing what they know now. A majority found their business school education to be personally, professionally, and financially rewarding (ninety-four, eighty-nine, and seventy-three percent respectively). [2]

Earnings can vary widely based on a range of factors, but MBA graduates earn bigger starting salaries on average than their peers with bachelor's degrees or previous professional experience [3].

Do I need an MBA degree?

While there are plenty of good reasons to pursue an MBA degree, not every person (or professional field) requires one. Be sure to find out what hiring managers in your desired field are looking for by checking out current job postings on sites like LinkedIn or Indeed.

If you’re planning to pivot into a new industry, you might find less expensive, less time consuming ways to build the skills you need. Consider if alternatives like individual courses, professional certificates, or bootcamps might be a better fit. If you’re feeling unsure, some online MBA programs let you try out a course (sometimes for academic credit) before committing to the full degree.

MBA requirements

Admission requirements vary by school, but applications may require the following:

  • Academic transcripts

  • Resume to show professional experience

  • GRE or GMAT test scores

  • Essay or personal statement

  • Letters of professional recommendation

  • In-person or video interview

While professional experience is not always necessary, some programs have specific work experience requirements. Previous experience could help you better gauge what you want from your degree and equip you to apply what you’re learning to your career. Other programs may allow recent graduates or even current bachelor’s students to participate in a combined Bachelors and MBA program if they are looking to launch their careers quickly.

Standardized test scores, including the GMAT (Graduate Management Admission Test) and the GRE (Graduate Record Examination), were once standard, heavily weighted requirements. Today, more and more schools are moving to a test-optional policy, particularly for executive and online MBA programs.

Some programs, like the iMBA from the University of Illinois and the Global MBA from Macquarie University, allow students to enroll through a performance-based admission process. Learners who want to try out the program or are unsure if they meet the minimum requirements can take classes and earn academic credit before fully enrolling as a degree-seeking student.

How to choose an MBA Program: Factors to consider

If you’re investing the time and money to further your education (and your career), it’s important to choose the right program for your goals. Here are some things to consider:

  1. Accreditation

  2. School ranking

  3. Program length and location

  4. Cost

  5. Curriculum and specializations

  6. Internship opportunities

  7. Diversity of the student body

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You’ve learned about what an MBA degree is and what you can do with it. Now it’s time to take the next step on your career journey.

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Article sources

1. Graduate Management Admission Council. "B-School Alumni Employment Report, https://www.gmac.com/-/media/files/gmac/research/measuring-program-roi/b-school-alumni-employment-report-february-2018.pdf." Accessed March 25, 2021.

2. Graduate Management Admission Council. "Alumni Perspectives Survey 2018, https://www.gmac.com/-/media/files/gmac/research/measuring-program-roi/the-value-of-a-graduate-management-education-january-2018.pdf." Accessed March 25, 2021.

3. Graduate Management Admission Council. "Corporate Recruiters Survey 2020, https://www.gmac.com/-/media/files/gmac/research/employment-outlook/gmac_corporate_recruiters_survey_sept_2020.pdf." Accessed March 25, 2021.

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