In years long past, MBA curricula were very similar across different B-schools and universities, but with the number of postgraduate business degrees rising every year, schools have had to adapt their programmes to meet the evolving needs of both students and employers.
These adaptations have resulted in schools expanding their range of courses and increasing their flexibility as a means of distinguishing one programme from another.
MBA curricula options
Most B-schools and universities have a degree of flexibility in their MBA programme’s curriculum in that there are required courses, usually foundational, and then there are elective courses, for which you can choose from a number of qualified options. This provides a student with all the skills that an employer expects from a candidate with an MBA, while at the same time allowing students to select the elective courses that interest them the most or that may be most beneficial to their career.
The level of flexibility varies from school to school and from programme to programme. For example, the MBA programme of the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business (US) hails itself as “the world’s most flexible full-time MBA”. In this programme, there are several foundation and business function courses you have to take, along with one required leadership class. Apart from that, you can choose from a long list of electives offered and take them in any order you like.
Compare that to Harvard Business School’s (US) MBA programme, which is different from Booth’s programme but nonetheless offers its own version of flexibility. The two-year programme requires a certain curriculum for the first year, and then a combination of required and elective courses during the second year. In addition, during the second year you are able to cross-register with other participating MBA programmes for up to two courses towards your Harvard MBA, allowing you to participate in the renowned Entrepreneurship Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, for example.
Concentrations, specialisations, and industry-focused MBA programmes
There used to be little other than a grade point average to distinguish one MBA recipient from another in terms of business skills. Now, employers need more specialised skills from their pool of job applicants, and B-schools and universities have stepped up to meet their needs.
MBA programmes nowadays offer different levels of specialisation, starting from the opportunity to choose elective courses, through opting for a specialisation in addition to the core curriculum, to studying in an entirely industry-specific MBA programme. The following lists just a few examples. Cass Business School (UK) offers a large number of electives in areas such as Innovation and Entrepreneurship, Finance, and Marketing with courses as focused as, for example, Silicon Valley – At the Core of Innovation; Cuba Facing the Sustainability Revolution; Storytelling in Business. The Full-time MBA programme at SDA Bocconi (Italy) provides a concentration in Luxury Business Management. Examples of industry-specialised MBA programmes are the MBA in Wine Marketing & Management at INSEEC (France), and the MBA in Aviation at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University (US). The latter also illustrates that industry-focused MBA programmes can be offered not only in business schools.
An MBA with a concentration in a particular area of study is typically designed by the student. It involves a broad foundation of business knowledge, but includes specialised electives focused on a particular field. For example, if an MBA student takes a certain curriculum path through which some, if not all, of the electives teach various aspects of entrepreneurship, the degree might be considered an MBA with a concentration in Entrepreneurship.
This evolution of MBAs benefits students as well as employers, since students with targeted career objectives can learn more of what they want to know (or will utilise) and less of what they do not. You may find that a particular school’s programme has a focus that is unnamed except in the fine print. EMLYON’s (France) Full-time MBA has “a clear entrepreneurial focus” according to its website, yet you would not know it by the name of the degree. That is why it is so critical to research your shortlist of preferred schools and discuss the details of the programme in depth with an admissions counsellor.
Dual and joint degree MBA programmes provide another option to focus your education experience further. If there are two degree paths that are so closely connected with your career goals that you feel you need the knowledge and skills taught by both, you might want to consider a dual-degree or joint-degree programme. This will allow you to acquire the knowledge you need from both without having to duplicate many of the foundational courses. An example of a dual-degree programme is Stanford University’s (US) MBA/MA Education programme, which combines an MBA with a Master in Education degree, a combination that would be ideal for management positions within the educational field.
Practical projects and experiential learning in an MBA programme
Case studies, internships, studies abroad, experiential learning, and real-world clients are just a few of the out-of-the-box learning experiences now offered by many MBA programmes. “My internship at HubSpot was a highlight of my MBA experience. My project was on quantifying and presenting the value of inbound marketing. I got the opportunity to interact with inspirational industry leaders on a day-to-day basis and to gain cross-functional exposure to one of the fastest growing tech companies. My ideas were heard, and I felt like I was able to help shape the company,” shares Tina Yau, MIT Sloan School of Management, Class of 2015.
This is yet another way a B-school or university can differentiate its MBA programme from another’s, and the options may appeal to students in different ways, possibly attracting a wider audience. For example, London Business School (UK) offers two such opportunities outside the classroom, with its Global Business Experiences and International Exchange Programme.
In addition, employers want skilled, capable job applicants, and the option of having them field-tested and battle-ready is appealing. Internships can be a great resource for companies to tap management talent. MBA internships can immerse participants fully in the company. Amazon states: “We hire interns across the company, and we give them ownership over big projects from day one. Some of our most senior leaders first started at Amazon as interns.”
Diverse cultural immersion options
An outstanding feature of international MBA programmes is their focus on reflecting the global business environment and preparing managers to lead across borders in diverse cultural settings. The new knowledge and skills can be delivered through the curriculum, but also by various immersion and experiential options. An interesting development is the “Blended MBA” format that offers short study periods at different locations to help participants get a feel for the business environment. Many top business schools, such as INSEAD, now have campuses on several continents and their full-time MBA students can rotate during their studies. Short-term study trips and international projects are common features in MBA education today.
Here is one of the options that Harvard Business School (US), for example, offers – Field Immersion Experiences for Leadership Development (FIELD). This is a required course for first-year MBA students. During FIELD, students work in small, diverse teams to help solve customer challenges for global partner organisations around the world. Using the process of human-centred design, each student team completes a project to help their global partner develop or improve a product, service, or experience for a segment of its customers. At the beginning of the semester students are paired with a Global Partner (GP) company in one of 16 cities that has a product or service challenge they would like the team to address with their local consumers. The course culminates in a one-week immersion at the end of the semester, at which time students travel to their assigned immersion location and meet their GP and local consumers in person. To maximise the experience, students are asked to travel to a city and country in which they have no significant prior work, travel, or life experience.
The number of options available in present-day MBA curricula presents difficulties in that it requires much more research to select just the right degree programme for your specific career path; but this research more than pays off by delivering a degree that is tailored to your individual needs.