Best of both worlds: A growing number of graduates are taking an MBA after a Masters

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The Independent Online

Given that he already has a Masters degree in business, Juan Muntaner might at first glance appear to be an unlikely candidate now to be doing an MBA.

But the Spanish consultant, who started an MBA through Audencia School of Management in Nantes last month, believes getting the gold standard business qualification under his belt as well will make a difference to his career.

"My degrees have been quite theoretical – I for example know a lot of micro-economic stuff – and I felt that, while I had a lot of knowledge, what I needed was more all-round business skills," says Juan, 30, who completed a five-year undergraduate and Masters degree in business administration at Alcalá University in Madrid in 2005 before going on to do a postgraduate diploma in international management at Pforzheim University, Stuttgart.

He's not the only one to follow this route, points out Valérie Claude-Gaudillat, director of the Audencia MBA programme, who herself has both a Masters and MBA.

"Around 10-20 per cent of our MBA intake will already have done a Masters degree in an area such as management. So it is quite a significant minority. What they get from the MBA that they do not get from the Masters is much more advanced knowledge," she explains.

The past few years has seen an explosion in the number of specialist Masters qualifications being offered by business schools, everything from finance, economics and management to more seemingly arcane subjects such as "decision sciences".

So, if you can get one of these qualifications under your belt, often much more cheaply, why go on to do an MBA? Surely one postgraduate qualification, which shows you are capable of independent research and analytical thought whatever the subject, is as good as any other?

Well, yes and no, argue the academics. Because an MBA is aimed at people who are assumed already to have some years' experience of management – with the average age of an MBA student normally being mid- to late-twenties, it will be much more focused on organisational problem-solving than learning the technical ins and outs of management, argues John Kawalek, director of the MBA programme at Sheffield University Management School.

"A lot of management degrees can be overly passive and just teach you techniques but then fail to look at how actually to apply them to solve problems in your organisations. An MBA tries to give that fuller view," he says.

An MA or MSc, essentially, is a much narrower, and often more specialised, qualification than an MBA. As such it is often done much earlier, often straight after a first degree to gain something a bit extra on your CV.

"The MBA curriculum is designed assuming students are coming in with previous experience of working in business," says Jeanette Purcell, chief executive of the Association of MBAs. "There is an assumption made about their level of knowledge and understanding – and the curriculum requires students to have that experience."

What students want from an MA or MSc is a programme that is quite specialised and concerned with their immediate job or career expectations, says Michael Osbaldeston, director of Cranfield School of Management.

That was very much the case for civil servant Dominic Jordan, who did an MA in Russian language and literature from University of London back in the late Eighties but is due to graduate in the next few weeks with an MBA from Durham Business School. "My first Masters degree had served me well for the first part of my career as a language specialist and I had achieved a good managerial grade," says Jordan, 45.

"However, in order to enhance my opportunities in the civil service or outside I felt I needed to reposition myself and add another layer of more business-focused skills."

His MBA, he argues, should open up a range of options, including continuing up the civil service, moving into another industry or sector or even, in time, helping him to set up his own foreign language school and translation agency.

"The learning experience on the MA depended largely on the relationship with one or two tutors and much less on colleagues and team-working. So the MBA was a very different type of programme," he adds.

Nevertheless, students who have done a Masters degree, particularly if it is in a quantitative subject, will often have a head start when it comes to studying at this level, says Nick Collett, programme director for the global MBA at Manchester Business School Worldwide.

"If someone comes to an MBA with only a first degree they are probably a long way away from the academic experience and will need to re-learn how to learn. An undergraduate degree tends to be somewhat prescribed. A Masters, whatever its subject, is a major piece of work that is independently generated," he points out.

Ultimately, for Audencia's Muntaner, the reason for going through all this sweat and hard slog again is simple – the broad-brush, "generalist" knowledge that he will gain from MBA should allow him to operate and thrive in almost any business environment.

"What I hope to do is to move into a management position related to the airline or aviation industry, perhaps one that requires analytical or organisational skills," he explains.

"Management can be like a puzzle and the MBA enables you to put the pieces together. It gives you an all-around knowledge of organisations," he adds.

'I really wanted to move into general management'

Daniel Mann, 31, is a service manager with Rolls-Royce. He has juggled his day job with Masters-level study since 2002. His first Masters was an MSc in project management at the University of Manchester. Since 2005, he has been taking an MBA at Manchester Business School Worldwide. He is due to graduate next June.

"The reason I did the MSc was that my job at the time was very project management focused so it simply aided what I was doing.

I started the MBA pretty much straight after finishing the MSc because I realised what I really wanted to do in the long run was to move into general management.

While it has been hard work and involved a lot of commitment, I think it is easier having already done a Masters. You understand the approach and the mindset and I'm probably more disciplined about studying than I might have been otherwise.

Some of the topics on the MBA have been harder but then the MSc was probably equally difficult first-time around. Perhaps, with hindsight, I jumped in and did the Masters too quickly, but I don't regret doing it and it has certainly helped along the way."