Tailor-made courses are proving the perfect fit

Specialist MBAs targeted at specific industries have many advantages over the traditional model, finds Russ Thorne
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The specialist MBA is on the rise. According to a recent application trends survey, carried out by the Graduate Management Admission Council (GMAC), the administrative body behind the Graduate Management Admission Test (GMAT) used by business schools worldwide, programmes in finance and accounting in particular have seen significant growth. In fact, an interest in specialising is a common theme among students – some 73 per cent of GMAT examinees in 2010 indicated an area they intended to concentrate on once on a programme. Again, although finance and accounting scored highly, prospective students were also interested in subjects varying from entrepreneurship to tax.

"Business schools have been very entrepreneurial in developing specialist MBA programmes – often working closely with companies – in areas such as healthcare and energy," explains Jane Delbene, director of marketing, EMEA, GMAC. "These programmes address a market need to develop management talent with specific skills for a specific industry. It's a valuable credential for someone who wants to stay in an industry and accelerate their career."

A range of specialist MBA programmes is available at institutions throughout the UK, catering for specific skill sets or industries. The Nottingham University Business School offers an MBA in entrepreneurship, for example, while Warwick Business School has a global energy MBA that runs alongside its established general programme; Sheffield Hallam, meanwhile, has several courses including MBAs in medical leadership and industrial management. The programmes offer the same options as a traditional MBA, with modular structures and a choice between full- and part-time study (although the Warwick global energy MBA is solely for part-time students), with assessments carried out through exams, coursework and dissertations.

Although similarities exist between the established general MBA and specialised programmes, the latter may give students the chance to stand out from the crowd, argues Christopher Mahon, director of the MBA in entrepreneurship at Nottingham. "The MBA is a general qualification, for students looking to develop a well-rounded knowledge base and set of skills," he says. "Specialist MBAs, like the entrepreneurship MBA, allow students to achieve some uniqueness, and I think they're increasingly attracted to this idea as they seek to distinguish themselves from others."

However, this isn't to say that the traditional MBA and the more specialised programmes don't have common DNA. David Elmes, academic director of the global energy programme at Warwick Business School, explains that the the specialised MBA builds upon the foundations of the classic programme.

"We still cover the typical modules of an MBA – marketing, for example – but they've been significantly revised," he says. "They still fit within the context of management education but focus on the themes that those in the energy industry face. It allows us to look at areas that wouldn't typically have made it onto the agenda."

This approach helps to counter a criticism that has previously been levelled at specialist MBAs – that they dilute a winning business formula. "People think that a specialised MBA is a compromise between a general MBA and more specific technical detail of the industry. That's not the case: the MBA hasn't drilled down into the details of running bits of the energy sector; it's lifted people in the energy sector up to consider the broader challenges of the industry they operate in," adds Elmes.

However, it goes without saying that those who follow the specialist path should be clear that it's the right option for them. "Specialist MBAs appeal to people who know that they want to work in a particular industry and want to focus on those specific skills that will help them advance in that industry," says Delbene. "It's up to the person to understand where they are in their career and what type of programme will help them achieve their goals."

For Nick Barker, a graduate of Nottingham's MBA in entrepreneurship, those goals were best achieved by committing to a specialist programme. "I looked at a general MBA, but was attracted to the specialist one more," he explains. "You focus more, you're pinning your flag to doing a certain thing. If you specialise, you can get into things at a deeper level, not just on the modules but also for your final dissertation."

Now running his own company, Barker is certain that the specialist route was right for him. "It's definitely helped my career, it's been very useful in understanding how companies grow and develop or take on competitors," he says. "And the learning doesn't stop, I've read a lot since the MBA and it gave me a base to build upon."

Like any MBA, specialist programmes are challenging. Barker jokingly likens his first semester to "bootcamp", but remains convinced that the skills it gave him will stand him in good stead in the future. "There's an increasing demand for innovation and entrepreneurship in business because business cycles are getting much quicker now," he says. "I think the future for MBAs is specialisation, going into subjects in more detail. You need to build your skill set with something that's going to be of increasing importance."

Naturally, a cohort of MBA-level graduates coming through the system with lean, focused qualifications perfectly adapted to a particular business can be good news for employers, and for graduates' career prospects. Mahon believes that a specialist MBA says more about a graduate than the general one. "It sends a clear message to prospective employers that the applicant appreciates and likely possesses the skills to help drive an organisation forward."

Elmes agrees. "It's not just about traditional management skills, which can be quite focused on how to run a firm," he says. "This lets people explore more general issues that companies face." Students leave the course understanding those industry-specific issues, he says, and also with the management techniques to deal with them.

Ultimately a specialist MBA programme might not suit every student, and there will always be a need for the broad base of high-level transferable skills that the traditional MBA provides. However, for those who have a clear focus on their industry of choice, opportunity undoubtedly awaits.

"Our graduates tell us that the programme has made them more aware and responsive to opportunity than previously," says Mahon. "They have an enhanced ability to solve problems creatively, and are more adept at generating novel and non-obvious solutions to the problems they face."

So, if you're looking to broaden your career horizons, it might just help you to specialise.

'We've learned from each other as well as the course'

Rhona Peat is currently taking part in the global energy MBA programme at the Warwick Business School. Her employer, Scottish Power, is funding her studies.

"The course has been great. It's a combination of distance learning, online lectures and face-to-face sessions. The modules have been completely relevant to my work and have given me confidence in areas that I have experience of, as well as challenging me with subjects I haven't been exposed to in my career so far.

The course is assessed through a mix of exams, group work and assignments. Although sometimes it's been challenging working in a group when we're all spread throughout the world, it's been useful as that's becoming more common in working life. The residential sessions have been particularly beneficial as the students on the course come from all parts of the energy sector and we're a really chatty bunch. Having discussions in lectures and afterwards in the bar has been very interesting. We've learned a lot from each other, as well as the course.

Working in the energy sector made me keen to ensure that what I was studying was more relevant to my day-to-day work than a standard MBA. We still follow the standard modules, but focus on energy companies, which makes it more interesting.

I think the fact that it's an energy-based MBA also made it more attractive to my employer. They want top managers who understand the sector they're working in and this is an excellent way to develop them. It's certainly given me a broader perspective on the issues that will affect me in the future. I'm in my final year so the long-term benefits are still to emerge.

I would recommend a specialist MBA to prospective students. I think that there are certain sectors that are so core to the business environment that having a course tailored to them adds a huge amount to the experience and learning of an MBA, in addition to the experience we get from meeting others who are in the same sector but from different parts of the world.

Students studying for a specialist MBA should be prepared to work hard, but also be prepared to share their experiences, thoughts and concerns. It takes a while to get back into 'studying mode', but after a couple of modules you understand the pressures and have developed a routine to manage the workload that works for you."