Despite a booming market in MBAs, more and more students are turning to specialist Masters courses. Nic Paton reports

After a year working at the London Stock Exchange, Ed Boyd decided that finance wasn't for him. He needed a change of direction.

"There were some MBAs available, but the fact that they would have let me on with less than four years experience worried me. They also seemed too broad and I wasn't sure what I would have got out of them," says Boyd, 24, an Exeter University economics graduate who next month will complete an MSc in management and economics from the London School of Economics (LSE).

He's not the only one to turn his back on the traditional gold-standard management qualification and opt instead for a more specialised Masters qualification. Just as the market for MBAs has exploded over the past decade, so too has the market for specialised MA and MSc courses.

French business schools, according to the FT's rankings, tend to dominate the Masters arena, with HEC's Master of science in management coming top, and ESSEC, ESCP-EAP, EM Lyon, Grenoble Graduate School of Business and Audencia School of Management all making it into the top 10. By comparison, the LSE is the only UK school to make it in.

It is also a market that is rapidly evolving. London Business School is currently looking at the possibility of launching a management Masters' programme aimed at "pre-experience" or recent graduates. Durham Business School, too, has announced a link-up with the CFA (Chartered Financial Analyst) Institute within its MSc in economics and finance to allow students to gain an academic and professional qualification at the same time, while Nottingham University Business School has launched an executive MSc in global supply chain management.

Students on Audencia's Master in management programme now spend time looking at the management of cultural institutions, including studying at Sotheby's Institute of Art in London and examining the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao. Boyd's management and economics course at the LSE was only launched last year and the school is launching a new two-year Masters in management this autumn. Oxford University's Saïd Business School, meanwhile, will be running a new MSc in major programme management with the BT Centre for Major Programme Management.

Perhaps the biggest difference between UK and European Masters' is that whereas most European schools tend to go for two-year courses with a stronger emphasis on research, the UK has traditionally focused on offering one-year courses. Against the backdrop of the Bologna Accord, which is aiming to harmonise 40 different European higher education systems by 2010, this could yet become an issue for UK schools.

It's not so much that one-year courses will go – the accord does not recommend a minimum length – but whether, over time, as a report from the Higher Education Policy Institute argued last month, it could mean UK courses becoming out of step with the rest of Europe and therefore less attractive to (lucrative) overseas students. The other side of the coin to this argument, however, is whether being able to get a Masters in 12 rather than 18-24 months will simply make the UK an increasingly popular destination.

Wherever you choose to do them, MAs and MScs remain an attractive alternative partly because they are not generalist MBAs, explains the LSE's Professor Paul Willman, the course director for its new two-year Masters in management programme.

"It is a mature market and there are a lot of MBAs out there. Thirty years ago, if you had an MBA you would be taking new skills and knowledge back into your company. That's not so much the case now," he points out.

What companies are looking for more today is people who are ready to take on responsibility within specific areas rather than simply having the ability to lead, he says.

Janet Smart, director of the BT Centre for Major Programme Management says that the main difference is that an MBA is a general purpose degree while an MSc is much more focused on a particular sector of expertise.

"Many of the course titles will be similar to what you get on an MBA but they will be much more focused," she says.

Another attraction is that an MSc will often be a cheaper option than an MBA. Lancaster University Management School's management and marketing or law MScs, for example, cost UK students £7,000 compared with £18,500 for its MBA.

Others are more expensive, such as Nottingham's executive MSc in global supply chain management, which costs £15,000, although its regular MScs range in price from £4,200 to £7,500.

The research element of the MSc is critical in giving you the skills to anticipate trends and challenges rather than simply react to them, Smart argues. And, much like on an MBA, the cohort you will be working with may have a huge influence on your future career.

"It brings together people from different backgrounds and sectors and can really expand your network. With an MSc, your cohort will be much more focused and hopefully become life-long friends," she says.

Marc Smelik, director of the MBA career management centre at Leeds University Business School says that the payback is different from an MBA.

"If you have done a Masters you might expect to go from there on to a graduate programme. So you will not necessarily get a premium straight away but you are likely to progress faster. With an MBA you are more likely to be coming in at a higher level," he says.

Certainly, this kind of progression is what the LSE's Boyd is hoping for. "I'm aiming to go into the charity sector. I've spoken to a few CEOs who I know and they've told me that just having a Masters from the LSE will help in interviews," he explains.

"In about five years when an organisation is choosing who to promote as manager then I hope that having a Masters will really help."

To find out more about specialist business Masters programmes, see Business Courses in The Independent next Thursday, 19 June

'The MSc was a chance to do something different'

Former physics PhD Harald Nieder, 32, works in the City for investment bank BNP Paribas and did an MSc in financial economics at Saïd Business School in 2006.

For me the attraction was that, with my background, I did not have any experience in banking or finance but I did not want to go into quantitative research, which is what you would normally do with a PhD like mine.

The MSc was for me an opportunity to do something a bit different. It really gave me a background in corporate finance but it was also quite technical, which I don't think I would have got from an MBA.

What was also good was that it was part of the economics department as well as the business school, so it had that extra academic rigour to it.

When I was studying I had a lot of contact with the MBA staff but I also had a lot more technical exposure. For me it was a good choice, and without it I don't think I would have got my current job, but it depends on where you want to go afterwards. Certainly, if you want to go into finance, I'd say an MSc is a better choice.