Master your own destiny: Take an MSc in business

An MSc is a major investment, but the rewards are more than worth the effort

The business Masters qualification is on the march. Globally, applications are on the rise and many programmes are showing positive year-on-year growth. According to the latest application trends survey from the Graduate Management Admissions Council (Gmac), programmes showing growth worldwide include Masters in management (73 per cent), marketing and communications (78 per cent), and IT management (69 per cent).

This is partly thanks to sterling marketing efforts by the institutions involved, but the benefits an MSc in business offers students mean other factors can come into play. First and foremost it's beneficial for a particular demographic, suggests Jane Delbene, EMEA marketing director at Gmac. "Most candidates are attracted to the degree at an early phase of their career," she says. "Many of these programmes are designed for younger candidates who have little or no work experience and provide them with enhanced skills and a competitive edge."

Professor Mark Taylor, dean of Warwick Business School, agrees, explaining that in this context the MSc is largely a pre-experience qualification aimed at recent graduates. "Effectively, the MSc management and MSc business courses are conversion courses that offer a high-level business and management training qualification for people without a background in that field."

It's partly this relative lack of experience that distinguishes MSc in business candidates from those considering an MBA, which requires more years at the coalface and more investment. Typically, MBA candidates will have five to seven years' experience and might pay over £30,000 for a programme. MSc students, however, may have less than 18 months' experience, if any, and face fees of around £19,000 (based on costs from the Cranfield School of Management).

The nature and content of the courses is different as well says Susan Roth, director of specialist Masters programmes and head of international partnerships at Cass Business School. "Compared with an MBA degree, an MSc is more technical and allows students to do a 'deep dive' into a subject," she says. "An MBA is designed to give students exposure to many areas of business, while an MSc allows students to become 'specialists' in a particular subject area."

As a result, Masters in business qualifications come in many different guises with course content varying accordingly. The University of Warwick, for example, offers a range of MSc business qualifications covering areas such as finance or analytics and consulting, with students on the latter option working alongside industry partners on research projects. "There is lots of group work on the MSc programmes and the teaching enforces working as a team through workshops and seminars," says Taylor.

Meanwhile, Imperial Business School provides MSc management as well as innovation, entrepreneurship and management programmes. "Both provide students with a solid background in core management subjects, coupled with highly practical skills," says Marco Mongiello, director of both programmes and principal teaching fellow in accounting. "Our students explore and experience the challenges of real business, by interacting with venture capitalists and corporate partners in defining, addressing and solving real problems."

In addition, students across a range of programmes and institutions can expect to gain more general skills that will help them in whatever industry they choose to work in. "These include the majority of skills that future employers look for, such as effective team working, presentation skills, written and oral communication skills, time management and analytical and critical reasoning," says Mongiello.

They'll gain in confidence too, says Professor Paul Baines, senior lecturer in marketing at Cranfield School of Management and course director of the MSc in strategic marketing. The school's courses include a personal development programme to help students look beyond technical skills, he says. "Sometimes this requires deeply intimate conversations, but the key thing is to give them the confidence to move forwards." Working on case studies gives students better commercial awareness and an insight into executive thinking, he adds. "We make them believe in themselves and give them content that helps them deal with particular situations, so they're much more credible in their roles when they move into them."

When it comes to finding the right programme, Delbene advises prospective students to focus on the industry they want to work in. "Search for programmes that offer a curriculum that seems most attuned to the career path you have in your mind," she says. "Admissions professionals often tell candidates to look at the profile of students typically in the class, determine what kind of network they want to build, examine the core and elective courses, and what types of co-curricular experience or work projects and internships may exist."

Once on a course, Baines recommends total immersion in order to get the very best out of it. This is nothing to do with combined networking-swimming sessions, it's all about committing to the programme. "I think the key is that the more you put in, the more you'll get out," he says. "Turn up to sessions. Interact with faculty members. Read what you're asked to read."

There's a lot to be gained from committing to your coursemates as well, Baines adds. "One of the great benefits of a Masters course at a major university is that you'll be with people from all over the world. Never again will you have that kind of international mix of people around you, so making use of the connections, not just within the class, but with everyone on the course, is really important."

While there are never any guarantees, there's a good chance that the connections, experience and technical knowledge an MSc in business gives you will be worth the investment when it comes to attracting a potential employer's attention. "Having a postgraduate qualification is not a prerequisite," says Rob Fryer, head of graduate recruitment at Deloitte. "However, postgraduate qualifications are highly regarded and can add experience and qualifications to your CV that your peers may not have."

A business Masters qualification is a significant commitment, which Baines acknowledges, but he believes the benefits more than justify the effort. "A Masters gives you the ability to think critically," he says. "I think employers are impressed – they like students' ability to think beyond the obvious and to think strategically about problems. It remains a huge investment but it's also hugely advantageous for people's careers."

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