Advancement by Degrees

To specialize or not to specialize? That is the question for MBA students [From the July/August issue of Nashville Post magazine]

Especially in today’s fiercely competitive job market, specialization is an increasingly well-traveled road for job seekers angling to ramp up their hiring appeal. Armed with a specialized MBA, applicants see that tightened career focus as added leverage in the hunt for meaningful work.

Myriad business schools have responded to the trend, offering specialized MBAs highlighting specific aspects of industry in their curriculum. In Nashville, as in other cities, b-school specializations are often developed with an eye toward the area’s primary industries, such as entertainment and health care.

Many Nashville area MBA programs offer specialized concentrations beyond the general MBA. But with substantial tuition fees and valuable time away from work at stake, what are the dangers of pursuing a specialized MBA in today’s job market?

Sarah Fairbank, assistant director of the Executive MBA program at the Vanderbilt Owen School of Management and the primary liaison for the school’s Master's in Health Care Management program, cautions that the program is not just for any member of the health care community. The program, she points out, is designed for health care professionals with years of experience who need special training to fill higher management roles. Health care management has unique aspects that do not apply to traditional business management.

For example, health care accounting requires knowledge of government programs like Medicare. Such specific training is perfect for someone fully committed to a career in health care management, but Fairbank warns that the very degree that may open a door today can limit options tomorrow.

“In today’s world, people rarely stay with one company, or in one field, their whole career,” she says. “A danger of specialized degrees is they can limit options down the road.”

Cutting deep instead of wide with an MBA could also backfire if a chosen field takes a turn for the worse. For example, those who graduated with a specialized MBA concentration in real estate just prior to the housing market bubble pop and ensuing recession have had to scramble for work as their industry has gone largely dormant.

Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro offers specific undergrad concentrations, such as Concrete Industry Management and Aerospace, which can be combined with an MBA from the College of Business for a similar result as a concentrated MBA.

“We have been working with those undergrad concentrations so students can step into our MBA program and finish it in a relatively short time,” says Jim Burton, dean of the MTSU Jennings A. Jones College of Business. “The MBA was designed as a generalist degree across all disciplines of business. What you try to do with these concentrated degrees is focus the examples in class on very specific things related to that concentration so that it helps them apply it [professionally] quickly.”

MTSU’s world-renowned Concrete Industry Management program is an example not only of specialization opening doors but also of the risk/reward associated with specialization. As recently as two years ago, the school boasted 100 percent placement of its CIM graduates, but in the current climate, that placement number has dropped to around 75 percent. Of course, once the nation’s economy turns the corner, the demand for CIM students is sure to return in full force.

Confidence in an economic recovery is between the lines of many decisions that university programs are making. Middle Tennessee human resources professionals can now take advantage of a new Master’s of Human Resources degree at Lipscomb University that offers a unique conflict management curriculum – the only degree of its kind in the state. MTSU’s Burton notes that MTSU is working to expand Concrete Industry Management into an MBA concentration. And the university may not stop there.

“We’ll certainly continue to look at the areas where we have specialized [undergrad] niches like the recording industry and aerospace concentrations.”

So what’s the verdict on whether or not to specialize with an MBA? The experts agree that as a rule of thumb, applicants with any uncertainty in their future careers would be wise to avoid specialization. They also emphasize that a general MBA offers a wide array of skill sets that are applicable in all fields of business.

Anis Mnif, an associate in the Office of Business and Economic Research at Tennessee State University College of Business, sees specialized offerings as attractive for applicants, and TSU’s College of Business provides many such opportunities.

But while Mnif says “specialization has its advantages,” he adds that “a general MBA gives a better opportunity to seek jobs on a widespread basis.”

For practical purposes, Vanderbilt’s Fairbank agrees. Despite the increase in specialized MBA offerings and their growing popularity, the value of a traditional MBA will not diminish.

“If you want to be a CEO, you need a full MBA, whether your company is in health care or not,” Fairbank says.

Regardless of a prospective student’s proclivity, there is no question that both statewide and locally, business schools have enough offerings to meet his or her needs. Applicant foresight and commitment will be the determining factors in whether or not the exercise is a good use of time and money.