For more than 100 years, the MBA (Master of Business Administration) degree has transformed the way we think about career preparation and leadership development.

While the MBA is still the central offering of most graduate business programs, many innovative business schools have also created new degrees, certificates, and academic experiences to meet the management needs of the world’s future leaders.

One of the simplest ways to understand the many different graduate management education (GME) options is to differentiate between MBA leadership development programs and non-degree offerings.

The Many Degrees of Graduate Management Education

Master’s-level leadership development degrees generally fall into one of two categories: MBA or specialist programs.

  • Master of Business Administration (MBA): The MBA is the most well-known business degree and is designed to give students a broad overview of business fundamentals. It typically takes two years to complete and is offered by most business schools around the world. The first year in an MBA program typically focuses on a core curriculum to establish an understanding how an organization functions in areas like finance, accounting, data analysis, and leadership. The second year is usually more focused on elective curriculum where students specialize in a specific functional area like marketing or finance. In this traditional MBA format, an internship is generally required during the summer between the two years, which usually carries some academic course credit. These programs also usually require at least two years of full-time professional experience prior to admission.

  • Executive MBA (EMBA): The EMBA is geared toward more senior leaders preparing to transition into executive leadership roles. These programs usually meet every other week on Friday evening and all day Saturday. Instead of an internship between the two years, these programs usually include an intensive experiential course where students have the chance to learn and observe business in context.

  • Master in Management (MIM): The MIM is a one-year master's degree that is similar to that earned by an MBA student, but is designed for students who have less work experience. These degrees, while a relatively recent development in the U.S., have been very popular in Europe for decades.

  • Specialized Master’s Programs: There are scores of Master of Science (MS) degrees offered by business schools in areas like finance, human resources, supply chain management, and many others. These degrees are typically 30-credit degrees designed to be completed in one year, and do not require work experiences. Some of the most common specialized degrees include the Master of Science in Finance (MSFin) and the Master of Science in Business Analytics (MSBA).

  • Industry and Market Degrees: Some programs are tied to specific industries or markets such as accounting, human resources, or real estate development.
Junior executives gather around their manager at her desk

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If It’s Not a Degree, What Is It?

  • Executive education programs are designed to focus on topics such as strategic management, leadership development, and innovation. Delivered by industry experts and renowned academics, these programs offer a great opportunity for professionals to hone their skills, expand their networks, and stay updated with the latest business trends.

  • Certificate programs, another popular category of non-degree options, specialize in specific business disciplines. For example, business schools may offer certificates in areas such as finance, marketing, entrepreneurship, or project management based on the same material used in their degree programs. Sometimes certificate students even enroll in the same courses as degree students. These programs usually cover essential foundational knowledge and skills required in each field, providing participants with a solid understanding of the subject matter.

  • Business schools also offer non-credit-bearing courses for professionals who want to explore a new field or deepen their knowledge in a specific business topic. These non-credit courses allow participants to gain new skills, insights, and perspectives in a short period, enhancing their marketability and adding value to their professional profiles.

6 Key Factors to Consider

There are several important considerations to evaluate when deciding between a degree and a non-degree business school program. To make an informed choice, it's essential to think carefully about the following factors:

  1. Career goals and aspirations
  2. Time commitment
  3. Cost considerations
  4. Networking opportunities
  5. Admission requirements
  6. Industry and employer preferences

Ultimately, the decision of whether to attend a degree and a non-degree business school program depends on your unique individual circumstances, so be sure to evaluate your personal, academic, and career priorities as you research your options.

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