The Online MBA has traditionally been a generalist degree that helps participants move into more senior leadership positions. But increasingly, business schools are developing their Online MBA programs to also focus on narrow sectors of business, such as data analytics and healthcare.
Many Online MBA programs now come with a high degree of customization, with schools offering dozens of electives and often several “concentrations” or “specializations” — selections of courses offering deep dives into subjects like finance or marketing. The value of a niche focus is that it can make students more employable in specialist fields.
“A concentration is ideal for students who want to focus on particular fields or disciplines, whether to advance in their current organization or pursue a career change,” says Amy Foster, Online MBA program director at UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School.
Elective courses, which make up almost half of UNC Kenan-Flagler’s Online MBA, allow students to customize the curriculum and develop focused knowledge in the subjects that align with their personal interests and career goals.
Concentrations, on the other hand, consist of suggested core and elective courses for students to build their knowledge in particular focus areas. UNC Kenan-Flagler offers five concentrations in: entrepreneurship, finance, data analytics and decision making, strategy and consulting, and marketing.
“The most popular concentration is entrepreneurship, with strategy and consulting and marketing trading off for second and third at different times,” says Foster. Ambitious individuals with aspirations of launching their own commercial ventures can benefit from the entrepreneurship concentration. “It helps students bring their business ideas to life,” she says.
Delving into entrepreneurship, consulting, or technology
At Durham University Business School in the UK, Online MBA students can choose from eight optional modules once they have completed the six core modules. They have to choose two from this selection: New Venture Creation, Entrepreneurship, International Business in Context, Management, Management Consultancy, Business Analytics, Technology Innovation, and Project Management.
Those modules are part of the three “pathways”: entrepreneurship, consultancy or technology. The advantage is simple: students can concentrate on specific areas of expertise they want to develop. For instance, those who want to open their own business may choose the entrepreneurship pathway.
“There has been a great interest in all modules and concentrations and pathways,” says Jorge Lengler, director of the Online MBA at Durham’s business school. “However, the entrepreneurship pathway has received greater attention from those students who want to become entrepreneurs.”
The question is whether specialisms bring Online MBAs into competition with specialized masters degrees, which have been growing in popularity. Lengler thinks not, arguing that Online MBAs have a strong focus on the application of theory to the real business world. In addition, many specialized masters programs offer fewer courses, meaning students must sacrifice either the breadth, or the depth that an MBA provides.
Making an Online MBA program your own
The Online MBA at Rice University’s Jones Graduate School of Business does not offer concentrations or specializations; instead students customize the program to meet their specific career goals with electives. This approach means that students are not pigeonholed into one area, or prevented from taking courses that are critical for their career planning.
“Starting in the second year of the program, students choose from a range of courses that focus on building specialized skills in areas such as finance, marketing, strategy and entrepreneurship,” says George Andrews, associate dean of degree programs at Rice: Jones.
“Elective courses span five or 10 weeks in length,” he adds. “Students either choose electives that align with specific interests, go with a general management approach, or select one of seven career or industry focus areas.”
“Focus areas” provide opportunities for students to specialize. “The core MBA curriculum focuses on developing competencies and advanced business skills to solve complex problems across industries,” he explains. “The focus areas allow students to dive deeper into industry or career-specific topics and disciplines, allowing them to differentiate themselves from their fellow MBA graduates.”
Energy, Entrepreneurship and Healthcare are the three largest areas of interest for prospective Rice: Jones students. This reflects the business school’s geographical location and connections to local employers; most Online MBA students are from the state of Texas.
Houston, where Rice University is located, is considered an energy capital of the world. Houston employs nearly a third of America’s jobs in oil and gas extraction, and is home to 4,600 energy-related firms.
In addition, Texas more broadly is home to some of the top hospital systems in the country. Rice’s Online MBA students can take advantage of elective courses focused on health. “Students will learn how to navigate the massive, complex, and oftentimes dysfunctional world of healthcare, developing the skills to lead these organizations,” says Andrews.
On the question of whether MBA programs are diverting too far from their generalist roots, Andrews says Rice: Jones’s Online MBA is still designed to develop advanced business and leadership skills that solve complex problems that can be applied to any industry.
The focus areas provide opportunities to develop specialized knowledge of particular industries or careers. “By bringing these together, students graduate with the breadth and depth to lead and solve complex problems, but also understand the nuances of particular industries and job functions,” he adds.