3 Specializations You Should Consider for Your MBA

“Differentiation” is a mantra for most successful MBA and EMBA applicants.

In an increasingly large pool of highly-qualified applicants competing for limited spaces in MBA programs, each applicant needs to present a unique value proposition to have a shot at admission to a school of choice.

B-schools are also trying to set themselves apart from one another. Some business schools appear to be waging a war of differentiation, competing less on overall rankings and more by offering increasingly specialized curricular options within their MBA programs. This strategy yields two potential benefits: First, it increases the schools’ appeal to top students with specific industry goals; and second, it prepares students with more specialized expertise to lead complex organizations and industries.

In fact, data from more than 500 schools surveyed last year by the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB) showed only 51 percent of their accredited programs worldwide reporting a general business or management focus. Programs focused on finance and marketing accounted for another 13 percent of those surveyed — leaving almost 36 percent of programs focused on “other disciplines.”

What should you look for in a specialization?

Most specialized MBA programs gain traction and add value by focusing on:

Industries whose structure and financing are becoming greater and more complex (demanding post-MBA industry leaders with highly sophisticated industry knowledge and business acumen), and

Particular strengths of the business schools’ home universities and/or geographic areas.

The following are the big three specializations that most clearly encapsulate these key principles:

1. Healthcare

Some of the best-established specialized MBA programs focus on healthcare, including those at Wharton, Tuck, and Duke–Fuqua. Healthcare is a ripe target for MBAs, as it offers ever-growing financing streams. Universities with thriving medical and business schools are particularly well-suited to train future industry leaders.

2. Sustainability

Sustainability or “green” business is another prime area of focus for specialized MBAs. A unique and pioneering entrant in this market is the Presidio Graduate School in the San Francisco Bay Area, a freestanding school devoted entirely to sustainability education. Prominent university-based programs in the field include Cornell–Johnson’s Sustainable Global Enterprise Immersion program within the two-year MBA, Berkeley–Haas’s area of emphasis in Corporate Social Responsibility, and Yale’s sustainability focus.

3. Real Estate

Real estate rounds out the “big three” of specialized MBA tracks, with leading programs sited at Columbia Business School and NYU Stern. Through these programs, students learn how to understand the expanding primary and secondary real estate markets, rounding out their studies by diving into law, taxation, and regulations.

Specializations to Keep an Eye On

Specialized MBA programs on the rise include fashion, luxury, and retail programs located in world capitals, such as New York (NYU Stern) and Paris (ESSEC), and wine-industry programs located in Bordeaux, France (INSEEC), and in California’s wine country (Sonoma State University). Energy management programs are also emerging, with programs at the University of Texas McCombs School and the University of Oklahoma Price College of Business. These leverage industry and alumni networks in geographic centers of the industry.

Why should you consider a specialized MBA?

Pursuing MBA studies is a huge investment of resources — personal and financial — for almost all students. Choosing a specialized program represents “doubling down” on a career choice — gaining deeper industry knowledge during your studies at the potential cost of the versatility that a generalist degree may provide.

Other alternatives to a traditional MBA include dual-degree programs (many of them in the fields listed above), which typically require even greater time and financial investments than the MBA, and specialized master’s programs in business, typically lasting one year and requiring significantly less work and leadership experience for admission than traditional MBA programs.

As with any investment, your personal ROI on a particular educational option can’t be predicted with precision, and the combination of factors that contribute to your decision will be unique. This rapid expansion of options, while exciting, demands rigorous due diligence and decision-making by all applicants. When it comes down to it, this process in itself provides great preparation for both your business school education and your professional career.

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