The Next Big Thing: Specialized Business Degrees


In the past when I read the latest announcement about an MBA for the Music Industry or an MBA in Pastoral Ministry, I often wondered if the world of business education had either gone mad or lost itself in some sort of marketing overload.

Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with product diversification. Where would Apple’s (AAPL) share price be if the company had not moved into the phone business? And hindsight will be 20-20 to evaluate Google’s (GOOG)move into eyewear with Google Glass. As for specialization, the music industry could use all the business help it can get to compete with illegal downloads and dwindling revenue.

But wasn’t the MBA intended as a generalist business degree, whether for someone looking to switch jobs or move further ahead in their current career? The dazzling array of electives available to students in the latter part of the program meant that there were always plenty of opportunities to focus on finance, marketing, or operations management—traditional business skills applicable to almost any industry.

As Jackie Wilbur, executive director of master’s programs at MIT’s Sloan School of Management, points out in a Bloomberg Businessweek article, “The specialized program is great, as long as everyone is clear what the career trajectory is.” If your heart is set on working in luxury goods, real estate, or energy management, the specialized business degree could be the perfect springboard, despite the latent risk of finding yourself pigeonholed when an industry downturn forces you to look outside your chosen sector.

But maybe the future of specialization lies with pre-experience master’s programs for recent college graduates rather than with the MBA itself. The 2012 Applications Trends Survey by the Graduate Management Admission Council reports that the majority of such programs have enjoyed their fifth straight year of robust growth, with more than three-quarters of applicants considerably younger than their MBA counterparts. A discussion with Patrice Houdayer, vice president of graduate programs at France’s EM Lyon Business School, helped to explain some of the appeal, for both students and recruiters alike.

The school offers specialized master’s degrees in areas such as sports and outdoor industry management, and luxury management and marketing. “Companies that operate within these highly competitive, international environments need managers who can adapt their knowledge to the particular nuances of their markets,” Houdayer says. “The expansion of the leisure and luxury sectors into Asia challenges their core brand strategies, whether that’s for a hotel chain, a fashion house, or a manufacturer of sports gear. So recruiters are looking for talented graduates who have worked or studied in different regions of the world to help them better understand customer expectations and cultural norms.”

In the case of the sports and outdoor industry, the school has partnered with leading brands such as Salomon, North Face (VFC), and Rip Curl to design the course. Students learn the fundamentals of management at E.M. Lyon, then move to the French Alps for five months of specialization and internships (and presumably a little bit of skiing or rock climbing for good measure) before completing the course at the school’s Shanghai campus. The MSc in Luxury Management follows a similar structure, partnering with the likes of Cartier (CFR), LVMH (MC), and Jaeger Le Coultre. Recent students worked with Hermès (RMS) on the strategy to bring its Chinese luxury brand Shang Xia back to Europe.

I have to admit the whole thing would have sounded very tempting when I was coming out of college, though if we go that far back, Chairman Mao would have still been running China, and Sir Edmund Hillary was conquering Everest in old army gear, let alone Gore-Tex! That business schools and recruiters collaborate together makes a lot of sense to me, and developing highly relevant course content and an enviable industry network sounds very attractive for today’s job market.

And there’s one other potential benefit of the specialized master’s for companies looking to build their pipeline of talent. More than half (52 percent) of applicants to master’s programs are women. Maybe they can follow the lead of Lady Gaga and Beyoncé to turn the music industry around.

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