When Claire Zhang was doing her undergrad degree at the University of Toronto, she chose her majors—psychology and economics—out of pure interest. But when it came to choosing an MBA, she made her choice based on the best possible option for landing a job. She’d been working in marketing for a Toronto realty company, and the booming market convinced her of potential career opportunities in real estate analysis for investors.
So, when she was considering postgrad choices, one program made the most sense: Ryerson’s specialized MBA in retail and commercial real estate management.
“With a specialized program, I was able to take more courses in real estate and have a clear focus throughout my MBA experience,” says Zhang. She credits her specialized study with helping her land a job before graduation as a real estate analyst at TD.
Students like Zhang have become the norm as the rise of specialized MBA programs has swept across the business school landscape. With more MBA programs than ever before serving a record number of students—about 10,000 students are registered in Canadian MBA programs this year, up from 4,800 in 1998—specialization has become a defining trend, helping schools compete for the best students, and graduates compete for the best jobs.
While concentrations in traditional areas such as finance have existed for years, a new wave of industry-specific program announcements include golf and resort management (introduced at Wilfrid Laurier this fall) and mining (another Ryerson option). UBC’s Sauder School of Business, meanwhile, reorganized its program offerings last year into functional streams like entrepreneurship, and product and service management—specialties that have focus but can be applied across a variety of industries. Queen’s introduced a similar revamp this fall, with career tracks that include sales and marketing, consulting, and entrepreneurship and innovation.
What’s become of the old-school general MBA? In 2011, just 10% of Canadian MBA students taking the GMAT picked general management as their choice of concentration. And according to a 2012 survey by the Graduate Management Admission Council, the organization that administers the GMAT admission test for graduate business and management programs, 64% of business school deans felt MBA programs would specialize further in the next five years.
Industry watchers aren’t surprised: “Business is just getting more complex,” says Amir Muradali, founder of the Association of MBAs in Canada. “The rules, regulations and standards are more stringent in all areas in business, so I can see why a lot of people gravitate toward a specialized program.”
From a university’s perspective, specialized programs can tap new pools of students. Asked about the success of Ryerson’s mining specialization, MBA director Kimberly Bates says it has worked out well. “We’ve placed students with mining consultancies on a regular basis. And frankly, we’d like to attract people who are already working in mining finance and could use an MBA to jump-start their career. So it looks good to us from a number of perspectives.”
Hugh Munro, program director at Wilfrid Laurier, says the university’s new golf and resort specialty emerged in response to industry demand. Representatives of the Golf Management Institute of Canada made it clear that stakeholders like equipment manufacturers TaylorMade and Adidas, as well as resort operators, were looking for a new type of grad.
“It’s really no different than preparing someone for the financial services sector or health care,” says Munro. “This [also] gives students an interesting and challenging industry to be exposed to, offers great career opportunities, and we’ve got a partnership with a multitude of stakeholders in that industry prepared to work with us.”
Still, not all students are convinced that specialization is the way to go. When Sarah Lake started her MBA in health services management at McMaster’s Degroote School of Business last fall she saw the specialization as a natural extension of her undergrad biology degree. But after a co-op work term at S. C. Johnson, where she analyzed market and consumer trends for home cleaning products, she decided her co-op experience was specialization enough and switched back to a general MBA.
“If I wasn’t getting this co-op experience, I’d see more value in specializing, but as it stands, it’s enhancing my resumé without me having to sacrifice any of the diversity in my MBA,” says Lake.
Among Canadian universities there’s no consensus around the ideal level of specialization. Up until 2011 Sauder offered 16 different niche programs, including IT management, supply-chain management, organizational behaviour and human resources. After an 18-month review process that involved consultation with employers, alumni, students, faculty and advisory board members, the school relaunched its program last fall with just four streams. The school’s associate dean, Murali Chandrashekaran, says many business schools began re-evaluating after the corporate scandals of the early 2000s and the 2008 crisis.
“The question for business schools across the globe was, what should an MBA program be delivering?” says Chandrashekaran. “Should we be focusing on specializations in specific areas, or is this an opportunity to paint on a bigger canvas? That led to our review, and many schools went through this. Some inserted a few modules and called it a day. We went down the path to break it all apart and build it again as something custom-built for this new world economy.”