Should you do an MSc or an MBA?

Much like the choice between economy and business class flights, both degrees can get you to the same destination. So what's the difference?

by Dr Dimitrios Tsivrikos
Last Updated: 15 Sep 2016

As an academic and businessman in the field of business psychology, I’m often asked, ‘Dimitrios, which type of postgrad degree is better, an MSc or an MBA?’

An apt analogy is to think of the degree as an airplane ticket, with enhanced career prospects the final destination. A Master of Science (MSc) is an economy class ticket, while a Master of Business Administration (MBA) is a business class one.

So the first big difference is the cost. An MSc at Oxford, for example, can cost around £31,000, while an MBA at Oxford will set you back up to £52,000. In return an MBA offers better global recognition as a qualification, and, due to generally being taken later in one’s career, the opportunity to create a higher-status network of peers.

This is a crucial point, because as a recent study by the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission suggests, it is indeed who you know, not what you know, that counts in careers. Business class passengers get to recline on their leather seats and chat with bigwigs, while there isn’t much chance that the person you’re literally rubbing shoulders with back in economy is a FTSE CEO, all set to supercharge your career.

MBA classes are also typically smaller than their MSc equivalents, and students benefit from more resources and more attentive tutoring.

Lest you conclude pretty quickly that it’s all going the MBA’s way, there is another group effect to consider - the question of diversity, of thought as well as background.

Here the evidence is more ambiguous. MBA groups are not only smaller, they also tend to be more like-minded (probably because students have been working for a few years in similar environments). Research does show that a smaller and more like-minded group is likely to enjoy stronger social ties and greater cohesion. There are also plenty of psychological studies suggesting that people trust and favour in-group members over those outside of the group.

So the exclusivity of an MBA ostensibly results in a tight-knit group of people who help each other out - an important asset in business. But such small, cohesive units may not necessarily promote better learning or improved job performance. There is also a body of research showing greater diversity, and even intragroup conflict, positively enhances innovation and performance. And these are qualities one might expect to find in the larger, less exclusive group of an MSc course.

An MSc (usually taken within a year or so of completing an undergraduate degree) also provides a professional boost when it is arguably most needed, helping students to get ahead right at the start of their careers. In contrast, MBAs often stipulate several years of work experience as a pre-entry requirement.

So ultimately both an MSc and an MBA are tickets that can take you to your chosen destination. A business class MBA is more expensive and exclusive, but an economy class MSc is cheaper and may even give you a year or two’s head start on the road (or should I say flightpath?) to a glittering career.

Dr Dimitrios Tsivrikos is a Business and Consumer Psychologist based at University College London. Follow him on Twitter: @DrTsivrikos

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