Going Back to School in a Technology Related Field: MBA vs MS

James DavisAuthor James Davis, PhD. is an experienced software developer, entrepreneur, combat veteran, and occasional professor.  He has a PhD in Information Systems & Decision Science from Louisiana State University and habitually collects technology certifications.  Davis can be contacted at james.davisphd@gmail.com.

Been thinking about getting a graduate degree?  Here is some advice for entrepreneurs and technology professionals.  For the perspective of this article, the focus will be on MBA vs. MS in a technology related field such as computer science or information systems.  Other graduate programs may be relevant to your career but if you have to explain your degree to people, it probably will not mean much to them.

Perhaps the most important aspect of the MBA degree is where you got it.  If possible, select a top 50 business school or at least the top regional business school in your current location.  In general, avoid the for-profit / on-line schools.  Having taught in those programs, they lack rigor, credibility, prestige, and most importantly the immediate networking with other business leaders.  While the MS degree is less susceptible to the prestige critique compared to an MBA, you still need to seek a respected program.

Which degree is better?  Consider a sports analogy.  In an MBA program, students receive a solid foundation in all aspects of business.  MBA graduates emerge as talented athletes trained and capable of performing well in any sport as they have a foundation in all of the relevant disciplines.  Conversely, graduates from an MS program have been focusing in one specific area becoming an expert or, keeping with the sports analogy, a specialist.  An athlete can be expected to do well in most positions while the expectations for the specialist are to be really good at the one position.

To the entrepreneur:  Knowing nothing more than you are a small business owner, I would say get an MBA.  The MBA is definitely a popular degree and will provide insights into accounting, marketing, technology, and finance which helps when growing a business.

Unless your entrepreneurial endeavors include consulting, a graduate degree in technology might not be the best fit.  There are no technologies that a motivated entrepreneur cannot learn either through self-study or by taking a course.

If you are a determined entrepreneur, you might not find what you are looking for in any graduate program.  Most business schools have been slow to embrace entrepreneurship and focus on producing graduates headed toward corporate positions.

To the technology professional:  Select the degree that best supports your personal brand and professional image.  While there are always exceptions, the MBA is the de facto prerequisite for certain C-level and management positions.  See yourself sitting in a big corner office someday?  Then the MBA may be best for you.   If this is the case, then focus on the prestige of the degree.  Cater your preparations and application process for the top programs.

If your personal brand is more of a technologist, strongly consider the MS in technology.  Unlike your undergraduate experience, the MS program will have a direct focus on your major concentration.  The pedagogical relationship with professors in a MS program is much stronger and can involve publishing research in your field.   A MS in technology portrays an image that you are an expert.

All that said; go get the degree you want.  There are no guaranteed paths to success and nothing says you can’t pivot with market changes.   Most popular graduate programs have evening and/or weekend classes to meet the needs of working professionals.  Consider where you are and where you want to be.  Seek advice from a trusted mentor along with input from colleagues in your field.