MBA or MSBA: Which is Best for You?

The world-famous Master of Business Administration (MBA) degree had surprisingly humble origins in its birthplace, the US. Arising in the early 20th century at a time when industrialization was maturing and huge corporations were forming from the smaller family businesses that were then the norm, these courses were an attempt to address a new problem – namely, the growing need to apply rational, scientific principles to the management of extraordinarily complex, large commercial organizations.

Postgraduate students

In those early days, they took the form of little more than a small number of accounting and bookkeeping courses. Fast-forward to the 21st century, and it has grown into one of the most intricate and highly valued advanced degrees among budding entrepreneurs, business managers, and enterprising people seeking credentials that can facilitate higher salaries and abundant career opportunities in the business world.

From accounting and bookkeeping, this degree has expanded to encompass a wide raft of new areas of study that students can choose to concentrate on during their course, from Global Leadership to e-Commerce to Information Technology Management, and other specialized areas – forms of expertise that contemporary large-scale, international businesses require.

Over the years, however, it’s not just the MBA itself that has expanded in scope. Newer business degrees are also emerging that offer students more intensive specializations. One that has been steadily rising in popularity (and commercial demand) is the Master of Science in Business Analytics (MSBA).

More specifically technical than the MBA (which emphasizes overall management of an enterprise or project), the MSBA more directly addresses the need to analyze and interpret the vast amounts of data that modern businesses have to contend with. This so-called Big Data is very real, yet somehow, ‘actionable insights’ have to be extracted from it in order to plan ahead judiciously and thrive.

Let’s take a closer look at the differences between the two degrees and seek to answer the question, ‘Which of them is best for you?’

How do MBA and MSBA degrees differ?

One way of answering this question is to consider the learning outcomes of both programs. It’s worth bearing in mind at this stage that natural interest will play a part in studying for either: both require concentration, determination, and ability, and it’s better to be pursuing such intensive studies with subjects – and prospective careers – that naturally appeal to you.

MBA learning outcomes

In a nutshell, the MBA seeks to produce graduates with proficiencies in overall business management.

Accounting still forms a major component of the MBA program, but so also do other fields of study, including economics, statistics, and marketing. Remember that the overall aim is to produce graduates who are capable of helping to managerially steer a complex business or organization to success. The topics just listed do indeed help graduates to expertly anatomize business environments and streamline business/organizational operations in more efficient ways. However, being a savvy and sophisticated ‘number-cruncher’ doesn’t help much if that talent isn’t matched with an ability to communicate one’s findings to non-technical colleagues.

So, in addition to these so-called ‘hard skills’, MBA graduates are also expected to demonstrate proficiencies in communicating clearly and intelligibly with a broad array of different employees, stakeholders, and customers. However, in a way, this is just one of several indispensable strings to the MBA graduate’s bow.

MBA graduates must also possess strong aptitudes in teamwork and problem-solving. These are often somewhat misleadingly called ‘soft skills’, though the intricacies of clear interpersonal communication to a diverse set of recipients with different roles, levels of competence, and specialism are far from easy (a meaning that often gets evoked, at least subconsciously, upon hearing the word ‘soft’).

Human speech and presentations are open to misinterpretation as well as novel insights. It takes considerable knowledge and skill to boil down intricate data sets and concepts into lucid and widely comprehensible language. The MBA seeks to instill these abilities into its graduates along with the ‘hard skills’ that inform them.

Implicit but pivotally important in the acquisition of proficiencies in these ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ business skills is another attribute that MBA programs seek to imbue their graduates with: leadership. This emerges when people are confident in the soundness of their knowledge and insights, and can communicate that confidence along with the insights that inform it. MBA graduates emerge well practiced in the arts of leadership that are so indispensable for managerial, supervisory, or executive roles in large organizations.

MSBA learning outcomes

It’s perhaps true to say that the world has always been saturated in data. It’s just that, before the rise of digital technologies, we weren’t capable of knowing of their existence, so they eluded us. Of course, it’s equally true that in addition to rendering previously imperceptible troves of data visible to us, digital technologies – upon which modern-day business depends – also generates vast quantities of data, well beyond the limits of human computational powers.

With the burgeoning quantities (and critical importance) of data in today’s business environment, the ability to analyze it and derive practically implementable business insights from it has crucial. These sought-after proficiencies lie at the core of the learning outcomes delivered by the successful completion of the MSBA program.

Students focus more intensively on acquiring rising new competencies: methods of data mining, computer coding languages, managing data quality, and deploying data in analytic modeling exercises to help shape effective business strategies.

As with the MBA learning outcomes outlined above, a core competency that MBSA graduates are expected to demonstrate is effective communication. Without that, data loses much of its value. Whatever remains incomprehensible is more prone to being overlooked or ignored. Graduates with outstanding abilities in data mining, data cleansing, and data analysis are liable to run aground swiftly if they lack the ability to convey the insights derived from their technical expertise to non-technical colleagues and stakeholders.

For this reason, proficiency in data modeling – a core learning outcome of the MSBA – has become a boon to modern-day businesses, not least because it’s capable of condensing immensely complex data into more ‘humanly digestible’ forms. However, an MSBA graduate must also be able to speak about their models in language that intelligibly conveys what they mean. An ability to translate such findings and interpretations into clear proposal options for business action is an indispensable attribute of a successful MSBA graduate.

As Forbes recently noted, a capable MSBA graduate brings crucial actionable analytics to the table by organizing and converting vast amounts of data into intelligible and widely shareable categories. These include historically derived descriptive analytics (such as sales methods, profit margins, and operational performance), diagnostic analytics (such as detecting seasonal dips in sales or linking service cancellations from customers with higher-than-normal rates of support calls), predictive analytics (using, for example, machine learning algorithms to model potential future actions from important correlations in past trends) and prescriptive analytics (a blend of the previous three converted into practical options for improving future outcomes).


Now might be a good moment to emphasize a key difference between MBA and MSBA programs. Although both degrees are designed to equip graduates with the knowledge to improve business strategies, the MBA’s curriculum is generally more ‘holistic’ with regard to business education, while the MSBA emphasizes crucial analytic skills.

The emphasis in the MSBA is placed on the more technical fields of study, with courses focusing on data mining methods, computer coding languages such as SQL, Hadoop, and Python, and software programs such as Azure Machine Learning and Microsoft Access.

Both degrees, however, require students to complete group tasks, take part in online discussions, and, of course, pass formal examinations. Both often require students to complete an applied project showcasing their overall learning during the program or probing more deeply into a specific interest aligned with the student’s career aspirations.

Office manager

Career options for MBA and MSBA graduates

As noted earlier, the MBA award prepares graduates for future managerial, executive, and leadership roles. The business skills acquired apply to a wide range of industries, granting graduates a generous choice of career opportunities. MBA graduates are often found in a range of business departments, including marketing, sales, and finance. Many come to occupy senior roles such as director of supply chain management, director of finance, and financial analyst.

Alternatively, some MBA graduates ‘go independent’, consulting to firms of various sizes and privately contracting to assist a business through a specific challenge.

MSBA graduates leave their programs equipped with coveted technical know-how, especially in the many aspects of data analysis. These proficiencies are keenly sought after by a broad range of organizations, from media firms to higher educational establishments such as universities to consumer products review agencies.

Demand for professionals equipped with the data analytics expertise contained within the MSBA program is growing ever stronger in today’s data-driven world. Many become business intelligence analysts, data warehousing experts, and operations analysts – all of them stimulating and well-remunerated roles.

This brings us to the crunch question: which is best for you, the MBA or the MSBA?

MBA or MSBA: which is best for you?

The more generic approaches of MBA programs are traditionally pursued by people who have in mind future leadership roles, while the MSBA is less encompassing, equipping graduates instead with more specialized (though widely applicable) knowledge in data analytics. This makes them uniquely capable of converting mind-bogglingly complex sets of data into intelligible and pragmatic strategic business recommendations.

When all is said and done, the answer to this question revolves around what interests you: you’ll be studying hard in either program and, as noted earlier, it’s always best to be toiling away at subjects that naturally interest you rather than those that don’t particularly.

However, there is another option that a number of innovative universities are offering, which allows those who are undecided about the MBA/MSBA choice to enjoy the benefits of both.

For those searching with equal interest for the best online MSBA programs and top MBA programs, centers of higher educational excellence such as Boston’s Suffolk University provide what may be the optimal solution for prospective students who are equally attracted to both programs: a dual MBA/MSBA degree.

The program, which can be studied online on a part-time or full-time basis, combines an experiential MBA with key competencies in data and business analytics. Students effectively get to study two degrees in a significantly shorter time (and with appreciably less cost) than pursuing both courses consecutively. Those emerging successfully from the program, in other words, walk away with two distinct graduate degrees, opening the door to the handsomely remunerated and fulfilling roles mentioned in the ‘comparison’ segment above.


For those who know that they have strong preferences for a more generic advanced degree that opens multiple avenues in senior executive, managerial, and leadership tiers of the business world, the MBA is probably the way to go. Equally, those drawn to Big Data and its multiple methods of analysis and modeling may be better suited to the more technically focused option of the MSBA.

However, as noted in the preceding section, an either/or choice is no longer the only option for those who are drawn to the curricula of both degrees. Dual degrees offer such candidates the best of both worlds, and in an appreciably shorter timeframe than using each one separately on a consecutive basis.


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