One of the most regular questions I receive at, via our online forums on Facebook, Twitter and so on, is Should I do an MBA or a Masters degree?

Ross Geraghty talks to some leading business schools and attempts to unscramble the spaghetti for you.

In a sense this is a question in two parts. First, and please don't forget this, what is it that you, the individual graduate, want? Secondly, what do recruiters say they want for the jobs and careers that you are getting your education for? Particularly since the economic downturn, corporates and business schools proactively confer on business education. Recruiters tell the top business schools what they expect from their business managers and the schools respond.

Schools meanwhile work hard to retain individuality and educational rigour; the debate raging around the MBA academic world right now is to what extent corporate governance and ethics should become a core feature of MBA and other business programs.

MBA or Masters?
Essentially, MBAs are a 'post-experience' qualification in general management, usually requiring three or more years of work experience, though four to eight years is most common. Schools such as IMD in Switzerland, have students with an average of seven years while Executive MBA, or EMBA, courses are targeted at those with executive experience, ten or more years generally.

The vast majority of MBA courses stress the general nature of the education - there are specialist MBA courses, such as MBA in Wine Management at Bordeaux, but let's not discuss that here. An MBA graduate will emerge from their program conversant, at least, with several core subjects including marketing, strategy, leadership, entrepreneurship, operations, human resources and so on. This gives them a holistic overview of how businesses work.

David Bach, Associate Dean of the MBA and Professor of Strategy at IE Business School in Spain, says that the MBA trains young professionals in general areas of management and to emphasize personal communication, leadership and management skills that cover all the areas. In the MBA you roughly do 25% class time in finance and accounting, for example, where the Finance MA is 90% pure finance.

He goes on to say that the general nature of MBA courses, by definition, offer a very firm grounding in the other core skills such as operations, HR and organizational behaviour whereas MSc in Finance won't. This is recruiter-driven. The big banks want students at the cutting edge of financial skills, derivatives, financial engineering, which are electives in an MBA but a core part of the MA. The assumption is a graduate of MA in Finance won't have do those kind of roles.

Simon Stockley, Director of Full Time MBA Programs at Imperial College Business School, London, echoes this: The Masters in Finance is a more quantitative degree featuring a lot of pure maths to equip graduates for corporate finance and Investment Banking jobs. It's a direct response to requests we have from the city. Virtually all of these graduates get careers in financial institutions.

Despite this, trends picked up by the QS Applicant Survey 2009, which surveyed thousands of MBA applicants internationally, show that more and more younger people are interested in a business education, especially in the developing economies of Asia. My own experience of the QS World MBA Tour, which visits 65 cities in 35 countries, shows that Asian candidates in particular are younger than those in Western Europe and North America.

Business schools have to respond to such trends by creating courses more appropriate for a less experienced age group. This is where the Masters course comes in.

Masters courses are 'pre-experience', targeted at immediate graduates and those who do not necessarily have work experience.

Simon Stockley says that his school has responded to the trend for younger people to want to get into business schools straight out of university by offering an MSc in Management program. These are designed to provide recent graduates with some differentiation in the labour market when they are not experienced enough or prepared for the MBA. You'd tend to take the MBA later on and for one of three reasons, for career advancement, which is the dominant driver; to make a change in your career; or for learning more about entrepreneurialism, he says.

David Bach says that taking students with less than three years work experience on an MBA is rare: We require five years [experience] at IE Business School; however we do sometimes take candidates with less experience if they have a brilliant trajectory because we value diversity in our classrooms.

Course focus and teaching styles are essential differences between an MBA and a Masters. Masters courses, says Stockley, introduce graduates to general management but in a different way. Some cover the same material as parts of the MBA but are more didactic in manner with fewer case studies, less debate and a different style of teaching that is more lecture-based.

MBA courses tend to focus on teamwork, lots of contribution in class, learning from peers and networking and communication skills.  In this sense the professor is often a hands-off guide for students' debates, guiding them towards problems rather than providing conclusions, allowing students to make mistakes and research thoroughly themselves.

Specialize or generalize?

Many graduates want to start focusing early. They may say that maths is your strong suit, and that they are not interested in marketing or HR, for example. The business world needs very strong accountants or HR or operations or people with other specializations, so a Masters in Finance, Accountancy, HR and so on are best option for many.  Of course this also allows the graduate to get straight into education again without necessarily having to go into a management position for a few years in preparation for an MBA.

In salary terms, the MBA is perceived to have a slight edge, however the difference between an MBA and a Masters graduate with four years postgraduate experience in a specialization is small. For those wanting to specialize, the MBA may be too general, and you may feel ready to start studying very soon. Likewise, if you want to differentiate yourself in management and aren't ready for an MBA, Masters in Management courses are designed for you.

Having said that, the MBA is still rightfully considered a major business qualification, particularly, as Simon Stockley says, from one of the big schools. Reputation is important and people should do as much research as they can to find the school that has the best fit for them.

The key thinking, then, is: think about your strengths, about where you want to go, about what style of course suits you best and start to plan your career trajectory early.