To be sure you are ready in case you need to jump ship—or just to grasp that next rung on the ladder—you will almost certainly need education beyond a bachelor's degree. Many careerists facing this reality reflexively reach for the MBA, the Swiss Army knife of master's degrees. But is that the best degree choice for you? The MBA requires heavy quantitative skills you may lack, prerequisite courses in economics and accounting you may have skipped, and so on. Besides, the MBA, even with its second-year concentrations, is a generalized degree that may not give you the specialized training that you need. Perhaps it's time to consider some of these alternatives to the MBA
Master's Degree in Advertising or Marketing–Instead of choosing an MBA with a concentration in advertising or marketing, pursue a degree that focuses entirely on these interests. Advertising and marketing programs have rigorous curricula involving, for example, psychographics, demographics, and appropriate analytics and business metrics, but without the survey of general business topics you would find in an MBA program.
Master of Human Resources–If you have a career in human resources, and intend to stay in HR, this is the obvious choice for you. It is far more beneficial to focus on the law, policy, best practices, and theory of your chosen field than to spend time on such arcane subjects as general corporate finance.
Master's Degree in Organization Development–Organization development (OD) is a relatively new field, focusing on the human side of organizational systems. In short, OD is a human-focused, systems-based approach to addressing organizational problems. If you want to learn how to build teams, resolve conflict, design information flows, deal with organizational culture, create large-scale organizational change, or develop post-merger integration strategies, then OD might be right for you.
Master of Public Administration–If you work in the public sector, for a government contractor, for a major nongovernmental organization (NGO) or nonprofit, or in any type of highly bureaucratic organizational structure, this degree may be a good choice for you. MBA programs focus on the needs of major corporate organizations, and outside the corporate world, the types of information flows, IT, finance, and regulatory environments are different.
Master's Degree in Public Policy–Although popular in the same sectors as public administration, the public policy curriculum is more theoretical and more analytical than the focus of the MPA People with MPAs do things—people with MPPs think about how things should be done. The MPP degree is popular in public-sector consulting, think tanks, policy-setting and regulatory environments, and with such glamour employers as the United Nations.
Master of Public Health–If you work in health care, or in a government agency concerned with health care delivery, then the MPH can be an excellent choice. The MPH is a wide-ranging degree, with curricula that may range from epidemiology to immigrant/nonnative communications and marketing, to public finance.
Master of Health-Care Administration–This is a more specialized degree choice than the MPH, appropriate for people who plan career advancement within a hospital, insurer, HMO, hospice, gerontology center, adult day care, extended care facility, or similar. One variant is the Master of Hospital Administration, which is obviously for people who plan to advance within a hospital setting.
Master's Degree in Sports Administration–This degree is self-explanatory, but with a caveat: It is sometimes more popular with aspirants than with practitioners. You need sports experience, either as part of the degree program or before you even enter, in order to get the maximum career benefit. If you plan to run a college athletic program, work in professional or Olympic sports, or even run a youth sports league, this degree may fit.
Master's Degree in Educational Administration–This degree can focus on primary/secondary education, or on higher education, but usually not both, so be sure you choose a program with the concentration that interests you most. There are many variants, such as the MEd with a concentration in administration, or the MA in student affairs.
Master of Arts Administration–If you want to work in the business side of museums, theater, public art, or music, then this degree may be perfect for you. As with sports administration, if you want this degree to help you in your career, you need to have internships or experience in arts administration at some point before you graduate.
Master of Urban Planning–City and regional planning degrees are not just for planning officers. Architecture firms, construction companies, commercial and residential developers, and such specialized firms as shopping center design consultants will employ and advance people with this degree.
Master's Degree in International Relations–The MIR will help anyone in business, government, nonprofit, or NGO environments with transnational or international business to conduct. Candidates should speak more than one language proficiently before entering this type of program. Career success with an MIR hinges on the student having lived overseas prior to entering the degree program. As with some of these other choices, an MIR without the right experiences may have little career impact. And just for the record, the U.S. diplomatic corps use the Foreign Service Written Exam (FSWE) as an entrance requirement, not a master's degree.
There are dozens more examples of alternatives to the MBA, such as the MSIA (Master of Science in Industrial Administration) or the MEM (Master of Engineering Management). Any master's degree will have career value as you gain valuable transferable skills, but some of these degrees make more sense than the MBA for people with specific career plans.
Originally published on MSN Encarta, December 2006