It is a question I get frequently this time of year. If you are less than five years from your undergraduate experience, the answer is “neither.” Go do something interesting, gain experience and perspective, and then go to graduate school. We will still be here.
If you have been out five years and have an undergraduate business degree, don’t go back to your alma matter. Chances are you will get some familiar professors, sharing many of the same insights as they did when you were an undergraduate. Yes the material will come at you faster and in a more sophisticated manner, but you will get more value from a graduate degree if you attend a different institution. If you have been out of business school ten years or more, the faces and topics will have changed enough that attending the same school won’t result in a redundant experience.
With those caveats out of the way, let’s get down to answering the question at hand. Whether you choose the MBA or Executive MBA (EMBA) route depends on your prior experience, where you are in your career, how much you can afford to spend, and the type of time commitment you can make in pursuit of your degree.
MBA programs were created to get engineers ready to move into management positions in large scale industrial enterprises. The scope of the MBA has expanded over time, but it is still a primary way people with “bench experience” gain the education necessary to move into general management positions in their industry or profession. Thus, MBA programs stress accounting, finance, management, and marketing skills. This emphasis on operational skills is one of the reasons I discourage business majors from pursuing a MBA shortly after they graduate: they should have gotten these skills from their undergraduate program. As time goes on, new topics and a need to refresh skills make investment in a MBA worth the time and money for people with an undergraduate business degree, but there is little return from rushing into such a program.
EMBA programs were initially designed to “fast-track” managers identified by their companies as “rising stars” into upper-echelon positions. Today many EMBA students are experienced managers looking to change companies or careers, but the curriculum still focuses on fostering strategic thinking and managing change within the organization. Think of the difference this way: A MBA gives you the ability to analyze data and make operational decisions. An EMBA gives you the strategic perspective and knowledge to use the information from operational reports to direct the future of the business in productive ways.
Notice that neither the MBA or EMBA gives you deep technical training in a specific functional area. Two-year MBA programs give students a greater opportunity to specialize by providing tracks, but if your goal is a deep understanding of one functional area (e.g., accounting, MIS), you are better off in an advanced masters program that specializes in your area of choice.
MBA and EMBA programs also differ in delivery formats and cost. MBA programs are offered either in “day” or “evening” formats. Day programs typically require people to quit their jobs and enroll as full-time students with the expectation of completing their degree in one or two years. This is usually an easier choice for young professionals without significant family commitments. Older folks are more likely to choose evening programs, because they allow students to keep their jobs and pursue their degree after hours on a part-time basis. This provides people with better cash-flow, but comes at the expense of extending the time to degree. This is a significant tradeoff. My experience has been that if students don’t complete their degree within three years of enrolling, they rarely finish. Life events get in the way.
EMBA programs compress the time to completion and allow students to keep their day jobs by concentrating classes in a weekend format that graduates students in about eighteen months. Electives are rare. Typically everyone completes the same courses in a fixed sequence. The most popular format is to offer classes all day on Fridays and Saturdays on alternating weekends. You might also have to use some vacation to attend a few week-long segments of the program. It can be a bit like drinking water from a fire hose. Because the courses are concentrated and the students experienced, EMBA classes tend to be smaller and more discussion-based than MBA classes. Students learn as much from each other as they do from the professor and build strong bonds that last for their entire professional career. It is a rich experience that comes with a higher price tag–typically two to three times more expensive than the MBA, although EMBA costs include meals, textbooks, and frequently international travel that are not factored into MBA program tuition. EMBA grads report the payback period can be as little as a couple of years.
Which program is right for you depends on personal circumstance, but I will tell you that I am a big fan of EMBA programs. If you are at the right point in your career, can invest the time and money, and want to build connections with faculty and highly motivated people, EMBA programs are hard to beat.
Paul Jarley, Ph.D., is the dean of the UCF College of Business Administration. He blogs every week at http://www.bus.ucf.edu/dean. This post appeared on January 23, 2013. Follow him on Twitter @pauljarley.