Earning a business master’s degree — whether an MBA or MS — could elevate your professional trajectory and earning potential over the next several decades. But it won't be easy. Rigorous classes, demanding professors, and late nights of homework will require dedication, diligence, and endurance.

MBA vs. MS: How to Decide Which Degree Fits Your Goals

Before applying to and enrolling in a graduate business school, you face a crucial question: What kind of degree should you get? Should you pursue an MBA? Or a master's degree in a specific field such as Finance, Accounting, Marketing, Information Technology, or Organizational Behavior?

Given the life-changing impact and substantial cost — measured in both tuition and foregone income — of pursuing a grad degree, choosing the right path is a high-stakes decision that merits serious thought, research, and introspection.

The Basics

Before we get into long-term strategy, there are a few basic initial steps that you can take as you explore your graduate school alternatives.

LinkedIn Research

It can be useful to look at the education choices made by people who are currently in the sorts of roles and companies that you aspire to find yourself in over the next 10 to 20 years. Use LinkedIn to find this information and to see if there's a clear pattern in the types of master's degrees that others have pursued. Are there patterns that can help guide your own career path?

Related: "How to Build a Dynamic LinkedIn Profile"

Program Curricula

MBA programs tend to place an emphasis on group projects and networking. That is because they are preparing students to succeed in team-based work environments. If you thrive in a collaborative enterprise, you will likely fare well in an MBA program — and in your ensuing career.

If, on the other hand, you prefer more solitary work, you may find that a master’s degree in, say, accounting will not only prepare you well for your chosen field, but also suit your temperament and skills.

Related: "Where to Begin When Researching Business School Programs"

Long-Term Considerations

As you determine which option is best for you, you should also consider the three stages of a business professional’s career.

Opportunities for Recent Master’s Graduates

Recent master's degree graduates typically have two types of job opportunities after finishing their programs.

They can pursue a hands-on, tactical role in a particular specialty, such as marketing or finance. Some employers prefer new hires who already understand relevant theories and practices in a specific discipline, and can hit the deck running. In these cases, a candidate with a non-MBA business degree in a related field may offer a significant competitive advantage over one with only an undergraduate degree, or even one with a generalist MBA degree.

Other master's degree grads may prefer to enter a rotational management/leadership development program, which will enable them to keep their choices open after graduating. This option allows young professionals to continue learning about and observing various business disciplines before choosing a specific role. Employers offering these programs tend to prefer candidates with traditional MBAs so that they can more easily groom participants to meet the company's needs.

Mid-Business Career

Several years into a business career, after demonstrating their abilities and narrowing their work focus, professionals may face the decision whether to return to school to advance their careers. As with those just starting out, they need to consider whether they want to become a senior manager or a subject-matter expert. For those who are eager to lead teams and be measured by bottom-line results, then an MBA degree (especially from a top school) can facilitate advancement to senior management opportunities. But if a person’s driving passion is a specific discipline, then having a master's in that field may be a better fit and be more valuable to the hiring organization.

Related: "Is Now the Right Time in Your Career for an MBA?"

The Long Run

The correlation between academic credentials and career opportunities varies by industry. For example, in top-tier management consulting firms, having an MBA from a leading business school is nearly a requirement for those ascending to partnership level.

If someone’s experience relates to general management, then an MBA is probably the better choice. Exposure to every major business discipline offers enough depth to deal with specialists in those fields, and it also provides the breadth necessary for graduates to oversee multiple departments. Furthermore, those who opt for a traditional two-year MBA can have a summer internship through which to explore a new industry, company, and role before committing to it.

In major technology companies, however, having a specialized master's in Internet Technology (IT) could have more value to an upwardly mobile executive. If a person’s career is likely to remain within a single discipline (e.g., finance or IT), then a non-MBA master’s degree could be the ticket to becoming Chief Financial Officer (CFO) or Chief Technology Officer (CTO) one day. This is not to say that you couldn’t pursue these roles with an MBA and relevant experience, but rather, that these are viable pathways for the non-MBA master’s business graduate as well.

A Hybrid

Of course, there's a third option beyond a generalist MBA or a specialized non-MBA master’s degree: You could consider an MBA with a formal concentration in the discipline or industry that interests you most. There is an array of concentrations — ranging from broad categories like human resources or health care to narrow areas such as sports management or wine and spirits. The options vary dramatically by school. Noodle's MBA search allows you to browse business schools by specialty to explore each school’s programs.

Dan Bauer

MBA graduate of Harvard Business School, former SVP-Global Marketing for MasterCard International, VP-National Marketing for Citibank. Founded The MBA Exchange in 1996. The firm features 60 former MBA admissions officers and graduates of the world's leading business schools including Harvard, Stanford, Wharton, INSEAD and London Business School.