Specialized business master’s degrees offer faster finish
Jackie Juergens wanted to move from Altria Group Inc.’s strategy division to its fast-growing advanced analytics division, but she needed to brush up on her tech skills.
Although she had an MBA, the mother of three and senior manager opted for William & Mary’s business school’s online master’s degree in business analytics, which she completed in August 2020.
“I definitely benefited from my MBA, but from this master’s of science, I wanted more technical and application-based skills,” she says.
The Fortune 500 Henrico County tobacco products manufacturer reimbursed Juergens’ tuition and moved her into its analytics division, which has since doubled in headcount.
Specialty master’s programs like the one Juergens enrolled in are growing at business schools, offering students faster and more tailored alternatives to traditional MBAs.
“These master’s programs are being designed for people who have several years of work experience, and the reason for that is that the economic benefit for students who … find a job [after completing undergraduate programs] and later on pursue a master’s degree are much greater than had they gone directly from undergraduate to graduate programs because many of them would need financial aid,” says Parviz Ghandforoush, associate dean of graduate programs at Virginia Tech’s Pamplin School of Business.
Like Juergens, Tyler Kasak sought to gain specific skills. He began managing a real estate investment portfolio after serving as a mechanic in the Air Force and quickly realized that he needed to learn more about the industry, but the general classes in an MBA didn’t appeal to him. He enrolled in the real estate development program at George Mason University’s School of Business.
“Every class is an emphasis on real estate development, and that was something I became very passionate about, and so it was actually enjoyable,” he says.
Several Virginia business schools offer master’s degrees in accounting, finance, information technology and marketing. Less widely available are programs like global commerce from the University of Virginia’s McIntire School of Commerce and supply chain management from Virginia Commonwealth University’s School of Business.
The “hottest area” of study today is analytics, says Jayaraman Vijayakumar, associate dean of graduate programs for VCU’s business school.
Amanda Cowen, associate dean for graduate programs at U.Va. McIntire, says the demand for business analytics programs “coincides with the rise of big data and the increasing role that data is playing … across industries.”
In addition to learning programming languages and data visualization software, “we really focus on pulling opportunities from data and how to answer questions that we may have with data versus sifting through data to find possible insights. It’s really starting with that problem and then using data to come up with a solution,” says Abby Rigatti, a Pamplin business analytics student who spent a year working in marketing. She has secured a job with Austin, Texas-based e-commerce tech consultancy Alpine Consulting, contingent on completing the 11-month, full-time program.
Business analytics is the exception to master’s programs that benefit working professionals more than new graduates, Pamplin’s Ghandforoush says, because students can connect with potential employers as part of their classwork.
Like several other Virginia schools, Pamplin has a capstone project allowing student groups to work with corporate partners. Pamplin’s sponsors this year include NASA, Lockheed Martin Corp. and The Boeing Co., as well as Virginia-based companies Leidos Holdings Inc. and Smithfield Foods Inc.
More than 80% of the graduates of the online business analytics program at William & Mary’s Raymond A. Mason School of Business secured promotions or new jobs while in the program or shortly after finishing it, program faculty director Joe Wilck says.
The program works closely with German tech startup Celonis, which has hired more of the program’s students in the last year than any other company. Celonis works with students on their capstone projects and offers them free training on its process mining software.
McIntire launched its hybrid business analytics program in fall 2018, in collaboration with U.Va.’s Darden School of Business. This school year, it has about 50 students. Students travel to Charlottesville twice during the 12-month program and participate in evening online classes.
Pamplin is in the sixth year of offering its business analytics program. Cohorts are capped at 42 students, and Jay Winkeler, executive director of the school’s Center for Business Analytics, says 83% of students enter directly after receiving their undergraduate degrees.
VCU’s business school, however, has had an analytics program for more than 10 years. “We do involve industry in terms of making the curriculum as relevant as possible,” Vijayakumar says.
Josh Fontaine completed class projects with Richmond-area clients like Lumber Liquidators Inc. and Altria as part of VCU’s program, which he completed in December 2019. Now, he’s a senior data analyst for Home Depot Inc.
The program “certainly changed my life and has given me career stability and career security,” says Fontaine, who received offers from McLean-based Capital One Financial Corp. and McKesson Corp. while he was still in the program. Capital One hired Fontaine as a contractor, but it paused full-time associate hiring and contract extensions amid the pandemic. Although his contract ended in June 2020, “I had interviews lined up the day I left Capital One,” he says. “I had interviews with the Federal Reserve Bank, as well as other companies. … My skills were really in demand.”
VCU’s decision analytics program offers a roughly 16-month, alternating weekends format for working professionals as well as an evening format that varies based on a student’s time frame. They’re designed to be held in person, although VCU began simulcasting classes during the pandemic.
William & Mary also offers two class formats for its business analytics master’s degree: a full-time, two-term residential program that started in August 2016 and a part-time, online program begun in August 2018 that takes four to five semesters. Twenty students were set to receive their degrees in January.
Wilck estimates that about half of W&M’s online business analytics students have work experience and need a master’s degree to advance, and roughly one-fifth are only a few years out of undergraduate programs and need the advanced degree to get a better job or a salary increase.
Back to school
“A lot of folks … want a more compressed, shorter time period, less expensive investment, and they know what they’re looking for,” says Larry Pulley, dean of W&M’s business school. “They are working for a firm in the finance or marketing arena, and they know they’re not going to progress as far as they want to or as rapidly as they’d like to without a specialized degree.”
A full-time MBA from William & Mary takes 22 months to complete and costs $34,926 per school year for in-state tuition, while the part-time MBA takes about three years and costs $5,250 for a typical semester load. But the school’s part-time online master’s in marketing is a 15-month program costing $37,125.
Matt Williams, former CEO of The Martin Agency, and marketing and international business professor K. Scott Swan designed the marketing degree for working professionals. Students are required to visit campus one weekend to attend a residency program, but they have several options.
Rather than a capstone assignment, students participate in the “Marketing Challenge,” working with corporate partners on real-world conundrums, Williams says.
Similarly, about 95% of students in GMU’s real estate development program are working professionals. The mainly in-person program takes students two to three years.
Students tend to work either in real estate or in a related role, program director Kat Grimsley says.
Kristin Norris, a 2019 graduate of the program, wanted to learn more about the industry after landing a job at John Marshall Bank’s commercial real estate section, and she says the program gave her a foundation for her work: “For me, now I can kind of talk the talk and walk the walk.”
GMU began offering the program in 2009 after Herndon-based commercial real estate development association NAIOP Inc. and other industry leaders approached the school about developing it. GMU’s Center for Real Estate Entrepreneurship provides the program’s practical side by conducting event programming and providing student support, like funding for students to attend industry events and scholarships.
The student investment fund also provides participants with training in real estate development workforce skills, including how to find a project, draft a formal proposal and manage a project once it’s greenlit.
Business schools are continuing to expand their offerings depending on needs that companies express directly and through school advisory boards. Cybersecurity is a particularly in-demand skill.
Pamplin plans to offer a specialized master’s degree in cybersecurity in the next year or two, Ghandforoush says.
GMU has an information security management certificate pending state approval, says Paige Wolf, associate dean of graduate programs.
Some schools are working on offering existing graduate degree courses online. For example, VCU hopes to make its evening business analytics program available completely online by fall, but students would need to participate in scheduled classes rather than learning on their own schedule. And William & Mary plans to launch an online accounting master’s degree program in August.
William & Mary is considering adding new programs online in human resources and management, and Pamplin is looking at adding an online accounting program.
For Altria employee Juergens, a specialty degree led to more than a division change. In December 2021, she was promoted to director of the division.
“I do feel like a general MBA is fairly common right now. … I say if somebody is definitely interested in an analytics career, I would steer them toward a more specific master’s of science-type program.”