MBA vs MSF: Which Degree is Right for You?

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Two finance professionals work at a table with charts and calculators.

If you’re interested in the finance side of operations, you may find yourself debating between business administration graduate programs that offer finance concentrations and specialized finance master’s degrees. You can expect a quality education from either program, but the jobs you hope to pursue will have a significant impact on which side of the MBA vs MSF debate you fall.

Here’s a look at both degree options to help you determine which academic path is right for your professional interests and career goals.

Understanding the MBA finance path

In addition to the finance concepts covered in the concentration courses, an MBA degree can equip you with a broad skill set and knowledge base comprising various aspects of business. This comprehensive education makes it a flexible degree that you can apply to virtually any industry or business environment.

Students must have a bachelor’s degree before applying to an MBA program. The two-year full-time MBA program is the standard option, although there are accelerated graduate programs for those willing to complete a more intense workload to earn their degree in as little as a year. Alternatively, executive MBA programs are ideal for established professionals. Finance concentrations are available in both on-campus and online MBA programs.

The coursework

Foundational MBA courses will cover a range of topics, providing students with an enhanced perspective and understanding of the modern business world. MBA students generally learn about finance, statistics, economics, marketing, management, operations and entrepreneurship. Finance concentration courses often cover the fiscal aspects of business, such as bonds, stocks, accounting, investing, asset management, financial restructuring and corporate finance.

The students

While some individuals decide to enroll in graduate school immediately after earning their undergraduate degree, it’s common for MBA candidates to have multiple years of professional experience on their resumes. Many pursue an advanced degree in preparation for management positions or a shift in career focus.

The career outcomes

The broad business curriculum generally affords MBA grads more flexibility in their careers than a master’s in finance degree. MBA graduates have the necessary skills and knowledge to work for various financial institutions as well as pursue management positions in virtually any industry.

One possible profession for MBA graduates is that of a financial manager. In May 2019, the median annual wage for this role was $129,890, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Chief executive is another role MBA graduates could aspire to hold. The BLS stated that the median annual wage in this line of work was $184,460 during the same month and year.

Understanding the MSF path

Designed to give graduates a competitive edge in the finance industry, Master of Science in Finance programs are ideal for individuals who know they want to pursue a career in finance. Students can complete MSF programs in as little as one year, meaning they can earn a degree at a much quicker pace than most MBA programs.

Eligible students must earn a bachelor’s degree before enrolling in an MSF program. Common undergraduate areas of study for MSF candidates are finance, economics, statistics, life sciences, mathematics and engineering. There are both online and on-campus MSF programs available.

The coursework

A typical MSF course will offer in-depth discussions of major finance topics, such as financial theory, mathematics, quantitative finance, investments, markets, reporting, analysis and valuation. While the focus is on finance, an MSF degree does provide students with transferable skills like data analysis, statistics, computing, Excel modeling and decision-making.

The students

Most MSF programs do not require previous work experience, which means the student population is often younger than those pursuing MBA degrees. For many, earning an MSF degree is a fast track to a career in the financial sector.

The career outcomes

Those who have a graduate degree can expect to secure more competitive positions and higher salaries. The specialist financial knowledge of an MSF degree holder is especially appealing to many employers. MFA graduates typically fill roles in financial services, trading, investments and risk management. These can include financial planner, financial analyst, accountant, auditor, claims adjuster, loan officer and personal finance advisor.

While an MBA degree qualifies candidates for management positions, those who earn an MSF typically secure entry-level positions to start their careers and then rely on promotions from there.

Debating MSF vs. MBA

While MBA and MSF programs both provide quality educations, the former offers a comprehensive understanding of business and finance while the latter provides a more specialized set of skills and knowledge. As such, if you’re looking to develop broad-based skills, the cross-functionality of an MBA degree may be more suitable for your goals. If you’re seeking a finance-specific career, pursuing a specialized degree may be a better fit.

Your work experience may also lead you to choose one over the other, as an MBA is generally more suitable for current professionals while an MSF is an alternative for those who have little to no professional experience. If you’re interested in solely enhancing your finance knowledge, pursuing an MSF can save you time in getting straight to your interests. However, keep in mind than an MBA can set you up for long-term success in various business environments.

Ultimately, your career goals should be the most important factor in your decision.

Studying finance at the Smith School of Business

If you decide that an MBA is the right academic track for you, consider the Online MBA program at the University of Maryland’s top-rated Robert H. Smith School of Business. The finance concentration offers an in-depth exploration of corporate finance, financial restructuring and investing, complementing the foundational business courses with detailed coursework.

Connect with an advisor to learn more about enrolling in the Smith Online MBA program.


Recommended Readings:

The specializations you can pursue with a University of Maryland Online MBA degree

Why an MBA is still the best investment you will ever make



Investopedia, MBA vs. Master of Finance: What’s the difference?

U.S. News & World Report, Decide Between an MBA and M.S. at Business School

Context, Online Master of Business Administration

Context, Online Master of Science in Finance

Bureau of Labor Statistics, Financial Managers – Pay

Bureau of Labor Statistics, Top Executives – Pay