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Master’s in Project Management or an MBA: What’s the Difference?

Faculty Insights Industry Advice Business Management

The demand for skilled project management professionals is growing rapidly—an estimated 2.2 million jobs will be added to the field each year through 2027, equating to roughly 33 percent growth for the industry.

If you are considering entering or transitioning into the project management field, now is an opportune time. The first step in pursuing this career path, however, is deciding how you will build the skills that employers are looking for. 

Two possible options to do this include earning a master’s degree in project management or earning a master’s degree in business administration (MBA). But how do you decide which is right for you?

Below, we explore the experience of Joseph Griffin—former faculty director for Northeastern’s master’s in project management program and current Vice Chancellor of Education Innovation at Northeastern—who holds both a project management degree and an MBA. Griffin offers unbiased insight into what each program is like, and how each can be used to set students up for success in different aspects of the project management field.


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Master’s in Project Management vs. MBA

Before you decide which type of degree is best for you, it’s important to have a clear understanding of what each has to offer. 

A master’s in project management is designed specifically to develop the practical skills and theoretical knowledge that are needed to lead and successfully execute complex projects. This includes a deep exploration of each step in the project management process from project definition and planning to presentation and evaluation, and everything in between.

At Northeastern, the MS in Project Management program equips students to manage long- and short-term projects successfully and cost-effectively. With an emphasis on experiential learning, students come away from this program with the hands-on experience needed to be successful in the field. 

Many MS in Project Management programs also offer students the ability to specialize their knowledge through the declaration of a concentration. For example, Northeastern’s project management concentrations include focus areas like leadership, project business analysis, program and portfolio management, and more.

An MBA, on the other hand, is focused on developing a well-rounded view of how a business functions. Unlike a master’s in project management—which concentrates on the functions of projects specifically—an MBA is designed to give students the technical, managerial, and leadership skills needed for careers across a variety of business fields.

5 Tips to Choose Between an MBA and an MS in Project Management

Here are five steps for determining which of these degrees is best for you.

1. Forget the stereotypes.

In order to help students determine if a master’s degree in project management or an MBA is the better fit for their career goals, Giffin first suggests pushing the stereotypes surrounding each degree aside. For instance, while both an MBA and project management degrees are often thought to correlate with different career paths, this is not always the case.

“It’s important to lose the notion that if you want to be in the C-suite, you need an MBA, or that if you’re a type-A personality who pushes projects through, you need a project management degree,” Griffin says. “It’s not accurate; don’t get pigeonholed by these outmoded ideas.”

Instead, Griffin notes that either degree is an excellent choice for preparing students for high-level managerial and executive roles.

2. Know one size does not fit all.

It is also important to remember that your criteria for choosing a program should reflect your desired outcome. In order to decide which degree you should pursue, be sure to think about your personal career goals, and how each program might benefit you in pursuit of them.

“What it comes down to is that different businesses call for different kinds of leadership skills. What’s needed varies industry by industry, and, more importantly, company by company,” Griffin says. “It’s good to consider what kind of role you want to play in a particular business and go from there.”

For this reason, a key step in your decision to pursue either an MBA or master’s in project management should be to consider the context in which you hope to use the knowledge and skills that you will gain. 

3. Consider strategy vs. context.

In addition to understanding how each degree will apply to different industries and organizations, you should also understand the role that each option plays in organizational strategy. Griffin explains:

Generally, an MBA is designed to teach you how to identify core competencies and market dynamics to develop a strategy for your organization. Project management also focuses on strategy, but looks more closely at how one will actualize it given the current organizational structure and assets.” 

As such, those who are interested in strategizing at the organizational level may be more suited to an MBA. On the other hand, those who would like to execute that strategy by creating a project plan and putting it into action may get more value out of a master’s in project management.

“Both address strategy, but think of the MBA as being more focused on how we identify our strategy, and project management more focused on how we actualize the strategy,” he says.

4. Develop a macro- and micro-view.

Similar to the different approaches to strategy that each degree takes, they also view business processes from a macro- and micro-perspective. 

MBA students drill down to learn the nuts and bolts of how a company makes decisions, how each department—such as business, accounting, marketing, and finance—functions, and how each relates to one another,” Griffin says. “Project managers also study this, but from a slightly different perspective—through the lens of how to best drive work and execute projects across each of these functional areas.”

Since MBA programs are generally less specialized, they tend to take a macro-view of business that encompasses many different functions of an organization, like finance, management, marketing, and so on. In contrast, project management programs are much more focused on how each of these functions specifically impact the planning, execution, and controlling aspects of the projects that support organizational success.

5. Remember: It’s all about the environment.

Griffin’s final advice is to explore the environment you would like to work in, and how each path forward might relate to your personal and professional goals. As Griffin explains:

“It’s tough to generalize, but if you know you’re going into an industry with traditional divisions and hierarchies—like banking or finance—an MBA may be more useful. If you’re looking at a career environment in which executing projects are what drive business, then a project management degree might give you an edge. Either, however, can teach you skills for success. The question to ask is, ‘Which is best suited for my own career path?’”

Choosing Your Right Fit

Ultimately, in order to make this decision, you will need to understand what you hope to achieve by earning an advanced degree, as well as how each of these options can help you chart your path toward success. 

As demonstrated through Griffin’s advice, earning a master’s in project management prepares students to execute organizational strategy through the role of a project manager, while an MBA takes a broader approach. Depending on your overall career and personal goals, you will be able to conclude which program will equip you to reach those aspirations.

Learn more about how Northeastern’s Master of Science in Project Management program can set you up for success in this thriving field.

 

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