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What is an MBA degree? Complete guide

Curious about taking an MBA? Find out all there is to know about this prestigious degree and discover what opportunities an MBA can unlock in this in-depth article.

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Three simple letters that mean so much. An MBA carries such weight in the business world that it has become an invaluable qualification. While it might seem a lofty ambition, an MBA is a masters degree like any other – it’s something you can not only aspire to but also achieve. In today’s digital world, you can even study for an online MBA degree. Breaking down the components and clarifying any confusion around MBAs, in this article, we’ll help you understand if taking an MBA is the right career move for you.

What is an MBA?

An MBA is a postgraduate business degree that has become synonymous with success. What exactly do we mean by success? Well, one measure is reaching the top of the corporate structure of course. Research shows that 25% of CEOs of FTSE 100 businesses (the UK’s biggest companies) hold an MBA. Measure that figure against other academic qualifications held by the same CEOs, and you’ll find that just 8% have a PhD and only 18% have an undergraduate degree from Oxford or Cambridge. 

Does that make the MBA a better qualification than a PhD or an Oxbridge degree? Well, maybe not if your career is in academia, politics or the civil service (just some of the typical career paths of PhD and Oxbridge graduates), but in business, there is no better marker of status than an MBA.

Take some of the heavyweight names in business for example. Larry Page, founder of Google; Tim Cook, co-founder of Apple; Melinda Gates, creator of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation – all three have MBAs. In the UK, Sir Jim Ratcliffe, CEO of Ineos, is another to add to that illustrious list.

But beyond significantly enhancing your clout and reputation, an MBA will be sure to give you a comprehensive understanding of how managing a business works. Everything from how to manage employees and resources, analyse accounting sheets, develop entrepreneurial skills and structure an organisation are covered in an MBA degree. 

What does MBA stand for?

MBA is an abbreviation of  Master of Business Administration. The first degree to have the title of MBA was established at Harvard University in 1908. From its beginnings on that prestigious programme, the MBA eventually went global and you can now study for an MBA at hundreds of universities in countries all over the world.

Those three powerful letters on a CV stand out to employers because they demonstrate a level of serious dedication to one’s professional development, signifying that you are equipped with the skills to spearhead a whole organisation. In a word, MBA stands for leadership. 

How does an MBA work? 

MBAs are postgraduate courses. This means you’ll usually have already completed an undergraduate degree before studying for an MBA.

The practicalities of an MBA are similar to most academic undertakings. You will attend classes and seminars – either on campus or online. You will be assessed in the usual way, through essays, written assignments, exams and presentations (the latter is a really important business skill). 

Assignments often come in the form of group projects (think The Apprentice but with less drama) that assess your ability to collaborate and take on specific roles within a team, particularly leading, delegating and decision-making. 

Many universities offering MBA courses will ask candidates to sit the GMAT (graduate management admission test) as part of the application process. The GMAT tests your maths, analytics and verbal reasoning. 

MBA Curriculum

Typical MBA curriculums feature modules designed to develop expertise in core business areas like leadership. However, there will also be classes focused on more specialised areas. Depending on the course, you may be able to select your own specialisms, or they might be mandatory classes.

We analysed general (non-specialist) Master of Business Administration courses from a diverse range of institutions and found that the following modules are commonly found among their core, additional and specialist class options.

Core modules
  • Accounting
  • Business Law
  • Finance
  • Management
  • Marketing
  • Strategy
Additional modules
  • Analytics
  • Communications
  • Data
  • Economics
  • Ethics
  • Operations


  • Consulting
  • Corporate Social Responsibility
  • Entrepreneurialism 
  • Human Resources
  • Not For Profit
  • Sustainable Business

What can you do with an MBA?

While many business school alumni go on to become CEOs, COOs or managing directors of some of the world’s highest-grossing companies, you can utilise your MBA in so many professional fields.

The skills you pick up during an MBA prepare you for high-pressure, high-impact jobs. You could become a senior civil servant leading a government department. You could project manage the transformation of an NHS trust or healthcare provider. You could turn around the fortunes of an SME or tech start-up as a consultant. Or you could work in management consultancy and help a local authority streamline its operations, workforce and organisational delivery.

If you are a true entrepreneur, you can even use the skills you learn to start your own business. All companies start somewhere, usually with a dose of bravery added to solid business knowledge.

Who should take an MBA?

  • People with passion – If you’re passionate about business and want to learn what drives growth, revenue, efficiency and high organisational output, an MBA will be right up your alley. 
  • Prior academic achievement – You will usually need to have studied a degree at undergraduate level, before embarking on an MBA. This is not always an essential requirement for being accepted onto a course – just like with other masters degrees, some institutions look at other factors like your age, professional experience and achievements – but it will help if you have an understanding of what higher education involves. The average age range of MBA students is between 27-30 years old, but many people take MBAs in their 40s or even 50s.
  • Business knowledge and experience – It will also help if you understand the fundamentals of business. Some universities offering MBAs like to see that you’ve worked in business for at least a few years. This is so they can be sure that the concepts of business are not new to you. For example, to apply for FutureLearn’s Executive MBA course taught by the Ducere Global Business School, you will need five or more years working in management, or three years if you have a bachelor’s degree.
  • Financial commitment – An MBA is a significant investment, with a range of fees depending on which university and type of MBA you choose. As a rough guide, the one-year Executive MBA mentioned above costs £13,300. Elsewhere, Imperial College currently charges £67,500 for a full-time MBA. The range of fees in the UK is from around £5,000 to £100,000. Remember, there are many scholarships and grants around that you can apply to for funding, and if you work for a corporate firm already and they believe in your potential, they might even fund your MBA.

Is an MBA worth it? 

If the costs of an MBA seem high, they’re nothing compared to what you can earn once you’ve got one. But money isn’t everything –  job stability and satisfaction are hugely important, and so is the incredible boost an MBA will give to your self-esteem and confidence – both in and outside the workplace. 

Of the 4,600 graduates surveyed by the Graduate Management Admission Council (GMAC), 90% said that their MBA had yielded a positive return on investment, and the vast majority said it had “improved their professional, personal and financial situation”.

  • Earnings boost

MBA graduates from all but two of the Financial Times’ top 100 business schools 2023 earn an average salary of over $100,000. At the top of the ladder, Stanford MBA graduates earn a whopping $248,699 a year. Closer to home for those of you in the UK, Birmingham Business School’s MBA cohort takes home £79,690. So regardless of the outlay, you’re very likely to be able to pay it off.

  • Employability

With an MBA, you’re almost guaranteed to have a job. A massive 95% of recruiters for corporate firms said they expect to hire MBA graduates this year, when surveyed by GMAC. Alumni of prestigious universities will be snapped up. Another incredible stat is that 96% of graduates from NYU’s 2021 Stern business school MBA programme were employed within three months of graduation.

  • Self-confidence

Accomplishment brings incredible benefits to our mental health and self-esteem, as well as our wallets. This can have lifelong knock-on effects that make an MBA well worth the effort and outlay. 

How long is an MBA?

MBA courses come in different formats. Different institutions structure their courses according to the demands and expectations placed on students. Some offer full-time courses that take 12 months to complete, while others offer part-time courses that can take two years or more. 

Types of MBA

MBAs come in different packages. Some are designed to give you a comprehensive all-round understanding of business while others concentrate on your chosen job type or sector. 

  • General Management MBA – You will develop essential management skills that are applicable to all types of organisation.
  • Specialist MBA – Specialise as a business analyst, consulting, chief marketing officer or any or any area of business currently in demand.
  • Executive MBA – These courses come with intense workloads and are aimed at people already working in business, aiming for c-suite roles.
  • Global MBA – Learn what managing businesses is like in other countries, or for multinationals working across global regions.
  • Online MBA – Many institutions now offer the opportunity to complete an MBA completely online. Perfect for people with busy lifestyles, they require a lot of self-drive.

Final thoughts

The Master of Business Administration has grown exponentially in stature since its early beginnings at Harvard. Like all higher education courses, you must weigh up the return on investment you’re likely to get. But thinking about that return is not simply in terms of money. Think about the change you can make in the world by becoming a leader.

Think of some of the world’s most powerful business leaders, tech giants, entrepreneurs and architects of governance. Think about your own self-esteem. Think about how you will feel when you’re able to put those three huge letters on your CV. If you’re ready to transform your career, then check out our online business administration degrees from top universities today.

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