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MBA vs. PhD: Choose Your Advanced Degree Path

March 11, 2021

In 2021, it is practically conventional wisdom that an advanced degree like a master’s degree, an MBA, a PhD, a JD or an MD is a necessity if you want to give yourself the best chance of a successful, meaningful career. While professional doctoral degrees like JDs and MDs will lead you down very specific career paths, it can be harder to envision the career outcomes associated with more versatile degrees like the MBA or the PhD.

People pursue these two advanced degrees for a variety of reasons, and no two journeys through higher education and into professional excellence are quite the same. If you are internally debating the merits of earning an MBA vs. earning a PhD, read some of the career pathways you might take with either degree—or with both of them.

Who earns a PhD? And what do they do with it?

People who pursue a doctoral degree typically do so out of a commitment to producing new knowledge at the leading edge of a subject or field that holds deep meaning for them. This can describe an incredibly diverse array of pursuits, from developing innovative new materials for medical devices and developing novel modeling techniques for research applications to examining archival records of media production and scrutinizing the linguistic elements of ancient texts.

People often earn PhDs with the goal of an academic career in mind. This is not necessarily the case in all scholarly disciplines, however, and even in those that tend to be more academic focused, recent trends may be demonstrating a shift. Those who earn PhDs in STEM fields or in the data-driven social sciences may do so with the end goal of a professional career in mind, specifically one where their skills at designing and conducting research will be rewarded with heightened responsibility and increased pay. And even in humanities disciplines with seemingly few analogues in the professional world, graduate students are increasingly envisioning their futures outside of the classroom as tenure-track and full-time professorships grow scarcer by the year.

How can a PhD help you in the business world?

The skills and mindset you develop in a PhD program are certainly applicable in the “real” world, regardless of whether your subject of choice has a direct pathway to a professional job. If you have earned a PhD in a STEM field, you will likely enter the professional workforce at a higher pay grade than you would without your degree. You may find yourself fast-tracked toward a management role as well, as your experience designing and overseeing research projects can position you well to lead a team of employees, manage workloads, and successfully meet deadlines.

PhD holders in the social sciences and humanities may also find their skills in high demand in the business world, even if they might need to spend a bit of time learning how to convey their value on a resume and in a job interview. Research in social sciences fields like sociology and political science often requires analysis of large and complex data sets; the skill set they develop in completing this work can translate easily into a business analytics role. And the persuasive writing, editing and organization skills humanities graduate students develop are well-suited to roles in strategic communication or marketing.

Should you earn an MBA instead?

If you are considering whether to earn an MBA or a PhD and you know your eventual goal is to obtain a leadership role in a business organization, the MBA is likely the right path for you. An MBA can make an immediate impact on your earnings and on the career opportunities available to you. It is also an extremely versatile degree, and can lead to advancement whether your career already seems to be heading down a relatively narrow path in a specific field or whether you intend to keep your options open for a potential pivot.

Additionally, an MBA might also be your best bet if the kind of fulfillment you get from your work comes less from successfully completing your assigned task or from navigating the day-to-day challenges of your particular area of technical expertise and more from positioning your organization for success. If you would rather dedicate your time and energy toward strategizing your company’s business goals and the best ways to achieve them, and to truly leading rather than simply managing, you should strongly consider enrolling in business school.

The most significant difference your choice to earn an MBA instead of a PhD will have on your life is on the amount of time and energy you have to dedicate to it. A PhD is a full-time commitment in which work typically balloons well past 40 hours per week, with little respect for evenings or weekends. It will take an absolute minimum of four years to complete, and more likely five to seven. An MBA, conversely, will typically be attainable in just two to 2.5 years and can be completed while you keep your full-time job—and your full salary. Seek out a top-tier online program if you would like your MBA studies to fit most conveniently around your existing schedule and responsibilities.

Does anyone earn both a PhD and an MBA? Why?

It is not unheard of for a single person to earn both a PhD and an MBA, but the order in which one does so is often determined by their eventual career goals, including by the way these goals might evolve over the course of their career. PhD holders who are working in fields that are directly related to their research may, after some years, opt to return to school for an MBA to help them prepare to climb the corporate ladder at large technical organizations. In smaller companies, such as engineering or biotechnology startups, the org chart may tilt heavily toward people with technical backgrounds rather than business ones; adding an MBA and the skills that come with it to your resume in an environment like this can benefit the entire organization.

Or, if you earn your MBA and spend time working and advancing in a professional field only to eventually realize your true calling is to teach others, you may choose to earn a PhD in economics or a business discipline to help you transition into a professorship in a business school. Preparing the next generation of business leaders can be extremely meaningful work, and many successful professionals decide the most positive impact they can make on the business world is by taking this route.

Find your purpose with Seattle University’s Online MBA.

The Online MBA program at the Albers School of Business and Economics is a versatile, flexible degree designed for working professionals who want to advance in their careers and grow as both a person and a professional. Find out how our curriculum is uniquely structured to help you develop into a true leader who is prepared to face any challenge the business world can throw at you.