Want to pay off your MBA faster? Concentrate in finance

BY Shannon FitzgeraldApril 28, 2021, 3:00 AM
Martin Laksman

Getting an MBA could be your ticket to the C-suite, that jump in salary, or the surest way to pivot your career—perhaps all three. Choosing the best program you can get into is a start, but you also might want to consider concentrating your business degree in finance. 

The finance specialization provides the most versatile value for a surprising cross section of MBA candidates: the expert, someone who’s been working 100-hour weeks in financial services; the pivoter, the person who has business experience, but wants to shift roles or industries; and the novice, for whom discounted cash flow was never mentioned in previous work conversations. 

“Because financial decisions are always at the heart of any business enterprise, virtually everyone without a solid understanding of finance will find it difficult to perform effectively in a leadership position,” according to Joao Gomes, professor of finance and economics and the finance department chair at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School.  

What is an MBA specialization in finance?

All graduate business programs offer a general management curriculum that includes coursework in leadership organization, strategic thinking, and operations management, and covers the financial fundamentals, like microeconomics and financial accounting. Many schools now offer specialized MBAs—also referred to as a concentration or major or area of emphasis—to build upon the core curriculum and allow students to deepen their skill set and expertise in a thematic or functional area. 

The finance concentration extends the foundation to go deeper into corporate finance, investment banking, economics and financial systems, and wealth management. Students who concentrate in finance generally want to pursue a career in financial services or plan to have an operational role—and management consultants and key CFO roles across all industries require a strategic finance approach that is more data-driven and analytical. 

At its core, B-school develops leadership and decision-making skills that are applicable across industries and organizations. A keen understanding of finance is arguably just as critical for the career path of any MBA grad.  

Why it’s important to learn the language of finance

Seeing how a company’s financial picture can interrupt its trajectory led Dana Sun, a member of the University of Chicago Booth School of Business’s class of 2020, to shift and reconsider her career path. Sun majored in biomedical engineering, and after four undergraduate years spent in a lab, she wanted to broaden her experience beyond academic research and in particular to understand the health care industry. 

Sun landed a management consulting job, which gave her corporate experience across multiple industries and functionalities. She then moved to a small, but innovative health care startup which was at a crossroads and in need of funding. Sun realized that the ability to think through the entire strategy and how to finance it “can have an impact on the future and whether your venture can succeed.” 

At Booth, where students commonly select multiple concentrations, Sun chose finance and entrepreneurship. Her passion was still health care, but her new goal was to gain the expertise necessary to ensure that good ideas had a good chance of survival. Sun now works at a venture capital firm that invests in early stage digital health companies.

The degree can advance a career in finance

There are those business schools that sit at the heart of the financial services industry or have quant-based reputations. So it’s not surprising that almost one-third of incoming first-year students at Columbia and Stern are coming from finance jobs. Or that more than one-third of graduates from Wharton and Cornell’s Johnson go into financial services, outpacing the second-place consulting careers (another high-paying professional path that attracts a significant portion of MBA grads). 

Top programs continue to innovate their offerings for the folks who have spent the past several years eating spreadsheets for breakfast and who want to really dig into restructuring distressed assets or financial derivatives. Wharton recently added a second finance major, quantitative finance, and NYU was among the first to offer fintech as its own specialization. Other schools have followed suit. Students on the career path to academia and research more often complete a master’s in finance, but many graduate programs allow MBA students to pursue this as a dual degree. 

A finance specialization could help women

Like management teams across America, the gender composition of MBA programs is less real world and more a range of minority representation. For example, Carnegie Mellon’s Tepper class of 2022 is 25% women, while Dartmouth’s Tuck class is 49%. The world of finance is also disproportionately made up of men, which might be something of an opportunity for women.

Sun stresses that more women should pursue finance in their business education, as many tend to land in non-finance functions, like marketing and human resources, even when the role is higher up the ladder. “Women can hit a glass ceiling because of financial illiteracy,” she says, which is “going to limit how far and how seriously you get taken by other executives.” 

Finance for non-finance students

As business schools seek to be more inclusive and enroll students who come from nontraditional business backgrounds, they are also making sure these MBA candidates are set up to succeed. And that means making the finance concentration more accessible. 

Gomes says that Wharton has made some shifts, such as allowing different pacing with the core curriculum, so students who lack business experience can build up their technical skills. “More importantly even, we want students to engage intellectually and culturally with finance as discipline, regardless of their background or preconceptions,” the finance chair notes. 

The increased flexibility allows for more experienced students to minimize repetition by pursuing advanced electives, Gomes adds. “But equally important, this allows us to use the core classes to really focus our attention on those students without much of a background in finance and break down those ‘invisible’ barriers to learning that could be created when we had so many finance experts in the room.”

Why specializing in finance could mean more money

A reliable and popular metric from business schools is job data at graduation—total offers made, by what industry, and for how much. And it’s the finance specialists who tend to be in the higher group of earners (especially given the signing bonuses for those students who go into financial services), when compared with classmates going into other fields. 

Wharton, Booth, Stern, and Columbia all reported their 2020 MBA grads who accepted financial service jobs had a median salary of $150,000 and signing bonuses ranging from $50,000 to $60,000. Meanwhile, Columbia, Stern, and Booth reported salaries of $120,000 and up with bonuses of $35,000 or more for internal finance or corporate development roles. 

Getting your MBA? By concentrating in finance—no longer just the province of the bean counters and the Gordon Gekkos of the world—you stand to open up the possibilities of your career path, and potentially earn more money.