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An MBA has long been the standard credential and often an open ticket for would-be executives, consultants, and, yes, Masters of the Universe, the name Tom Wolfe coined for young ambitious investment bankers who, at least prior to the sub-prime crisis, could realistically expect to make millions.

But there's now a second contender in the business grad degree market, the somewhat awkwardly - and potentially confusingly -named Masters of Science in Management. Programs offering an MSc in Management are relatively new, but are quickly being introduced in schools in Canada, as well as the U.S. and overseas.

So how can tomorrow's business leader choose the right graduate program today? In many cases, there may not be a choice. These days, it's common for five or six years of work experience to be a non-negotiable requirement for signing up for an MBA. In contrast, many MSc in Management, or MIM, programs not only welcome undergrads who've yet to draw a steady corporate pay cheque, but actually limit enrolment to those with 2 years or less of work experience.

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"Our MBA is pretty typical in that it's for people wanting to pursue high career jobs in business, while our Masters of Management is geared towards people pre-experience," says Wendy Ma, Assistant Dean of Masters programs at UBC's Sauder School of Business.

For some, the requirement to have spent several years in the working world to do an MBA tips the scales towards the MSc "I just didn't want to wait that long, and I don't want to quit working and go back to school when I'm older and have a family," says John Glynn, 24, who is pursuing UBC's one-year Master of Management, after doing his undergrad in economics at McGill and working for a year for HSBC in Australia.

The two programs also diverge significantly in terms of curriculum. "An MBA would offer courses that have a very general approach to management so you learn at least a little bit about everything, and towards the end of the program there would be some specializing," says Julian Barling, Associate Dean of the PHD and MSC programs in management in the School of Business, Queen's University. "With an MSC there's a focus on specialization right from the beginning."

As a result, an MBA is generally more flexible, especially for those who aren't certain about the specific field or function they want to pursue professionally, says Rick Power, Former Associate Dean and Executive Director, MBA and Master of Finance Programs at the Rotman School of Management. And that description, he says, applies to most students. "Even if they have an idea of what they want to do, oftentimes that changes when they're exposed to different areas of management."

The specific areas of specialization for Masters in Management programs vary from school to school. The University of Ottawa, for example, offers two fields of study, Entrepreneurship and Innovation Management, along with a customizable program. Montreal's Concordia emphasizes finance and HR, while UBC targets operations and research.

In some cases, in fact, operations research may be a more fitting description. In some cases, says Mr. Barling, a MIM focuses on the application of math principals and modelling to business solutions such as revenue management. For example, when you call an airline to get a ticket, you often aren't offered the same price as the next customer. The reason is that somebody has built a model that assesses the optimal price by factoring in all sorts of data, from your flying patterns to whether you regularly go business class or not," he says "It can be intensely mathematical."

Another key differentiator is just what a student's post-degree goal is. At Queen's, for instance, half of those in the MSc program will go on to do a doctorate. As for those that go into industry, marketing students find a home in large consumer organizations doing consumer research. Meanwhile, students in finance or economics often go into consulting companies or organizations, including the Bank of Canada, where they carry out research. "These people are very different from MBA grads," says Mr. Barling. "They have highly specialized research skills, and no training in management. These are the people you want doing research,"

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"The purpose is to create a different set of opportunities," says Darren Meister, Faculty Director, HBA and MSc Programs at Richard Ivey School of Business at the University of Western Ontario. He adds that another differentiator is that MSc in Management programs often have an extra international emphasis. Ivey, for instance, is a member of CEMS, an alliance designed to "set a global standard of excellence for pre-experience Master's in management." Many of Ivey's MIM students go overseas for some of the program, taking courses at partner schools. Says Mr. Meister, "You are better prepared for a career in international business."

Of course, the key is that, either way, students are making an investment of time, and, particularly in the case of MBAs, a great deal of money. So one key criteria is the potential payoff, and the newness of the MIM degree gives an MBA a definite leg-up in terms of market awareness. "Along with law and medicine, an MBA is one of the top post-grad degrees that are recognized right around the world," says Rotman's Rick Powers.

But 24-year-old Rebecca Risberg, who's in Ivey's MIM program, feels the employers she'll be targeting will recognize the skills the program has given her when she graduates. "I'm interested in international development and that has a significant research focus."

In the end, making the right choice means exercising the one skill that candidates for either program should possess, namely the ability to do their homework. "Speak to students, and ask those that are now out working if the program they took was helpful," says Mr. Powers. "We think we have a great program, but we're not the best program for everyone."

Special to The Globe and Mail

Editor's Note: An earlier online version and the original newspaper version of this story had incorrect information about the focus of the University of Ottawa's MSc in Management. This version has been corrected.

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