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report on business education, spring 2012

Pharmacist Dave Puri opted for a two-year master of business administration, with a concentration in health industry management, from Schulich School of Business at York University.

Early in his career, pharmacist Dave Puri worked behind the counter issuing prescriptions to his customers.

But now the 27-year-old is itching to play a different role – reforming a health-care system under pressure from shrinking government resources, rising costs and an aging population.

That's why he opted for a two-year master of business administration, with a concentration in health industry management, from Schulich School of Business at York University.

He's part of a growing trend in which business students pursue specialty MBAs focused on a particular industry, such as health care, real estate and law, or themes such as international business, sustainability and entrepreneurship.

"I realized if I wanted to have a bigger impact on the health-care system, even in the pharmacy community, I would need to get away from front-line, one-on-one patient care practice to a senior leadership management role that would allow me to have an influence on how health-care resources are spent and new programs are developed," says Mr. Puri, who is set to graduate this spring.

As the traditional MBA market matures, business schools in and outside Canada are expanding their menu of specialty graduate programs to meet shifting demands by students and employers.

At Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto and McGill University's Desautels Faculty of Management, students can take joint programs in business and law to earn two professional degrees in less time than if taken separately.

Some offer niche MBAs tied to their regional identity. The University of Alberta offers a specialization in natural resources, energy and the environment, while Dalhousie University's Faculty of Management offers a specialty in marine management.

Several others have forged overseas partnerships. The University of Victoria's Gustavson School of Business expanded its Master of Global Business program last year, with options for students to study in Taiwan, Austria, France and South Korea.

"The evidence of interest in these programs is undeniable," says Michelle Sparkman-Renz, director of research communications for the U.S. Graduate Management Admissions Council that administers an admission test for graduate business and management programs.

In a voluntary council survey of MBA applicants last year, 903 Canadian residents said they planned to take a specialty program in finance, up from 870 in 2007. Over the same period, 143 indicated their interest in a specialty degree in health-care administration, up from 86 in 2007.

Despite their proliferation, niche MBAs vary widely in their minimum course requirements, use of internships and access to industry mentors, Ms. Sparkman-Renz says. What they share in common is close ties to the job market.

In his first year, Mr. Puri took the usual core MBA courses. In second year, he took four of 10 electives oriented to the health sector and taught by top officials with first-hand insight into hospital management.

As well, the program included a summer internship that enabled him to work on health-care issues at a major consulting firm.

One unexpected bonus, he adds, was the opportunity to attend small dinner meetings of industry executives and program alumni during the school year.

"It's the ultimate networking and mentoring opportunity and much better than anything you would get in a classroom," Mr. Puri says.

Traditional MBAs still account for the lion's share of enrolment, but niche programs have become a strategic marketing tool for business schools.

"The field itself has matured and with the very large number of MBA programs worldwide, business schools feel the need to differentiate themselves," says Joseph Doucet, acting dean of the school of business at the University of Alberta. His school offers five specializations, with a minor in sustainability introduced last year.

At Schulich, Dean Dezso Horvath was an early proponent of niche MBAs. Of 19 currently offered, seven (including health-industry management) carry a graduate diploma designation in addition to the MBA.

"If you have the same program for everyone, you have to market yourself through branding," Dr. Horvath says. "You have to find something that gives you an edge."

Last November, after being approached by industry officials, Schulich added global mining management to its roster of niche programs. Toronto is home base to the largest number of companies in the mining industry and accounts for 80 per cent of equity financing.

"With emerging markets taking off along with demand for minerals, the mining industry will be under major development and growth for decades," the dean predicts. "But this is an industry not used to hiring people from business."

Even before the official launch of Schulich's mining specialty, Carolyn Burns was taking electives this year to equip her for a career in the industry.

A traditional MBA held little appeal, she says.

"The three letters [MBA]don't mean the same as they did 30 years ago," Ms. Burns says. "It is less exclusive."

Eyeing a possible move to South Africa after graduation this spring, Ms. Burns says she has acquired sector-specific knowledge and skills about mining strategy, mergers and acquisitions, cross-cultural management and sustainability. In the process, she says she has learned from the experiences of current and former industry officials teaching in the classroom.

"If you can have this specialized understanding of the industry, it does set you apart," she says.

Special to The Globe and Mail