When Abram Chan started thinking about what he wanted to do after finishing his psychology undergraduate degree two years ago, an MBA came to mind.
So he began looking into schools offering master of business administration degrees and took his time dissecting the programs. Following a summer working in development for a theatre company in Kitchener, Ont., he knew he had the passion to drive an organization forward – just not the business chops to back it up.
He wanted to merge his interest in digital media with a business education, but no conventional MBA seemed to fit the bill.
"I realized that the digital world is a huge thing that businesses need to understand and jump on, but that it was missing from the MBA programs I looked at," he says.
It wasn't until he stumbled across the University of Waterloo's master of digital experience innovation program, housed at the school's new Stratford, Ont., campus, that he found what he was looking for. Digital media, a catchall term that encompasses everything from e-books to Facebook, uses technology, platforms and data that ricochet around the globe, touching nearly every type of business today. Students learn how to manage not just the technology, but also the employees who use and create it.
"I saw this program and thought: This is so perfect," says Mr. Chan, now a recent grad.
There are numerous ways to acquire a business education without necessarily signing up for a traditional MBA. Going the conventional, although well-established, route isn't always the best path for many students who want to know the ins and outs of marketing and management, but prefer to spend time exploring a specialized field. Some MBAs focus on specific industries, others offer master level programs that incorporate business classes. Then there's the master in management (MiM) and the masters of science in management (MSc in management) introduced by schools in Canada, the United States and overseas.
A few examples here at home: York University's Schulich School of Business in Toronto offers a health industry management program, as well as another that specializes in real estate. MBA students who attend the Alberta School of Business in Edmonton can specialize in natural resources energy and environment, technology commercialization and international business. McGill University's Desautels Faculty of Management in Montreal offers joint programs in business and law so students can earn two professional degrees, while the Queen's School of Business in Kingston just recently launched a specialized master of management analytics program so a new generation of business people can make sense of the piles of corporate data that continually pour in.
Timothy Daus, executive director of the Canadian Federation of Business School Deans in Montreal, says today's new offerings make a lot of sense for smaller schools that need to find a way to differentiate themselves. Going up against the powerhouses, such as Rotman School of Management in Toronto, Richard Ivey School of Business in London, Ont., and Sauder School of Business in Vancouver, can be tough when it comes to trying to lure students.
"Obviously, every institution has to cover the basics, but if you're small, you have to specialize," says Mr. Daus, before cautioning: "Don't forget, you need to have a core of researchers and faculty that can support any program. You can't offer a PhD in accounting if you only have three accounting professors."
Cape Breton University's Shannon School of Business in Sydney, N.S., has taken this advice to heart. Since the small school launched its MBA in community economic development in 1997, more than 300 students have graduated with the specialized degree.
"We like to say that people who take our MBA will have the basic skills that an MBA offers, and still operate well in all three sectors of the economy, whether it's the corporate sector, government or the third sector: everybody else," says George Karaphillis, the program's director.
Graduates from the program, which mixes business and social sciences, go on to change careers or get new jobs with organizations ranging from NATO to hospitals. One graduate went on to become mayor of St. Albert, Alta. While full-time students can complete the program on campus in one year, others outside Nova Scotia spread it out over many years by taking month-long sessions in July and doing weekend classes in cities such as Edmonton and Saskatoon.
"There's no way we would be in Alberta if we offered a more mainstream MBA. It would be hard to entice people," Mr. Karaphillis says. "We're a small school. We're from the East. We fly professors into Edmonton. Why would people come to us and not the local university if we weren't offering something a little bit different?"
Back at the University of Waterloo, Ginny Dybenko, executive director of the school's new Centre for Digital Media, says that in the crowded MBA market, schools must find new ways to give students the kinds of business know-how they want – and keep industry happy. Companies are the ones hiring the grads. For instance, a potential employee who knows how to properly digitize a manufacturing company's supply chain and save big money could be a real boon if it's struggling in a globalized marketplace.
"I wouldn't really view our master of digital experience innovation as a competitor to an MBA. It's really more for someone who is interested in creating and leading, specifically leading an organization through a profound transformation from the old way of doing business to the new way of doing business," she says.
Students not only learn about marketing and project management in Canada, but how to bring those skills to an international setting. Digital media breaks down barriers between countries so a team could include programmers in Mumbai, designers in Paris and management in Toronto.
This training will have a lasting impact on his career, Mr. Chan says. This summer he's finishing his degree by rolling up his sleeves with a few other masters' students and working on an interaction design project for a Desire2Learn, a learning software company based in Kitchener.
"I love the area of user experience. That's what I want to focus on," Mr. Chan says. "My masters made that clear for me."