The MBA has traditionally been known as a general management degree, but that’s starting to change as students look to get an edge in a more competitive job market. Increasingly, students are pushing aside the bread-and-butter MBA degree in favor of one with a unique specialization, like aviation or football. Some of the more recent programs to hit the management education world include a new Wine MBA introduced by Sonoma State University in California and an MBA degree with an energy focus offered by the University of Oklahoma’s Price College of Business. Even the funeral industry has gotten in on the trend: The University of Barcelona and the European Federation of Funeral Services introduced a two-year MBA designed for undertakers last year.

The shift comes as business schools are attempting to differentiate themselves in a crowded MBA marketplace, says Jan Williams, board chairman of the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB). The number of general business MBA programs worldwide has declined about 2 percent in the past five years, based on a controlled set of 419 surveyed schools, according to AACSB data. At the same time, the number of specialized MBA programs has risen 11 percent, from 92 to 102, based on the same controlled set of respondents. Williams calls the jump a “fairly dramatic increase.”

One reason niche programs are becoming more popular is they can help fast-track a student’s career in a specialized industry, Williams says. For example, Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University’s College of Business sends many students to internships at Boeing, while the University of Nevada at Reno’s gaming management program has ties to casinos such as Foxwoods and Caesars. Niche programs also help expand a student’s understanding of an industry through classes and case studies that look at business problems from the perspective of that sector.

“Schools are trying ways to differentiate themselves, because there are hundreds of MBA programs out there,” says Williams, who is also dean of the University of Tennessee at Knoxville’s College of Business Administration, which offers several niche MBA programs, including one focusing on aerospace and defense. “If you can take some portion of your program that specializes in an area students can’t get anywhere else, you make your program more attractive.”

The following are some of the more innovative MBA specializations offered by schools in the U.S. and Europe. Click through to learn more about each program’s focus, curriculum, and placement trends.

Photo Illustration by Will Halsey, Photography by Getty Images.

The MBA has traditionally been known as a general management degree, but that’s starting to change as students look to get an edge in a more competitive job market. Increasingly, students are pushing aside the bread-and-butter MBA degree in favor of one with a unique specialization, like aviation or football. Some of the more recent programs to hit the management education world include a new Wine MBA introduced by Sonoma State University in California and an MBA degree with an energy focus offered by the University of Oklahoma’s Price College of Business. Even the funeral industry has gotten in on the trend: The University of Barcelona and the European Federation of Funeral Services introduced a two-year MBA designed for undertakers last year.

The shift comes as business schools are attempting to differentiate themselves in a crowded MBA marketplace, says Jan Williams, board chairman of the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB). The number of general business MBA programs worldwide has declined about 2 percent in the past five years, based on a controlled set of 419 surveyed schools, according to AACSB data. At the same time, the number of specialized MBA programs has risen 11 percent, from 92 to 102, based on the same controlled set of respondents. Williams calls the jump a “fairly dramatic increase.”

One reason niche programs are becoming more popular is they can help fast-track a student’s career in a specialized industry, Williams says. For example, Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University’s College of Business sends many students to internships at Boeing, while the University of Nevada at Reno’s gaming management program has ties to casinos such as Foxwoods and Caesars. Niche programs also help expand a student’s understanding of an industry through classes and case studies that look at business problems from the perspective of that sector.

“Schools are trying ways to differentiate themselves, because there are hundreds of MBA programs out there,” says Williams, who is also dean of the University of Tennessee at Knoxville’s College of Business Administration, which offers several niche MBA programs, including one focusing on aerospace and defense. “If you can take some portion of your program that specializes in an area students can’t get anywhere else, you make your program more attractive.”

The following are some of the more innovative MBA specializations offered by schools in the U.S. and Europe. Click through to learn more about each program’s focus, curriculum, and placement trends.

Photo Illustration by Will Halsey, Photography by Getty Images.

MBA Programs Find Their Niche

B-Schools Specialize
B-Schools Specialize

The MBA has traditionally been known as a general management degree, but that’s starting to change as students look to get an edge in a more competitive job market. Increasingly, students are pushing aside the bread-and-butter MBA degree in favor of one with a unique specialization, like aviation or football. Some of the more recent programs to hit the management education world include a new Wine MBA introduced by Sonoma State University in California and an MBA degree with an energy focus offered by the University of Oklahoma’s Price College of Business. Even the funeral industry has gotten in on the trend: The University of Barcelona and the European Federation of Funeral Services introduced a two-year MBA designed for undertakers last year.

The shift comes as business schools are attempting to differentiate themselves in a crowded MBA marketplace, says Jan Williams, board chairman of the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB). The number of general business MBA programs worldwide has declined about 2 percent in the past five years, based on a controlled set of 419 surveyed schools, according to AACSB data. At the same time, the number of specialized MBA programs has risen 11 percent, from 92 to 102, based on the same controlled set of respondents. Williams calls the jump a “fairly dramatic increase.”

One reason niche programs are becoming more popular is they can help fast-track a student’s career in a specialized industry, Williams says. For example, Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University’s College of Business sends many students to internships at Boeing, while the University of Nevada at Reno’s gaming management program has ties to casinos such as Foxwoods and Caesars. Niche programs also help expand a student’s understanding of an industry through classes and case studies that look at business problems from the perspective of that sector.

“Schools are trying ways to differentiate themselves, because there are hundreds of MBA programs out there,” says Williams, who is also dean of the University of Tennessee at Knoxville’s College of Business Administration, which offers several niche MBA programs, including one focusing on aerospace and defense. “If you can take some portion of your program that specializes in an area students can’t get anywhere else, you make your program more attractive.”

The following are some of the more innovative MBA specializations offered by schools in the U.S. and Europe. Click through to learn more about each program’s focus, curriculum, and placement trends.

Photo Illustration by Will Halsey, Photography by Getty Images.

Belmont University’s Massey Graduate School of Business
Belmont University’s Massey Graduate School of Business
Specialization: Music Business
Year program was founded: 2003
Enrollment: 30 of the school’s 176 students pursue this concentration

Belmont’s Massey School has taken advantage of its location in Nashville, the home of country music, to offer students an MBA that will help them get ahead in the music business. Students in the program can expect to be taught by some of the leading names in the music industry. This fall, for example, Larry Stessel, managing partner of Revolver Marketing Group and a former executive at EMI Records, is teaching a class called Strategic Marketing in the Music Business. Other classes students take include Entertainment Asset Management and Technology in the Business of Music. The majority of students doing the concentration are career switchers, and some come to the program right after graduating from college, says Joe Alexander, an associate dean at Massey. Sony Music, Universal Music Group, and CMT are some of the companies that visit campus to recruit students. Since most of the students don’t have experience in the field or are career switchers, starting salaries for this group tend to hover at the low end of the MBA pay scale, ranging from $25,000 to $29,000. “These are generally younger students with less experience, and [they're] moving into an incredibly crowded and competitive marketplace,” Alexander says. “The idea is that the MBA helps to get them in the door, with the tools to move up more rapidly.”
BEM—Bordeaux Management School
BEM—Bordeaux Management School
Specialization: Wine and Spirits MBA
Year program was founded: 2001
Enrollment: 20

France’s Bordeaux Management School is one of the pioneers of the Wine MBA, and students in this program can now study both wine and spirits in the venerated Bordeaux wine region. This intimate program, known since its founding as the Wine MBA, will be renamed the Wine and Spirits MBA in January. During the nearly two-year program, students learn about viticulture, tour wineries, and take study trips to Australia, California’s Sonoma County, and Hong Kong. Students study wine economics and wine and spirit marketing, and they are required to write a dissertation about an issue pertaining to the industry. About 90 percent of the students work in the industry while enrolled in the program, and 80 percent come from the wine sector, the school says. Companies that recruit on campus come from all over the world and include Chile’s Concha y Toro, France’s Château Guiraud, and the U.S.’s Vinfolio. After graduation, students embark on careers as export managers, wine and spirits consultants, and sales managers.
Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University’s College of Business
Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University’s College of Business
Specialization: Aviation Management
Year program was founded: 1986
Enrollment: 157

Students in this program—one of the few MBA programs in the world specifically designed for the airline, aviation, and aerospace industries—can expect to do everything from study airline operations to learn to manage passenger and cargo terminals. The school offers two aviation-focused MBA degrees: one that provides an overview of the entire aviation and aerospace industry, and another that allows students to specialize in a specific area of the industry. About half the students in the program have a connection to the airline industry, while the other half tend to be career changers, from either the hospitality or finance industry. The program’s targeted curriculum has made it a favorite among some of the leading players in the airline industry, such as Boeing, which recently set up an internship program with the school designed to fast-track qualifying students to full-time employment at the company. United Airlines, Delta, Sabre, and Rolls-Royce also visit campus to hire students to work as analysts in their marketing and operations departments. Famous alums include Zane Rowe, the current chief financial officer of United Airlines. Starting salaries for graduates range from $55,000 to $82,000, the school says.
University of California, Los Angeles’ Anderson School of Management
University of California, Los Angeles’ Anderson School of Management
Specialization: Media, Entertainment, and Sports
Year program was founded: 2007
Enrollment: 300 students

Hollywood is the ideal place for students who seek careers in the media, entertainment, and sports worlds to converge, and four years ago the Anderson School created a center and specialization devoted to these sectors. The popular MBA specialization gives students a broad perspective of the field while also allowing them to take more niche classes on such topics as film finance or home video marketing. Well-known industry experts frequently visit the school to teach classes. For example, Harry Sloan, a former chairman and chief executive of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, teaches a class called Entertainment Business Models. Students who pursue this concentration can expect to meet recruiters from some of the leading entertainment and media companies, including Warner Bros., Paramount, and NBC Universal. Last year, the Walt Disney Co. was one of the school’s top recruiters, hiring six students from the MBA class.
University of Bologna’s Alma Graduate School
University of Bologna’s Alma Graduate School
Specialization: Food and Wine
Year program was founded: 2010
Enrollment: 74

Students in this program take their passion for gastronomy and wine to a whole new level, studying the two subjects in Bologna, Italy’s gastronomic center. This new one-year MBA program, taught in English, gives students a general management background before they take more subject-specific classes, such as Sustainable Gastronomy & Tourism or Oenology & Food Culture. Students can expect to study everything from food and wine distribution and retailing to how to taste and assess wine and food products properly. The program is geared toward students who want to be managers in agribusiness, restaurant, and distribution companies, the school says. The program, barely a year old, appears to be popular; the school has so far received more than 2,000 requests for information about the MBA program. Students don’t need to have a background in food and wine to get into the program, but they can benefit from having some experience in the field before applying. More than 33 percent of the class has a background in food and wine, while 7 percent have previously studied food and beverage management.
ESSEC Business School
ESSEC Business School
Specialization: MBA in International Luxury Brand Management
Year program was founded: 1995
Enrollment: 40 to 45 students

What better place to study luxury than in France, the cradle of haute couture fashion? Students in the program can specialize in such areas as fashion and accessories, fragrance and cosmetics, and watches and jewelry, among others. International luxury distribution, the luxury business, and consumer behavior and communication are examples of typical classes offered in the program. Students get to mingle with recruiters from high-end luxury brands such as Christian Dior Couture, the LVMH Group, Estee Lauder, and Calvin Klein, companies that often hire graduates. Admission is competitive, as just one in every four applicants is admitted to the school. About 50 percent of students have previous experience in the field, while the remaining half are career switchers, the school says. Of the graduating Class of 2011, about half the class was still looking for a job two months out, the school says. But patience will pay off for the aggressive job seeker; by the nine-month mark last year, about 90 percent of the class of 2010 had landed a job in the luxury sector.

Photographer: Bloomberg Photos
University of Liverpool’s Management School
University of Liverpool’s Management School
Specialization: Football Industries
Year program was founded: 1997
Enrollment: 27

Sports lovers interested in pursuing the management side of football (called soccer in the U.S.) should head to the University of Liverpool’s Football Industries MBA program to get a leg up in this competitive industry. Students take classes such as Becoming a Football Executive, Football & Law, and Sports Operations Management. The ultimate goal is to get a job in the football industry, whether at a football club, a governing body, or a media company. The Union of European Football Associations, SportFive, and the Liverpool Football Club are examples of some of the companies that visit campus each year to recruit students. Due to the relatively small size of the football industry, graduates often need some time to land the ideal job, the school says. About 40 percent of graduates find jobs in the industry within three months of graduation. The majority of students are career switchers, and the school receives 110 applications a year, of which 30 percent receive offers.
University of Nevada, Reno’s College of Business
University of Nevada, Reno’s College of Business
Specialization: Gaming Management
Year program was founded: 1996
Enrollment: Five to 15, depending on the year

The University of Nevada, Reno, has carved out a unique niche for itself with its gaming management program, which grew out of the school’s Institute for the Study of Gambling & Commercial Gaming. The majority of students are not career switchers, probably because the gaming industry in Northern Nevada, where the school is located, has been weak for the past decade, says Bill Eadington, the institute’s director and a professor at the school. The school offers about six courses a year, tackling such subjects as casino management, regulation of gaming industries, and public policy issues that affect gambling. Recent MBA graduates have taken executive or management positions at Foxwoods, Caesars, Wynn Resorts, and various Indian casinos throughout the U.S. Some of the program’s graduates have gone on to pursue illustrious careers in the industry. For example, Wang Xuehong, a 2004 graduate, is now director of the Center for the Study of Lottery in China at Peking University in Beijing, the major policy advisory entity on gambling in China.
University of Oklahoma’s Price College of Business
University of Oklahoma’s Price College of Business
Specialization: Energy
Year program was founded: 2009
Enrollment: 100

The University of Oklahoma has offered undergraduates an energy management program since 1958, but only recently did it decide to make energy specialization a concentration for MBA students. The program’s strategic location makes it an ideal spot for MBAs looking to launch careers in the energy industry—Oklahoma is the third-largest gas producer and the fifth-largest crude oil producer in the country. Required classes for MBAs include Energy Accounting & Regulation and Energy Assets & Commodities. About half the students doing the concentration have a background in the energy field, although it is not a requirement. Some of the biggest names in the energy business come to recruit students, including ExxonMobil, Chesapeake Energy, and ConocoPhillips. About 80 percent of graduates who do the energy major can expect to find a job within three months of graduation, and most will make a starting salary between $75,000 and $100,000, according to the school.
Rutgers Business School
Rutgers Business School
Specialization: Pharmaceutical Management
Year program was founded: 2000
Enrollment: 30 students

With New Jersey as the country’s principal pharmaceutical hub, Rutgers Business School decided a decade ago to offer a pharmaceutical management concentration within its MBA program. The specialty is becoming increasingly popular as the health-care field grows. Today, 30 students are in the program, up from 22 in 2009. The program has close ties to major health-care companies, including Johnson & Johnson, Bristol-Meyers Squibb, and Quest Diagnostics, all of which routinely come to campus to recruit. Students in the program learn everything from pharmaceutical product management and marketing research to the legal, regulatory, and ethical issues the industry faces. Students in the program have better odds of finding a job than their traditional MBA counterparts: Placement for the pharmaceutical majors is about 10 percentage points higher than for other students, with many landing jobs as product managers and senior financial analysts. Even more encouraging, more than 90 percent land jobs in the field within three months of graduation. The average salary for graduates is in the mid-$90,000 range, with an average signing bonus of $15,000.
Queen Margaret University
Queen Margaret University
Specialization: Hospitality
Year program was founded: Early 1990s
Enrollment: Between 30 and 40 students

Scotland’s Queen Margaret University was originally founded in 1875 as the Edinburgh School of Cookery, part of a Victorian movement to open up more opportunities for women at the university. More than 125 years later, the school still has hospitality in its blood, and its hospitality MBA program is an outgrowth of that legacy. Students in the program take typical MBA courses but supplement their studies with such classes as Inspirational Leadership in Hospitality and Global Issues & Challenges for Hospitality Managers. Starting salaries for graduates begin at around $50,000 but can go higher, depending on what country and industry the students work in, the school says.
Sonoma State University
Sonoma State University
Specialization: Wine Business
Year program was founded: 2009
Enrollment: 32

Studying the business of wine-making in the heart of California’s wine country is an oenophile’s dream come true. The two-year-old Wine MBA program offered by Sonoma State holds the distinction of being the first program in the U.S. to focus on the business side of the industry. It was introduced in response to a demand from the industry for more business-savvy winery executives and managers, the school says. During their time in the part-time evening program, students study such subjects as wine business strategy, wine entrepreneurship, and wine supply chain management. The majority of students are already in the wine industry and use the program for career advancement. The school works closely with such well-known wineries as Benziger Family Winery, Jordan Vineyards & Winery, and Constellation Brands, all companies where many grads of the program end up working. Grads can expect to become brand mangers, chief financial officers, and hospitality mangers, and salaries for graduates range from $60,000 to $100,000.
University of Tennessee Knoxville’s College of Business Administration
University of Tennessee Knoxville’s College of Business Administration
Specialization: Aerospace & Defense MBA
Year program was founded: 2004
Enrollment: 28 students

The University of Tennessee at Knoxville’s Aerospace & Defense MBA is favored by such companies as Lockheed Martin, Boeing, and Delta, which typically send their promising engineers, supply chain managers, and marketing and sales employees to this niche program. Students in the program shouldn’t expect classes on specific aerospace and defense topics, says Andrew White, the program’s director. Rather, it is structured like a typical MBA program that’s taught in an aerospace and defense context, he says. Students use aerospace and defense-context case studies for most seminars, and class discussions center around application of best business practices in the industry. Classes are taught with an international bent, and students are required to spend 10 days overseas learning about foreign-owned companies in the aerospace and defense sector. The most recent class went to Brazil. Graduates typically receive a $120,000 salary, and students generally return to their current employers after completing the program.