A female MBA or PhD student sitting and writing note on the table on front of laptop at home

MBA vs. Ph.D.: The Important Career Differences Explained

Choosing between MBA vs. Ph.D. can lead to a significant decision in your life and career. As an MBA with few Ph.D. friends, I will provide you with several critical hard truths in this article. I think you should know them before making final decision.

MBA and Ph.D. degrees are not equal. MBA was designed to train managers, and Ph.D. was created to train researchers and scientists. A Ph.D. generally is regarded as an academically higher accomplishment than MBA, but MBA is a quicker way to practical work and career. 

To understand the MBA vs. Ph.D. comparison, we need to do some industry analysis. Then, we will employ some useful MBA and Ph.D. salary statistics and investigate several other vital factors often overlooked by prospective students. Let’s start.

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Is MBA equal to a Ph.D.? 

MBA stands for master’s in business administration degree. Ph.D. stands for a doctor in philosophy. While both MBA and Ph.D. in business study business topics, they are very different degrees.

In terms of equality in a dispute between MBA vs. Ph.D., Ph.D. is the clear winner. 

Whether MBA is equal to a Ph.D. depends on how society and industry view both degrees. MBA vs. Ph.D. is entirely different.

MBA is not equal to a Ph.D. (doctorate) in any way, shape, or form. MBA is a graduate professional master’s degree, while a Ph.D. is a post-graduate research academic degree. 

Ph.D. is still regarded higher than MBA for many reasons, including deepness of study and research required for Ph.D. students. In addition, Ph.D. is the most advanced degree one can obtain in any field in the USA. 

MBA was designed to train managers who can manage the human and material resources of the company. Managers must make business decisions, recognize trends, have a vision. MBA manages processes, sometimes exploiting gut feeling based on experience, or works as analyst. 

Ph.D. was designed to train researchers and scientists who research and analyze data to extrapolate trends. Ph.D.’s recognize problems, and figure out solutions to them based on complex data instead of gut feelings. 

Companies and the public generally regard a Ph.D. as significantly more advanced than a master’s degree, including MBA. PhDs are considered subject experts and authorities on the topic of their Ph.D. research. 

There are many more MBA than business Ph.D. graduates each year. MBA is a commodity nowadays, while a Ph.D. in a business topic is still a unique qualification. 

The caveat is that an elite business school MBA is still more likely to be regarded higher than a Ph.D. from a low-ranking business program. 

Is MBA harder than a Ph.D.? The difficulty of MBA vs. PhD

Between Ph.D. and MBA, Ph.D. is more complicated. Ph.D. in business is harder to obtain degree compared to MBA. 

MBA is shorter, and students can complete a full-time MBA program in 2 years or less. Ph.D. may take longer than 5-7 years to complete. 

You should look at those years of studying as an opportunity cost. Meaning, you lose the opportunity to get a job and work on your regular business industry career because you are pursuing MBA or Ph.D. instead.  

MBA is a general overview of most common business areas, and MBA students primarily learn about core business concepts in an overview form. 

The curriculum for most business MBA subjects has pretty much been established. Thus, MBA students have more structured studies with understandable steps, goals, and expectations.

As a result, MBA does not involve too much math and is generally straightforward on most occasions. 

On the other hand, Ph.D. is a narrow, intense, and deep research focused on a specific aspect of an area of the business subject.

Ph.D. research focuses on some unique and new theory or part of the previously not so profoundly researched business topic. Ph.D. in business often involves lots of math. 

Essentially, a Ph.D. is a deep immersion into unknown and unresearched theoretical depths of business. And if Ph.D. is in statistical, financial, economics, or some mathematical areas of business, then Ph.D. students must perform a heavy volume of advanced mathematical calculations.  

Plus, the Ph.D. program has much higher knowledge and analysis expectations from its students compared to MBA.

In a Ph.D. in business, a researcher spends multiple years studying, analyzing, and interpreting various data and extrapolating trends, rules, consistencies, and conclusions. 

Ph.D. work must prove a new point or theory by supporting it with heavy volume or research and plenty of arguments. MBA students do not have to do it. 

Usually, a Ph.D. must complete two years of coursework, teach for a couple of years, and then write a dissertation within another 1-3 years. So, Ph.D. can take seven years to complete. 

Ph.D. requires more heavy volume work than MBA. 

Which degree is better, MBA or Ph.D.? Is an MBA or Ph.D. better?

What is better – MBA vs. Ph.D. – is a very tough topic because Ph.D. is narrowly focused on some aspect of business, while MBA simply is an advanced overview of many business topics. 

Which degree is better, MBA or Ph.D., depends on personal goals. MBA is better if one wants to obtain a degree and start looking for a job sooner. MBA is more like a sprint.

But if someone wants to get into academia and teach or spend many years researching a specific topic and become a super-focused specialist, then Ph.D. is better. Obtaining a Ph.D. is a challenging marathon rather than a sprint. 

The MBA vs. Ph.D. outcome also depends on the rank of the business school where MBA or Ph.D. students obtain their degrees.

Either MBA or Ph.D. from elite top business schools like Harvard, Stanford, Yale, Wharton, or Columbia will be in demand, and good quality employers will be happy to hire such graduates.

On the other hand, neither MBA nor Ph.D. from low-ranking business schools by themselves will not result in a good job.

Except for when such MBA graduate either has previous relevant work experience or can obtain additional skills after MBA to become more marketable. 

Ph.D. in quantitative disciplines like finance, economics, or statistics, even from low-ranking business school may find a job as an analyst because of hard quantitative skills. But such a Ph.D. should not expect a high starting salary. 

MBA vs. Ph.D. and Employment Decisions

One note about MBA is as follows. While it limits employment opportunities, it is still a general degree that can lead to different career paths unless a person chooses some strong MBA specialization or concentration. 

Usually, MBAs are considered generalists suitable for entry-level or middle managerial positions, depending on their previous work experience.

However, MBAs without work experience may have a hard time finding jobs and may face the necessity to obtain additional skills or even more education to become employable. 

On the other hand, MBA is sufficiently enough for those who simply want to jump into a practical application of MBA knowledge by working in the business world.

MBA is better for an entrepreneur than Ph.D. because MBA has a more significant focus on practical aspects of managing and running a business. 

Ph.D. essentially limits employment opportunities even more than MBA. The limitation of job opportunities is inherent in the narrow-focused nature of Ph.D. research.

For example, doing a Ph.D. in finance or economics essentially narrows down employment opportunities to areas of finance or economics. 

On the other hand, a Ph.D. is considered an expert researcher in the chosen business topic. Still, most PhDs work in academia or research institutions and not in real-life business positions. 

Besides open teaching careers in education, some companies may want to hire such Ph.D. in analytical, consulting, or managerial positions because they understand that they have deep knowledge of business theory and practice. 

Ph.D. and MBA salary. Who earns more MBA or Ph.D.?

MBA Salary Statistics

Let’s talk about Ph.D. and MBA salary and who earns more – MBA or Ph.D. I want you to take this statistical information about pay and who makes more with the grain of salt. Because average numbers must be interpreted only as average among a large pool of MBA’s or Ph.D.’s.

Some MBAs or PhDs earn more and change average numbers, but others will make less. You need to understand that media, academia, and everyone else interprets numbers in their self-serving way. 

College associations publish that $80,000-$90,000 is the average starting salary for MBA in 2020-2021. But that MBA salary number does not include those who dropped off the labor force because they could not find the work. And that salary number is affected by graduates from elite business schools who earn high salaries. 

A graduate from the Stanford MBA program, for example, may expect up to a $100,000-$225,000 average annual salary per year plus bonuses and benefits. Often that graduate already had prior successful business work experience to land a position in a good company. 

Example (hypothetical): 9 PhDs or MBAs get a $30,000 annual salary after graduation. 1 Ph.D. or MBA receives $200,000. What is the average wage among this pool of 10 graduates? That’s right. It is $47,000. 

OK, for starters, you would think by looking at the average. But nobody from the pool gets this salary. Most get only 30K per year. So, therefore, all the numbers out there are misleading. 

The Problem With MBA Salary Statistics

The majority of statistics focus on graduates from the top 100-150 business schools. That data is not representative because, in the USA alone, whooping 1190+ MBA programs are producing about 200,000 MBAs each year.

Even though about 9% of MBA programs in the US were shut down after 2014 for lack of enrollment, so many MBA programs remain. And only 132 of those business schools provided those earning numbers. 

And what about the other 1000 MBA programs which never supplied their statistics? They were not counted, so elite high-salaried MBA programs statistically swayed away average post-graduate salary upwards, and numbers look deceptively better than they are.

Still, some data suggests that the average salary for MBAs graduating from lower-ranking MBA programs is about $52,000 annually. I estimate the post-MBA salary average range to be from $50,000 to $70,000 annually. And that is with several years of previous relevant work experience.

Otherwise, MBAs will have to get an entry-level job with low pay and work their way up as professionals. 

And when MBAs graduate and cannot find a job, they are simply not included in salary statistics. For example, in 2008, there were about 100,000 MBA degrees awarded annually.

Now the number of graduates is closer to 200,000 each year. As a result, competition for jobs among MBAs is stiff.

But do not get discouraged. For those who have previous work experience and or can land a job after graduation, the average increase in salary for MBAs can be up to $20,000 compared to the average graduate with a bachelor’s degree in business (USA). Again, these numbers were affected by the earnings of elite MBA graduates. 

While that number does not seem like a huge jump, it adds up over the years. And with potential career growth, MBA salary prospects may be even better if you can find a relevant job after graduation.

In addition, fewer MBA enrollments mean less competition between MBAs in the future.  

Ph.D. Salary Statistics

Ph.D. statistics probably are more accurate because there are fewer PhDs in business produced each year. For example, there were only about 3630+ PhDs awarded in business areas in 2018-2019.  

In comparing Ph.D. and MBA salaries, we should also note that a Ph.D. degree still stands out compared to a commodity MBA with much fewer PhDs awarded.

So, who earns more, MBA vs. Ph.D.? When researching this blog post, I saw many cheerleading fantasy-world salary data in many different articles.

Unfortunately, it seems like some prominent media outlets either have no clue about the state of the job market in the real world, simply ignore it or focus only on some exceptional cases. So, I must extrapolate data piece-by-piece again. 

Well, Ph.D. was designed to work primarily in academia, and academia is not paying these days very much. First of all, a person pursuing a Ph.D. in academia usually makes around $30,000-$35,000 annual stipend. That is meager pay for 5-7 years of hard work. 

Not so many PhDs get into the business world doing practical work. So, for example, there is no need for a company to hire a Ph.D. in marketing when hiring an MBA with previous marketing or analytical work experience.

Let’s define which Ph.D. is beneficial. First, there is no doubt that Ph.D. in STEM majors can lead to a very lucrative salary. For example, browsing through job sites, I saw job postings where employers look for PhDs in robotics, AI, machine learning.

Employers are offering hundreds of thousands of dollars annual salaries because those are booming fields.

PhD Salaries After Graduation

PhDs in business do not enjoy such demand. Still, PhDs in various topics, on average, make more than 15%-20% salary upon graduation. Average Ph.D. may get anywhere from $50,000 to $120,000 or more annually, depending on the chosen field.

Social sciences pay the least, and math, analytics, or tech PhDs sometimes pay even more than $100,000 on average. 

Said that many starting salaries for PhDs on Payscale.com are as low as $44,000-$50,000, without experience. The lower-paying fields are education, human resources, some research institutions. 

The higher-paying fields for PhDs are where complex calculation and analysis are required – finance, economics, business analytics, statistics, and so on. Such quant PhDs starting as analysts can land anything from $70,000 to three figures, depending on the level of experience.  

Specifically, according to PayScale reports, Ph.D. in statistics or computer science may make over $100,000 annually.

On the other hand, ph.D. working as an analyst in operations, marketing, business research, probably realistically will make about $70,000-$90,000 annually upon graduation. 

Those PhDs who eventually make it into management generally will see three-figure salaries mid-career after 5-6 years of work. 

Conclusion about MBA vs. Ph.D. salaries. 

A significant problem with all these data, statistics, and attempting to figure trends is that the business world is now changing so fast that much of this data may be obsolete five years from now.

For example, Tech may replace whole industries with robots, and new high-paying industries may appear. So, this blog post intends to see the current situation in MBA vs. Ph.D. debate. 

Generally, Ph.D. in business does not yield a much higher salary than an MBA from one of the top 50 business schools unless Ph.D. is from an elite business school.

Pursuing a Ph.D. requires many years of demanding work, dedication, and sacrifice while forgoing potential work experience you could obtain by starting to work after an MBA. 

Let’s talk about specific examples of different types of MBA vs. PhDs.

MBA vs. Ph.D. in finance (with salary comparison)

MBA vs. Ph.D. in finance is an incorrect comparison because these are two drastically different degrees. As mentioned above, an MBA is a generalist degree even when an MBA student chooses concentration or specialization in finance.

In contrast, Ph.D. in finance is a degree issued after research focused on a specific new topic in finance. 

Ph.D. in finance involves learning and research in the following areas: finance, financial markets, economics, corporate finance, investments, statistics, advanced math, econometrics, risk management, and other relevant topics. 

Ph.D. in finance can take 5-6 years to complete vs. two years for MBA. Most PhDs in finance work in education or research institutions.

Deep knowledge of finance may allow a Ph.D. in finance graduate to obtain a research and analysis position within the financial industry. 

I think that Ph.D. in finance from a low-ranking institution is likely to yield a research or education job. But a Ph.D. in finance from top-ranking elite business schools is more likely to open doors in the business industry.

Consulting firms, banks, hedge funds, securities firms, investment research, and similar entities will likely hire elite Ph.D. graduates with good salaries. 

Such industry professions as a financial manager, financial analyst, actuary, finance teacher are often cited as prospective growth careers for those with Ph.D. in finance. But majority of PhDs end up in academia or research institutions.

I also think large financial institutions, such as investment banks or hedge funds may hire elite Ph.D. researchers to research macroeconomic and financial trends. And such institutions probably pay the most. Policy research institutions hire PhDs as well but for a lower salary. 

How much can you make with a Ph.D. in finance?

There is little data on Ph.D. in finance as most hirings go in confidence. Colleges will advertise $180,000-$220,000 post-graduation salary for Ph.D. in finance but remember that they promote their Ph.D. programs to prospective students and puff the numbers. 

First, a teaching job for Ph.D. in finance will pay around $60,000-$90,000 annually because the education industry generally pays less. The business industry will probably pay on average $80,000-$100,000 to start with, depending on the school rank. 

Some firms and companies may pay more, but those are rather exceptions. And Ph.D. must be from one of the top business programs in the country to obtain more than $120,000 starting salary after graduation.  

My research on jobs sites revealed that it is not uncommon for Ph.D. in finance to make around $100,000 in a quantitative analytical position in the finance industry.

And with career progress and proven success record Ph.D. in finance can make more than $120,000-$150,000 or more by moving into a managerial position.

Why is MBA better than Ph.D. in Finance?

It is tough to get into Ph.D. in finance program because only about 0.3%-2% of applicants are accepted. It is a very long and challenging process until graduation. In addition, ph.D. in finance requires hardcore math skills. 

It is tough to get published in top financial research publications. And if you do not get published often, then after Ph.D. in finance, you will not get that tenured teaching job. 

Additionally, large financial institutions like to hire PHDs from elite business schools rather than ones from lower-ranking colleges. The finance industry is snobby.  

I also have read about Ph.D. in finance who went into marketing analytics instead and excelled there as a marketing analyst.  

Conclusion about MBA vs. Ph.D. in finance

Do not go into Ph.D. if you want it for a career or job because a Ph.D. is essentially a teaching and research degree. 

Overall, Ph.D. in finance will not yield a much higher salary than MBA from a reputable business school. However, ph.D. in finance may bring substantial career benefits if it is from one of the elite business schools.

On the other hand, a ph.D. in finance from a low-ranking business school may not even result in a suitable teaching position.

A ph.D. in finance is worth only if you plan to work in academia and be an academic researcher in the field of finance. Still, there are possibilities for switching to private industry jobs for Ph.D. in finance.

But long and tedious Ph.D. process may not be worth the hustle just for getting a career in the finance industry.

MBA with a concentration in finance is easier to obtain in the top 50 MBA program and generally is a significantly faster process. Then in two years, you can start looking for a job. 

Financial institutions also like to hire people with MBAs or MS in finance. Because of that, I think MS in finance is a much easier route to break into the financial industry than Ph.D. in finance. Plus, financial institutions like to hire advanced math or statistics majors rather than Ph.D. in finance. 

Go for MS in finance or MBA from a top business school. But, frankly, Ph.D. in math or economics may be an even better route to break into the world of finance than Ph.D. in finance. 

MBA vs. Ph.D. in economics (with salary comparison)

When deciding on MBA vs. Ph.D. in economics, we must remember that Ph.D. in economics is as much a teaching research degree as any other Ph.D.

I like economics because it studies society and consumer behavior as much as complex numbers. Economics degree is number 2 among people with degrees who got rich (number 1 is engineering). 

I guess this success has to do with economists studying and forecasting industry and economic trends. As a result, they develop an astute understanding of where things are heading in the economy. 

The accurate average starting salary for Ph.D. in economics is probably also around $70,000-$90,000. However, PhDs from elite universities are yielding higher wages between $100,000 and $200,000. 

Ph.D. in economics is a more popular degree than Ph.D. in finance but suffers from the same limitations. Ph.D. in economics is essentially an academic research and teaching degree. 

Getting a Ph.D. in economics is as challenging as getting a Ph.D. in finance and maybe even harder, according to Ph.D. graduates. It is a highly rigorous program with all math and calculations and lots of personal sacrifices.

Minus, pay is low while you pursue it for 5-6 years. After graduation, you must have published papers, or you will lose the possibility to land a suitable teaching position. 

PhD vs MBA For Jobs in Private Industry

Among the advantages of a Ph.D. in economics vs. MBA is that Ph.D. in economics is a heavily quantitative degree and good quants are always in demand in the business industry.

Ph.D. in economics studies much deeper theoretical and practical application economics to the real-life business world than MBA. And Ph.D. in economics knows advanced math very well. 

A ph.D. in economics may open some private business industry research and analysis positions. Still, the salary level is not likely to be higher than the one obtained by MBA graduates from one of the 50 top-ranking MBA programs in the country. 

Therefore, I think MBA from a top 50 business school is a better practical career choice than Ph.D. in economics. 

My take Ph.D. in economics is worth it only if you are not just a fan but a fanatic of economics and would love to teach and research it day and night and on Sunday.

Otherwise, MBA with a concentration in economics may be a better choice for a quicker career start. Alternatively, you may obtain MS in applied business economics or MS in finance. 

I said that Ph.D. in economics is generally a more popular business Ph.D. choice because it looks like such PhDs can find industry jobs more quickly than Ph.D. in finance.  

One good news is that PhDs in economics have one of the lowest unemployment rates among all types of PhDs. So, at least, Ph.D. in economics is very likely to obtain a job. 

However, pay may not be necessarily better than that of MBA or MS in Finance, MS in applied economics, or MS in Math or statistics. 

And Ph.D. in math or technology is still the best for a three-figure salary. Keep in mind that all quantitative PhDs often compete for the same quantitative or analytical jobs in the business industry.

Conclusion: Better Ph.D. in business or MBA?

41% of MBAs are underemployed, and almost 90% of MBAs report working in positions not related to their MBA. I also went into the legal field despite having top As in my finance and economics classes. 

Other reputable reports suggest that MBAs are employable mostly when they already have 5-6 years of relevant work experience. Thus, MBA serves just as a career booster, not a career starter, unless MBA is from an elite business school. 

On the other hand, a Ph.D. takes 3-7 or even ten years to complete while underpaying. And even upon graduation, often PhDs salaries are not much higher than those of MBAs. In fact, on average, no more than 20% higher. 

The majority of Ph.D. business jobs are in teaching or consulting. Therefore, a Ph.D. will make you overqualified for most entry-level positions. Even MBA can make you overqualified for many jobs. 

Is a Ph.D. worth it? Is it worth spending 5-7 years of hard Ph.D. research work just on getting paid a little more than MBA after two years of master’s degree? You tell me. 

It is a bad idea to obtain Ph.D. just for a job and career. But the following are exceptions. First, Ph.D. is great if you love doing research, writing research papers on the super-favorite topics so much that you can consistently keep working on your Ph.D. for so many years without quitting. 

And, if the topic of your Ph.D. is in some field with challenging practical applications, like quantitative or Tech, you may even enjoy a great paying career after obtaining a Ph.D. 

People with solid quantitative skills will always find analytical jobs in the business. The salary Ph.D. in the quantitative discipline may initially not be much better than that of a regular MBA.

Still, the long-term job security and career growth may be as good because Ph.D. is a specialist with quantitative skills like nobody else in the job market. 

Overall, I think that Ph.D. is not better than MBA in Ph.D. vs. MBA debate. Instead, I believe MBA is better than Ph.D. because it takes less time and effort to complete.

In addition, MBA is a significantly better choice if you can practice GMAT and get into MBA at one of the higher-ranking business schools. 

But PhDs in Tech or quantitative disciplines may be well worth the long marathon for those who genuinely enjoy doing that type of work. 

This article’s information and opinions represent only my opinion based on some data, some research, and work experience. In no way is this education or career advice.

Said that, hopefully, you now have a little more information to work with when deciding about MBA vs. Ph.D. paths, their flaws, and benefits.  

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