The difference between an MBA and a specialized master’s degree is the difference between width and depth, according to Nancy Taylor.
“An MBA is a mile wide and an inch deep. You're exposed to multitudes of business topics. You go into them, but not as deeply as a master’s specialized degree. ” said Taylor, director of the Master of Science in Supply Chain Management program at Michigan State University’s Broad College of Business.
“Our supply chain master’s program is about an inch wide and a mile deep,” she said. “You only do supply chain and you go deep into each subject.”
A Michigan State graduate herself, Taylor has been running MSU’s Supply Chain Management program since 2002. Taylor spoke with us about the program, why a specialty degree can be preferable to an MBA, and the benefits and challenges of a hybrid (online and on-site) academic program.
It’s a graduate-level program for students who are working professionals and wish to get their graduate degree in supply chain management.
I think that as people grew in their career and especially as supply chain grew as a recognized discipline, people realized there was this opportunity for a specialized education. A master's degree lets someone dig deeply into that subject.
We see supply chain as a very strategic, broad-based profession. There are the truck drivers, the managers of the truck drivers, the managers of the warehouse – the logistics arm of moving the goods. We also have the procurement arm, which is the person who purchases the supplies and raw materials. And we have the operations people who are manufacturing the goods. We consider it an end-to-end chain from the minute the raw material is purchased until the consumer uses the product. And so we develop strategic managers who manage that entire process.
Most of our students, probably the bulk of them, have “supply chain” in their title. But sometimes they are procurement managers, or they’re buyers, or they’re vice presidents of marketing and logistics. There's a very mixed set of titles out there, so I don't think there's a singular identity. But I think a lot of the people that come into this program with a mixed set of titles are aiming to be at the vice president level or director level of supply chain management.
I think when we started this in 2002, the bulk of the programs were traditional full-time programs. An individual would, mid-career, take a break, go to school for two years, and then come back and try to re-enter the workforce.
We at Michigan State have also had a long history of seminars in logistics and transportation, actually for more than 50 years. So we have kind of a ready-made base of people that were interested in expanding their knowledge. But they wouldn't consider dropping their career and coming to school. So the faculty, who were very involved in the seminars for the past 30 to 40 years, decided that there was a market for a master's degree styled for working professionals.
We developed it initially as a limited hybrid program, where people would come in the summer for a two-week session, and then do the other work online. Less work online, more work on campus. We decided after about a dozen years of this format that we were still not hitting the market – people could not take even that much time off for the on-campus classes.
So we decided to go to a more online format and, partnering up with Bisk Education, we had the capability to do a 90% online program but still maintain that on-site component that brings the students in and makes them feel more a part of the university.
We have a huge number of people that contact us about the program, because they're out there looking to see where the best program is. Travel is part of the commitment on their part once we've talked to them.
They have to make the decision that traveling four times to Michigan for a three-day weekend, typically a Saturday, Sunday and Monday, fits into their schedule. But they only come here about every six or seven months, so it's not an onerous burden, as long as they have the means to travel.
I have people that have traveled from overseas. I have a man coming in from Saudi Arabia, I have a military service member who is going to be located in Kuwait during the next six months, so he'll be traveling in from Kuwait. I have a man who's planning to come up from Ecuador. I've had students from Brazil, from China. They have to make the time in their work schedule, commit to the travel and then just do it.
The online format is not regimented because each faculty member is going to give it their own flavor, not only the subject matter they're teaching, but how they’re teaching it. Do they require case analysis? Do they provide articles to read and analyze? Do they ask people to listen to videos and then quiz them on specific content?
Most of our classes, though, do have the goal of asking students to be analytical in terms of an SCM situation and how they analyze it. We are looking for them to provide an opinion of the situation as a senior manager.
Typically, in an eight-week session, students listen to a number of video lectures that have been prerecorded by the faculty. They may watch a podcast or YouTube video. They may have the faculty member online presenting a PowerPoint presentation and then participate in an online discussion. Students and faculty then use a discussion board which almost equates to what a live classroom is like. The professor will pose a question, and ask students what they think about the situation in their workplace. The students then participate in a rolling discussion on whatever topic was raised.
We originally thought these discussion boards might stay active for a half a day while students chatted. But they've been so popular now that the instructors open them up on Wednesday and leave them open until Saturday morning.
For being a prerecorded online program it's very interactive for the students. It gives them a chance to interact with each other as well as the faculty, and it's all online. It's at their discretion, it's convenient for their schedule.
The on-site classes are regimented. This gives students a more personal connection to the instructor. They work in groups, they work individually, and they do presentations.
What we don’t do is bring them here and give them an exam because we don’t think an exam is a value-add. We feel that case analysis, group presentation, discussion and simulations provide much more value while the students are on campus.
So we look for that mix and that balance between the on-site and online portions of the program.
Very much so. Students spend three entire days together. Initially, you think, well, they're 40 strangers coming together. How are they going to get to know each other?
But by the end of the third day I know who's friends with who. They've gone out for dinner after class. They become friends. They form their own Facebook groups and chat about classroom stuff.
They do work in groups online on occasion as well. But no matter what, they definitely form their own social groupings. I have seen people in this program become very fast friends.
When we have football games on the weekend, some of the students that are local will come back together for the game and tailgating. And they come as a group. Several students who started out as strangers now return and visit as a group.
I've even had people in the program hire fellow students.
The first thing they love about the hybrid format is that they’re able to continue in their career. For those who feel they're in a good spot in their career, they don't want to lose that momentum.
This allows them to do just that – keep their career on track while earning a degree from the number one school in the country in supply chain, which is probably the second thing they like the best. They know Michigan State, they know it means supply chain, and they like to come here for that.
The big companies are recruiting here. We have a full-time MBA program with a Supply Chain concentration that has for many years been producing supply chain graduates to go into senior management positions. We have our master's program, which has produced 300 or 400 graduates over 12 years.
And then we have the faculty. They speak at conventions, they are interviewed, they're recognized and they write the leading industry articles. Most of the leading textbooks have Michigan State supply chain faculty as authors.
It’s our faculty, our students and our graduates that make MSU supply chain great.