Experienced MScs wanted

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'An MBA course doesn't teach you how to do high-powered mathematics or economics. If you want to work in the finance industry, an MSc is a much more natural choice,' says Andrew Oswald, a professor in economics at Warwick University.

According to Elias Dinenis, professor of investment and risk management at City University Business School, there has been a significant change in the attitude of banks towards specialised masters courses in finance, as they appreciate the highly specialised skills thus acquired, compared with the broad brush of an MBA. Such is the demand for his MSc students, says Dinenis, they are snapped up by banks halfway through the course.

However, as with all courses, there are degrees and degrees, and not all are equally appealing. Janet Dobson, head of finance programmes at London Business School (LBS), says prospective students should step back and discriminate between the different MSc programmes.

In particular, a distinction must be made between university MSc programmes dominated by inexperienced graduates, and a business school MSc which teaches business school finance to people experienced in the field.

Warwick University and the London School of Economics are the top centres for MScs in economics. Business schools offering MScs in finance include Lancaster, City University and Imperial College Management School.

Those taking 'undergraduate MScs' may leave the course with strong theoretical knowledge, but this does not assuage the desire of banks for practical experience.

'If you only have one year of work experience and you are an MSc holder, you can only apply for an analyst position,' says David Walker, head of graduate and MBA recruitment at Merrill Lynch.

By comparison, people holding a business school MSc can be eligible for more senior posts. Dinenis says that the typical masters student at City University Business School is 28 years old with at least three years of work experience. For these students, the MSc is regarded as a straight alternative to the MBA.

However, there is still an important difference. The people that come to the Masters in Finance course are already committed to a career in finance, says Janet Dobson. 'If you want to stay in finance, if you want in-depth knowledge and you don't particularly value the general management aspects of the MBA, then the Masters in Finance is right for you. If you are in a fairly narrow role in finance and you want to move into a managerial role, then an MBA would be more appropriate.'

In fact, LBS masters students generally do not find themselves pigeonholed in highly technical positions: 80% of its graduates in Masters in Finance go into areas such as corporate finance and M&A.

This is not the case at City, where Dinenis says his MSc students are employed in more specialised areas of sales and trading.

For David Norburn at Imperial College Management School, choosing between an academic finance course and an MBA is to choose between a short and focused career that provides for an early exit and a longer, and arguably more interesting career that addresses wider issues.

'If you want to make very large sums of money while being an algebraic gnome, take a PhD in finance.

'If you want to be seen predominantly as a finance person but are not a rocket scientist, take the MSc. If you want anything to do with strategy, take the MBA,' he advises.

This is echoed by Nadia Capy, marketing manager in campus recruitment at Deutsche Bank, who says: 'If you would like to advise clients in the world of investment banking and do not have previous experience in finance, you will need an MBA.'

Some argue that MSc courses fill a vacuum created by the generalist one-year MBA courses typical in Europe.

By comparison, two-year courses in the US offer a greater opportunity to specialise in finance. 'It is like having an MSc in finance and an MBA together,' says Sarah Bryant, director of MBAs at City University Business School, and former chair of international business at Johns Hopkins University in the US.

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