The business world is a competitive place. With more and more MBA-waving applicants out there, professionals are seeking highly specialized graduate degree programs to bolster their expert-level status and make them more marketable.
To answer the demand, degrees with career specializations -- also referred to as "concentrations" or "tracks" -- are fast becoming commonplace at institutions across the country. Prospective graduate students can find specialized online programs in everything from sports leadership, higher education enrollment management, and automotive systems engineering, to information assurance, information technology management, and business ethics.
Online graduate degree programs in education and business curriculums, for example, offer a wide variety of concentrations. At the University of Phoenix, online graduate education students can choose from concentrations in administration and supervision, curriculum and instruction, computer education, and much more.
At Capella University, cyber business students can specialize in finance or marketing. At the University of Maryland University College (UMUC), online students can enroll in a new global master of business administration program.
A look inside some of these specialized programs reveals a host of robust and unique coursework that can put prospective students on the fast track to success.
Leadership and Ethics
At Duquesne University's School of Leadership and Professional Advancement, an online master of science in leadership and business ethics (MSLBE) is growing in popularity since it was launched in 2002. The program covers ethical issues in the workplace and provides decision-making frameworks to resolve such dilemmas.
In addition to participating in plenty of meaningful online discussions, generated by such courses as "Conflict Resolution," "Information Ethics," and "Global Ethics," a capstone project is required in which virtual teams of three to five students work together on an investigation of a modern-day ethical issue.
For example, in a capstone course taught by MSLBE Program Director and Professor Jim Weber, one project featured an analysis of reality TV. "Students do an analysis of the first episode of 'Survivor' by (examining) the moral reasoning between the participants," explains Weber. "We also had students do various survey work, such as an analysis of consumer privacy in relation to information technology providers," he says.
MSLBE student Bob McCarthy, a U.S. Air Force captain and an orbital evaluator at the Cheyenne Mountain Space Control Center in Colorado Springs, Colo., says he enrolled in the program because he wanted a degree that would be applicable to his world. "I wanted something I could use in the civilian world, that would benefit me in the Air Force, and that I would feel passionate about," he says.
Part of that passion was brought to life by working with his classmates, McCarthy explains. "I have all these friends -- my classmates whom I have never spoken to or seen. You get a different angle on learning when you are reading what people have to say and (preparing) what you have to write. You get time to think about things and respond."
Being able to think and respond appropriately is also a big part of a master of science in information science and computer systems management with a new information assurance track, offered by UMUC.
The information assurance track consists of five courses that, combined, have been designated as a Center of Academic Excellence in Information Assurance Education by the National Security Agency (NSA), which protects U.S. government information systems. The track prepares students for dealing with potential security threats in corporate, government, and nonprofit information technology areas.
Don Goff, a professor in the UMUC program and executive director of the university's Security Studies Laboratory, explains that in the state of Maryland alone, there is a current need for up to 7,000 professionals with information assurance computer security skills. He cites increasing dependence on computers and Internet connections as the cause of such high demand.
Those professionals who will have an edge? "Ones who can safeguard databases and make sure online connectivity is secure, especially credit card transactions," says Goff. "It's a hot topic, and people are finding what they are looking for in this program in terms of its substance and depth." Since it launched on campus in 2002 and then became a fully online modality in 2004, the program has enrolled more than 1,200 students, he adds.
Valerie Frazier, an information assurance manager who is a working civilian for the Department of the Navy at the Stennis Space Center in Mississippi, was awarded a full scholarship to earn her master's degree in computer systems management with a concentration in information assurance. The scholarship is part of a $330,000 NSA grant awarded to UMUC to increase the number of qualified students entering the field of information assurance.
Frazier, who began her studies in January, says her first foray into the world of online learning - in a Security Policy, Ethics, and the Legal Environment course - was intense. "But the professor understood that we were all working adults, and he helped us get through the weekly online conferences where you are required to participate in discussions," she explains. With faculty support, Frazier made it through three tough papers and successfully completed a final exam for the course.
Automotive Systems Engineering
Any online student will tell you that online courses are just as intense and challenging as traditional, on-campus courses.
At the University of Michigan at Dearborn's College of Engineering and Computer Science, for instance, an online master of science in automotive systems engineering is a carbon copy of its on-campus counterpart. All of the program's three-hour, on-campus courses are held inside a studio classroom with audio and video equipment that enables online learners to hear and view the very same classroom experience as on-campus students. The lectures are also saved as video streams that can be accessed online at students' convenience through the program's course management system.
According to P.K. Mallick, mechanical engineering professor and director of interdisciplinary programs, the program provides knowledge about advanced technologies that are already in place today, or coming in the future.
"Vehicle electronics, vehicle safety systems, advanced materials, lightweight materials, ergonomic techniques -- you name it -- all of these courses are advanced technology courses," he says.
Online student Andrew Wassef, a vehicle electronics systems engineer for Delphi Energy and Chassis Systems in Brighton, Mich., has been in the Dearborn program for one year. So far, he's impressed and would recommend it to any working professional.
"The courses are well-designed. The course Web site is really easy to access from anywhere," he says. "It's almost like being in class (on campus)."
Wassef also enjoyed participating in a virtual group project in which he and three other students (all working professionals in the automotive field) -- one in Greece, one in Indiana, and another in Michigan -- designed and simulated a hybrid vehicle.
"We used MSN Messenger to hold weekly meetings online," he says. "We put things together, shared our thoughts, and divided up the work. I was impressed with how smooth it went," he recalls. The simulation portion of the project was another benefit. The software tool, Simplorer, was extremely useful, Wassef says. "We can all use it at work in our daily routines."
MBA in Information Technology Management
For online students who work better individually, Western Governors University (WGU) has a number of degree programs that can be earned through self-paced courses. Its new master of business administration program with an emphasis in information technology management provides students with solo study of related domains of knowledge, and then allows them to earn credit based on the successful completion of competency-based tests.
Although it's a self-paced program, students do have the option of enrolling in online courses to help them gain the knowledge to pass the tests.
Students are also assigned a faculty mentor with a background in the field. "They work with students and help them identify appropriate learning - what we call learning opportunities," says Dennis Bromley, WGU's director of business programs. These learning opportunities can be online courses offered by partnering institutions, such as Chadron State College, Aspen University, and California National University, all of which provide graduate-level online MBA degrees.
Learning opportunities can also be developed through self-directed study using textbooks, information from Web sites, online learning modules created by Thomson Netg, and case studies from Harvard Business Online. Additionally, students are required to complete a capstone project of their own design, based on their personal world of work, says Bromley.
"Our program is designed for students to integrate the knowledge they gain in the program with their career. Students are driven to really look at the interface between the IT function and the business strategy," he explains. Upon completion of the program, students are eligible for the Certified MBA (CMBA) designation -- a nationally recognized acknowledgement of business knowledge competence.
Debbie Austin, director of applications for Portland, OR-based Knowledge Learning Corporation, a childcare provider in early childhood through school-age education, graduated from WGU's online undergraduate degree program in information technology in 2002 and waited for the MBA program to be offered online before pursuing her graduate degree. She earned her bachelor of science degree from WGU in 2002 in a record-breaking 18 months; she plans to complete her graduate studies by January 2006.
Austin says she goes into "a very accelerated mode" while pursuing her studies, utilizing her vacation time and weekends for coursework completion and to prepare for the competency-based tests. "It is quite different in that it is a lot more challenging," she explains.
Austin adds that having 20 years of experience working in the field of information technology has been a great asset. "You can pull from the knowledge that you have gained," she says. "In the IT domains, both the undergraduate program and the MBA program have been relatively straightforward because that is what I have been doing for a living."
The vast majority of students in these online programs are mature working professionals, with plenty of other responsibilities. Austin, for example, is 45, married, and has two grown children. McCarthy is 37 and married with three children, ranging from 18 months old to 13. Frazier is 46 and married, with a 14-year-old and a 22-year-old. Wassef is 38 and single, and he travels frequently for his job and visits with family in Montreal, Canada.
All these students have the drive, determination, and self-direction, which Austin believes is necessary to be a successful online learner. "It really works well for people who have a career, have some learning under their belt, and have developed good disciplinary practices in their lives," notes Austin. "It's not going to work for students who need to be held accountable every step of the way."