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MBA or MRE? Why I Chose to Get Both and Some Considerations for What Might Be Right For You (Updated 2023)

Ever since Spencer wrote his post about why he chose to do an MRE as opposed to an MBA or a dual Master’s degree, I have been asked a lot by our readers about why I chose to go for both an MBA and MRE. Below I will discuss my rationale and thoughts and provide some considerations for you as well if you are in the process of making this significant financial, professional, and life changing decision.

When I first started this process, like many of you, I struggled with weighing my options and what programs I should apply to; and if I was fortunate enough to get accepted to more than one program, where I should actually go. The decision, at times, seemed overwhelming. And unless you are lucky enough to secure a scholarship,  the decision also comes with a substantial price tag, putting an extra sense of weight on the whole process.

In an attempt to organize my thoughts and make the decision that was best for me, I essentially boiled things down to three overarching questions to answer with the understanding that the graduate program wasn’t the end game, but the catalyst towards achieving my professional goals that were awaiting me after graduation.

The Three Main Questions:

1. Where are you now?
2. Where do you want to go upon graduating?
3. What is the path that will give you the best chance of getting there?

These are the three overarching questions that framed my entire decision process and helped me come to my decision. Below we will go into a bit more of the nuance of these questions.

1. Where Are You Now?

Where Was I?

When I began preparing for the GMAT, I was working full-time in residential construction for about three years. I had zero connections into the CRE community at that time, and had a bachelor’s degree in Individualized Studies from Goddard College.

If you are unfamiliar with Goddard College, it is not surprising, as it is a very small school in central Vermont that is known for its nontraditional approach to education and alumni that have gone on to do great things in the arts and creative industries (David Mamet, 3 of the 4 members of Phish, William H. Macy, and Matthew Quick, to name a few). It is not known for commercial real estate or business in general.

And although my work and undergrad experiences were invaluable and essential components to my MBA and MRE applications, my bachelor’s degree and work experience on their own, were not going to foster an easy transition into institutional commercial real estate development and acquisitions.

So, from where I stood at that moment looking at where I needed to go, my thought was that I needed to (a) put in a lot of work to become competent in the areas that were critical to securing that first job post grad school, (b) boost my credentials and relevant experience in every way possible, (c) build my network in the industry, and (d) have a little bit of luck on my side.

Understanding my position gave me a sense that I was very far away from being competitive amongst my peers for the job opportunities I wanted. This was one critical factor in my decision to go for both master’s degrees.

Where Are You?

If you are currently thinking about pursuing one or both of these master’s degrees, take a minute to assess where you are in relation to where you may want to go. This self-assessment was critical to help me make an informed decision. Below are a few prompts and questions that might help you to do so.

What relevant, transferable skill sets and knowledge do you already have? And what do you need/want to learn about while in school to help make you a stronger candidate?

There are endless job specific and general business areas of expertise that can be of significant value to you as a CRE professional. Take some time to think about what your strengths and areas of knowledge are and what you need to work on or learn more about. Below is a list of general areas that are of high value in our industry. Please note that there is no expectation from most employers that you master all of these subjects as a grad student and in fact, a lot of these things are learned on the job. This is simply a list to help you assess where you are.

General Business
  • Organization
  • Communication
  • Strategic thinking
  • Business planning
  • Networking and relationship building
  • Negotiations
  • Finance
Real Estate Specific
  • Development and Redevelopmwnt
    • Market and site/property analysis
    • Development underwriting
    • Entitlements
    • Design
    • Construction Management
  • Acquisitions/Dispositions
    • Underwriting and understanding the asset and business plan
    • Negotiating LOIs and PSAs
    • Managing due diligence and closing
  • Managing and executing the business plan – Property and Asset Management
    • Market and property analysis
    • Managing teams and people
    • Marketing
    • Budgeting and budget management
    • Building systems
    • Understanding leases
    • Tenant negotiations
  • Capital Markets and Capital Raising
    • Communication and networking
    • Pitch presentations
    • Finance and partnership structuring – legal & financial

This list is not meant to be exhaustive, but should help you begin to assess where you are and what you may want to learn more about during grad school.

Do you have any connections into the industry?

If you have contacts in the industry that know you, then it would be worth having a discussion with this person or people and ask their opinions about these master’s programs and what they think might be best for someone in your current position. Understanding the industry perception of a specific program, or even better, understanding the perception from specific firms you aspire to work at would be important to know.

What is your financial pain threshold?

Do the benefits of one master’s or both outweigh the costs? (i.e. loss of salary, debt, compared to earning potential and career opportunities on the back end.). We’ll discuss this in a bit more detail further down.

2. Where Do You Want to Go Upon Graduating?

If you don’t already have this figured out, that is perfectly ok. Graduate school is a great time to explore a bit and learn more about the various job functions or even consider another field entirely (MBA advantage) . If you want more insight into specific job roles within commercial real estate, a great place to start is with our Careers In CRE series.

At the time I entered grad school, I knew I wanted to secure work doing acquisitions and/or development and I wasn’t as concerned about where I ended up geographically. However, if being in a specific location is important to you, then understanding a program’s ties/connections to the industry in that location should be a consideration in your decision.

3. What Is The Path That Will Give You The Best Chance Of Getting There?

Why I Chose to Do a Dual Masters Over One or The Other

As stated previously, one of the critical reasons I chose to do both masters’ degrees is because of where I started from and comparing my background with those of my peers. As a result, I felt strongly that I needed some extra time to (1) hone and develop the required skill sets for the jobs and professional opportunities I wanted to succeed at and (2) maximize my chances to gain multiple relevant, real-world experiences to add to my resume, while still being a student.

Looking back, doing the dual was the right decision for me, and I wouldn’t have become as strong of a candidate had I gone with just one or the other. Below is a more detailed breakdown of my thought process when looking at which Master’s degree I thought would be more beneficial to achieve certain goals. The goals are presented in order of what was most important to me.

Goal #1: Become well-versed and gain as much knowledge and hard skills as I can in commercial real estate before graduating.

Advantage: MRE

This one is probably fairly obvious. Going for a specialized master’s degree in a particular industry should provide you with more industry relevant preparation than a generalized business degree.

However, one caveat is that an MRE that only lasts one year may or may not actually provide you with more relevant preparation than a two-year MBA due to internships during an MBA and the fact that two years at business school may enable a student to take a similar amount of CRE related classes.

That said, enrolling in a reputable, industry specific program and putting in the work to learn as much as possible will most likely enable you to better hone your industry specific skill set. In an MBA program, you are required to take general courses and spend significant time on work that may not directly translate.

Goal #2: Gain exposure and build out my resume with as much additional real-world experience as possible before graduation

Advantage: Dual degrees due to added time.

Although I can’t speak for other universities, going for my dual degree at Cornell University meant I had three years to complete both. This means two summers of internships, and if I was real ambitious, three opportunities for internships over the winter. I did two internships over the summers and one over a winter.

Although I don’t think taking three years and getting two master’s degrees is necessary for many of you, as someone transitioning into the industry at that time, the extra year provided additional opportunities to deepen my understanding and build out my resume with brief, but meaningful, stints of work in different areas of commercial real estate. This translated into being better prepared and more confident in my abilities to do the work and get selected for the job I wanted.

Goal #3: Getting the Interview.

Advantage: MBA

This is not to say by any means that a job applicant with an MRE won’t get interviews or land a great job over an MBA candidate. That happens all the time and with frequency. What I am saying is that I do believe some additional doors open, or may open easier for someone who holds an MBA. I believe this is due to the following reasons:

  • MBA programs are more established and have been around longer. They are generally more familiar and understood by people in the industry (I believe this is gradually changing, however).
  • Hiring and training MBA grads has been the norm for the industry for decades.
  • Because MBA programs have been around longer, MBA alumni that may have influence over the hiring process are more prevalent in many companies, helping make the connection easier for MBA graduates.
  • An MBA, especially from a competitive university, is perceived by many as the gold standard for graduate education in business, even in CRE.
Goal #4: Opportunities to Explore Other Options/Insurance

Advantage: MBA

Going back to graduate school provides us with a great chance to do a little exploring into other areas that we may have interest in. An MBA, being a somewhat generalist master’s degree, allows us to really explore the possibilities and could help if one day we decide to transition out of CRE. Outside of real estate, I dabbled to some degree or another in everything from the more traditional MBA paths of consulting and investment banking to less traditional paths of concert promotions and a development co-op.

Goal #5: Broaden My Network

Advantage: Dual degree

Going for a dual degree offers you maximum exposure and opportunities to meet people in your school. Not only for professional opportunities and relationships, but personal relationships as well. Some of my closest friends from graduate school have no connection to real estate, but I’m so glad to have met them regardless. Additionally, you never where opportunities may present themselves and a wider network you have, the greater the chance there is for meaningful opportunities to come your way.

Other Considerations

Time and Money

Going for the dual master’s degree, in my situation, meant delaying my career by an additional year and also meant taking out additional student loans. This is not something to be taken lightly as at the time of this writing, the interest rates on graduate student loans hover around 7%, as they did when I was in graduate school.

If you have relevant experience, translatable skills, have good relationships in the industry, or just feel like the extra time, money, and effort is too much, then the dual major is probably not worth it. Going into this clear eyed, the extra year and cost were worth it to me based on my rationale in the previous sections.

If you are still on the fence about applying to a master’s program based on cost alone, then it may be of use to check out our post on CRE Salaries and Benefits.

Whatever You Choose – Take It Seriously

Whether you choose an MRE, MBA, or both, make sure to get the most out of your time towards taking the next step in your career. Try not to take your time for granted. Unless you already have something waiting for you upon graduation, make sure you put in the work to both recruit for your internship and job early on and put the hours in to understand your industry as best as you can. Last, but not least, enjoy it and make time for meeting and connecting with new people.

About the Author: Michael has spent a decade working in various capacities on more than $7 billion of real estate transactions spanning all asset classes and geographies throughout the USA. Most recently, Michael was a founding member and COO of Stablewood Properties, an institutionally backed real estate operator. Before Stablewood, Michael was at Hines in San Francisco where he primarily worked on 2 high-rise mixed-use development projects totaling 2 million square feet.  Michael has both an MBA and Master in Real Estate with a concentration in Real Estate Finance from Cornell University.