What to expect in a business degree program

This guide shows prospective students what to expect in a business degree, exploring the various program types and typical courses.

What to expect in a business degree program

The most popular degrees at both the undergraduate and graduate levels, business programs offer some of the most applicable and flexible training available. Graduates can apply their training to many business and financial occupations or explore interdisciplinary options. 

This page examines what students can expect from a business degree program. It highlights the different degree levels, challenges, courses, and specializations. With this information, prospective students can better prepare themselves for their studies and ensure they choose the most appropriate program for their needs.

What to expect from each business degree level

Every business degree level features a different length, curriculum, and course load. These programs can offer foundational or general business training, or they may delve into advanced or specialized material. 

The best online business degrees provide students with electives or concentrations that allow them to focus on areas of personal or professional interest. 

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Associate degree in business

  • Length of time to complete: Two years
  • Credits: 60 
  • Examples of post-grad careers you will be prepared for: Administrative assistant, financial clerk, and customer service representative

Associate degrees in business typically focus on introductions and principles of the discipline. Students pick up entry-level skills for various business sectors, including administration, accounting, and marketing. 

Some of the course topics may include human resources, finance, and economics, along with general education training. While few programs offer specializations at this level, learners can choose a direction through their electives and practicums.

Bachelor's degree in business

  • Length of time to complete: Four years
  • Credits: 120
  • Examples of post-grad careers you will be prepared for: Marketing specialist, human resources specialist, and financial analyst 

Bachelor's degrees often provide comprehensive business training, teaching students about the core operations within most organizations. The training usually touches on each of the major elements of the field, including courses in marketing, finance, and accounting. 

Students may encounter specializations, which allow them to delve deeper into an area of interest, such as entrepreneurship, leadership, and international business. In addition to business expertise, learners develop skills in project management, communication, and business technology. 

Master's degree in business

  • Length of time to complete: 1-2 years
  • Credits: 30-45
  • Examples of post-grad careers you will be prepared for: Market research analyst, human resources manager, and top executive

Many schools offer diverse business master's degree options, including a master's of business administration (MBA) or a master's in business management. Within these programs, students can usually specialize in finance, consulting, and operations management. While graduates may work in the same careers from these programs, the experience and entrance requirements can differ.

Graduate business students typically develop leadership and strategic and critical thinking skills, while the best MBA programs also provide entrepreneurial and networking abilities. MBA programs tend to appeal to experienced professionals seeking a terminal degree, whereas traditional master's programs may lead to a doctoral program.

Doctorate degree in business

  • Length of time to complete: 4-6 years
  • Credits: 45-90
  • Examples of post-grad careers you will be prepared for: Postsecondary teacher, economist, and survey researcher

Prospective doctoral students can pursue two types of business degrees: a doctor of philosophy (Ph.D.) and a doctor of business administration (DBA). A Ph.D. focuses more on research and prepares learners for careers in academia, whereas a DBA emphasizes practical training for the business world. 

This advanced training teaches skills in strategic management and operations, decision-making, and data analysis. Learners may take courses in organizational behavior, management strategies, and quantitative and qualitative research and analysis. Many programs also feature an extensive research project or dissertation. 

Business degree specializations to choose from

In addition to the general education and core training available in business degrees, students can often pursue specializations that focus on a specific area of business. Concentrations allow learners to develop expertise in a certain field while also leading to specialized employment opportunities.

Business students can identify their ideal specialization by trying out different electives. While not an exhaustive list, here are some of the possible specializations available in business programs:

  • Accounting 
  • Marketing
  • Finance
  • Entrepreneurship
  • Human resources management
  • International business
  • Operations management
  • Strategic management
  • Supply chain management
  • Consulting

What to expect from business degree courses

Each business degree offers a unique blend of courses, assignments, and practical training. However, it may be helpful for prospective students to look at the typical program format, structure, and expectations.

You will take challenging courses early on in your degree.

Business programs feature an extensive scope, and some subjects can prove difficult. Courses like accounting and economics, for example, may be challenging for students who struggle with mathematics. Fundamental courses in these subjects appear in earlier semesters to help students build a solid foundation for the rest of their program. 

Thankfully, most schools offer many academic support resources to help learners get through the difficult stages of their coursework, including tutoring and study groups. 

Be prepared for group work and projects.

Business degrees feature a considerable number of group projects. These assignments help students build teamwork, collaboration, and interpersonal skills, which can prove very valuable for business professionals. 

Group work may be time-consuming and daunting for some, but it can help lay the foundations for future interdepartmental assignments and professional networking. Prospective business students should also expect to present for many of these assignments. This aids in the development of public speaking confidence and communication skills. 

Expect to work with case studies.

Many business programs feature a substantial number of case studies throughout. These practical scenarios help illustrate specific principles and allow learners to apply critical thinking and lessons from their training to solve the presented problems. 

Case studies appear in many business classes, such as operations management, leadership, and business foundations courses. Students in these lessons often work in groups, participate in discussions, and present their solutions. 

You will take core business classes and electives that you are interested in.

Business degrees tend to include core, general education, and elective courses. Core courses may include topics like accounting, marketing, and business principles. Learners can choose electives from a list of complementary disciplines, such as global economics, international trade, and buying behaviors. 

In some programs, students can choose electives from unrelated fields. However, most learners pick business-adjacent courses. Students can take electives to not only help identify potential specializations, but also can form part of an informal concentration. Degree-seekers can even create informal concentrations with them. 

You'll want to network within your courses.

Business degrees provide ample opportunities for students to build a professional network. In fact, many programs encourage building these connections by throwing alumni networking events and inviting current and aspiring business owners to join school accelerators and incubators. 

Learners can connect with teachers and peers who may prove helpful at some point in the future. Students should prepare for these opportunities and not take building friendships and contacts lightly. 

Internships will allow you to gain hands-on experience and become more competitive in the post-grad job market.

Internships play a large role in business degrees at the bachelor's level and beyond. These work placements provide opportunities for students to build work experience. Internships can also lead to later employment with the same company.

For that reason, students should take internships seriously and choose them carefully. They need to think about the type of experience they want and the type of organization they want to be employed by. Many major corporations accept interns, such as Facebook, Google, and Nestle. 

How hard is a business degree?

While all postsecondary programs can be difficult, the typical business degree should be no harder than most other programs. Courses with mathematics can cause difficulty for some, but students with strong critical thinking and problem-solving skills should find success. Learners should also lean on the available academic support services, such as tutoring and writing coaching, to get them through the tough patches. 

MBAs present different challenges. These programs can be very involved and intensive, requiring a significant time investment and commitment to the experience. While getting a passing grade may not be all that difficult, MBA students should fully engage with the work, their classroom environment, and networking opportunities to get the most out of the program.

Is a business degree too broad?

No. Broad training introduces learners to many disciplines, allows them to find their strengths and interests, and prepares them to work in a variety of fields. These degrees also provide postgraduate flexibility.

Are business degrees useful?

Yes. Business degrees can be very useful. They provide access to many different industries and professions, including most business, financial, and management occupations.

What are the hardest business majors?

Mathematics-heavy business programs, such as accounting, finance, and management science, tend to be the hardest. However, the hardest business major depends on the individual student.

This article was reviewed by Krystal Covington, MBA.

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Krystal Covington, MBA, is a business growth strategist with 15 years of experience in marketing and public relations. Her company, Go Lead Consulting, provides clients foundational tools to build new client and customer relationships. 

Covington founded Women of Denver, one of the largest privately held membership organizations in Denver, Colorado. Her program helps women increase their business acumen, sharpen leadership skills and connect with other high-achieving women. Covington received her MBA from Western Governors University in 2012.

Krystal Covington is a paid member of the Red Ventures Education freelance review network.