A future product manager walks into a bar and asks, “do I need an MBA to succeed as a product manager?” At one table sits a group of MBAs, looking confused. At another table is a happy team of successful product managers. Each one started their careers by earning a product management degree. “Good question!” they say in unison. “Let’s cut to the chase. No, you don’t.” Their certitude causes some consternation at the MBA table, who have little to offer in argument.

The reality is that an MBA is not necessarily a be-all, end-all in business. This is particularly true for professional Product Management.

“My take,” says Jeff Hovis, Program Director of the MSEM Product Management Degree Program at Merrimack College, “is an MBA doesn’t necessarily hurt a prospective product manager, but it also doesn’t help all that much.”

Let’s explain why this is so.

MBA Overkill: MSEM vs. MBA

Earning an MBA is worthwhile in the right context. Product management may not  be the right context. “There are some skills in an MBA program that might be helpful,” Hovis says, “but the overall degree is overkill for Product Management.”

It doesn’t take an MBA to do a simple cost-benefit analysis. Even if the cost of a typical MBA program wasn’t so prodigious, the benefits are marginal. In a recent survey, 87 percent of industry insiders think an MBA isn’t required, considering it “overkill” for Product Management. In fact, it may simply be shooting at the wrong target.

A product management degree is a focused, cost-effective process for acquiring both the skillset and mindset essential for product management.

A Product Manager Frame of Mind

MBAs and Product Managers are both generalists. However, as Hovis explains, their breadth of knowledge differs as a natural consequence of their responsibilities.


An MBA focuses on the administrative, bottom-line – some might say cutthroat – aspects of business that are “only peripherally related to product management at best,” Hovis explains. A product manager masters a different mindset.

“The core skill set is being able to translate between the technical side of product and the market or customer side of product,” he says. “This is often a blend of deep technical product knowledge combined with solid customer empathy.”

Product managers encompass a range of knowledge, including new product development, product marketing, product opportunity identification, product planning, and more. “This forms the core focus of our Product Management curriculum at Merrimack,” says Hovis. “Particular product management skills not covered in depth in MBA programs.”

Online MS in Product Management Degree Program

The online MSEM Product Management degree program at Merrimack College zeros in on the specific, in-demand skills required to succeed in the lucrative and exciting world of product management. Using an experiential learning approach, students gain both the conceptual framework and a practical, hands-on grounding of the full sweep of product management.

The program starts with product development and marketing. From there, students take a deep, targeted dive into the knowledge and expertise professionals need to succeed as Product Managers.

Let’s examine an overview of the curriculum, starting with the core skills and expanding from there:

Product Development Skills

  • Product planning
  • New product opportunity identification
  • Customer Needs Assessment
  • Translation of customer needs into technical specifications
  • Effective concept development, selection, refinement
  • Product architecture options and implications
  • Prototyping options and customer testing
  • Scale-up for product launch
  • Product lifecycle management

Product Marketing skills

  • Tradeoffs between customer and market needs and wants and technical feasibility and costs
  • Channel and supply chain strategies from a product perspective
  • Assessment of the market value of (and cost tradeoff for)
  • Design for usability
  • Design for sustainability
  • Design for robustness and reliability
  • Design for manufacturability
  • Intellectual property as a product line asset
  • Design thinking as a marketing approach

From this foundation, students then branch out into one of three product verticals. Choosing either life sciences, technology, or software/mobile/web, students gain a thorough understanding of the issues, challenges, and skills for each.

Life Sciences

  • Quality System Regulations (QSR): 21 CFR 820 and ISO 13845
  • Design Controls
  • FDA Premarket Approval (PMA) process including 510K, PMA
  • Evidence-based marketing claims
  • Reimbursement
  • Intellectual property in life sciences

Complex Technological Products

  • Standards Battles
  • Platform Innovations
  • Modular Design
  • Integral Design
  • Virtual Design
  • Rapid Prototyping
  • Lean Product Development

Software, Web and Mobile Products

  • Agile Product Development
  • User-driven Innovation, Design, Content
  • Online business models
  • Data privacy considerations
  • Data security considerations
  • Digital Marketing
  • Software-as-a-Service (SaaS)

The online program is designed for busy professionals who understand the benefits of a focused, efficient, and cost-effective path to their goal of becoming a successful product manager. The product management degree from Merrimack College gets you there. When you walk into a bar, you’ll join the table of happy Product Management professionals.