MIM vs. MBA: What’s the difference?

A question that many people ask me when I tell them that I am in the Master of International Management program at PSU is, “What’s that? Some kind of MBA?”

The short answer is yes, it is some kind of MBA. To be more precise, it is an international MBA with a regional focus on Asia and the Pacific Rim. This emphasis on Asia means that a majority of the courses in the program will often involve a lot of cross-cultural comparisons, whether that is comparing cultural aspects of doing business in the US versus doing business in China, or other Asian countries. While some of the courses in the MIM program seem like MBA courses that just have the word “Global” tacked on to the front (as in “Global Marketing”, Global Finance”, or “Global Accounting”), there are some truly unique course offerings that combine the best aspects of an international studies degree with the best aspects of a business degree.

Here is a short list of what I would describe as some of the key differences between the MIM program and the MBA program at PSU. There are certainly more points that could go on this list, but through my personal experience in the MIM program, and conversations that I have with other people in the MBA and MIM program, these are the things that stand out the most.

1. Japanese and Chinese Language Courses


Practicing Chinese Calligraphy in the Beginning Chinese Class

The MIM program offers both Japanese and Chinese language courses, and requires that all students take roughly 3 terms of their chosen language. For students who are from either Japan or China, you will be automatically placed in the other language class (i.e. if you are Japanese you will be studying Chinese, and if you are Chinese you will be studying Japanese). Most students tend to take the beginning level course, however if you are a non-native speaker of either language but have a background Japanese or Chinese, you have the option of taking a placement test to jump up to a more advanced course.

All language classes focus on business situations, meaning that you can expect to learn some useful phrases for introducing yourself and your company, but may get less exposure to what might be considered ‘daily conversational’ expressions in these languages. For myself, I was able to take the Intermediate Chinese class,  where we used a text with case studies on business in China and could dive deeper into learning business vocabulary and more advanced grammar.

One of the unfortunate disadvantages that many MIM students find themselves faced with is that they are often so busy with assignments for their core business classes, that they do not have nearly as much time to dedicate to language study as they would like. That being said, students studying either language at any level in the MIM program can expect to develop their conversational skills, and build a foundation that they can call upon in the future, when the opportunity arises.

2. International Cohort


MIM students in Shanghai on the Asia Trip

While many graduate business programs these days seem to attract more and more students from overseas, the MIM program consistently has a cohort that is easily 50%-60% international. This year alone there are students from Mainland China and Taiwan, Thailand, Kazakhstan, Chile, Vietnam, Indonesia, Iran, Canada, and France. This diversity means not only that class discussions have a variety of opinions shared by students, but group work for class assignments also poses opportunities and challenges that come with working with people from many different linguistic and cultural backgrounds. In fact, learning to work effectively on cross-cultural teams is perhaps one of the most beneficial hands-on experiences that MIM students get in the program. Even for students who have spent time in other countries and have international experience prior to the MIM program, working with classmates from so many cultures allows you to continue developing communication, leadership, and managerial skills that are increasingly in demand for global professionals.

3. Courses that demand critical thinking on complex, international issues

Some of the classes that I have personally found the most interesting in the MIM program have been ones that deal with the inherent ambiguity of certain international issues, raise important questions, but don’t necessarily give easy answers. Classes like Pacific Rim and World Affairs, for example, where we discussed at length the histories of East Asian countries such as China, Japan, and Korea, and how the respective histories of each country still impact how those people view themselves, and their neighboring countries. Some of the topics, such as Japan’s wartime aggression, the status of Taiwan, or territorial disputes between China and other Asian countries, are not easy to discuss, especially when you have a classroom where at least half the students are from that part of the world themselves, and can be sensitive to certain issues.

Global Human Resources Management and Global Leadership have been two other courses that I felt did a good job of raising important, real-world issues of working in an intercultural environment, but did so in a way that asked students to carefully consider challenges and solutions, without handing out simplistic solutions to hiring or managerial decisions.

While both the MIM program and traditional MBA programs will prepare you well for careers in business or other professional fields, what really sets the MIM program apart is the hybrid nature of the program, and the globally-minded students that the program seems to draw. If you are thinking about an MBA degree but have an interest in international business, the MIM program is one that you should strongly consider.

Joshua Thorpe

mail.google.comJosh is a full-time student in the Master of International Management program.  After graduating from the University of Oregon with a degree in Japanese, he taught English in Tokyo for 3 years, before moving to China and teaching at a university in the city of Zhengzhou.  Inspired by his experiences in Japan and China, he was drawn to the MIM program because of its regional focus on Asia, as well as for Portland State University’s reputation as a leader in the field of sustainable business. He is studying Chinese in the MIM program, but tries to keep up his Japanese whenever he can.


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