They may be satirized in cartoons and criticized by their peers, but MBAs - men and women holding the master of business administration degree - are pervading the big business scene.

While most of them still can be found at the division manager level, more and more are making it all the way to the presidency or chairmanship.Their influence is spreading laterally, too. Once found in finance jobs, they now serve in every functional area, including manfacturing, sales and marketing. They are displacing psychology majors in personnel departments. And they have made deep inroads into the steel, automotive and chemical industries, which in the past weren't known as especially promising areas for MBAs.

They are now a critical mass, exerting power and influence throughout corporate life and tending to hire even more MBAs. Noting the need and the interest, the nation's universities are doing their best to maintain a supply.

"No degree program in the past two decades has grown faster than the MBA," says Eugene Jennings, professor of business management at Michigan State University, who has studied routes to corporate success for four decades.

Research by Jennings, who pioneered studies of corporate mobility patterns in the late 1940s and wrote "The Mobile Manager," suggests a large industrial company is three times more likely to be headed by an MBA than was so a decade ago.

MBAs, he contends, have the drive and commitment to persist along the long route to the higher echelons of management while others drop by the wayside.

Between 1981 and 1986, he found, MBAs made up 9 percent of new employees with college degrees. At the supervisory level their representation was double that. And at the even higher division level it was triple.

Part of the numerical strength is based on the fact that corporations are more likely than ever to seek a college degree for a salaried position.

As a result, those seeking to excel go after graduate degrees, and the most mobile of all double degrees over the past 20 years, says Jennings, is the Bachelor of Engineering combined with a Master of Business Administration.

Further entrenching the MBAs is the willingness of large corporations to subsidize graduate education. He estimates that about one-third of those with MBA degrees earned them while in the employ of their companies.

"Nothing gives a mobile manager more leverage than obtaining an MBA five to eight years into his or her career," says the professor, among whose many volumes is "Routes to the Executive Suite," which traces success patterns.

Among other things, he explains, it removes the educational anonymity that sometimes surrounds an employee. It demonstrates that here is an individual who takes business seriously and is willing to make a long-term commitment.

No other career group, says Jennings, zeroes in so intensely on big business. It is the group's primary goal. While big business might need MBAs, he says, MBAs need big business, and so, "like a barnacle, they stick to it."

The strong, successful and apparently enduring relationship - and the pervasiveness of MBAs in various positions throughout the corporation - has all but destroyed the stereotype of MBAs as overly analytical and limited.