Obtaining an MBA is often assumed to be a career-enhancing option for young professionals to learn more about the different functions of an organization (such as marketing, strategy, operations, accounting, finance and management). For professionals who majored in the liberal arts or engineering, an MBA can enhance exposure to the multiple facets of business as well as provide career flexibility.

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However, graduate business programs can cost from $30,000 to more than $150,000, depending on the institution, scholarships and grants available and length of program. In addition, while there are part-time MBA programs that allow professionals to continue their employment as they pursue their studies in business, most MBA programs require you to trade the office for the classroom for two years. The costs, in both time and money, mean that some individuals might be better off considering alternatives to business school. (Read more about making that decision in Should You Head Back To Business School?)

Popular Motivations for Going Back to School
Obviously, each individual's motivations, experiences and personal and career objectives are different. The dollars and time expended to obtain an MBA, however, have opportunity costs for all prospective applicants. When you ask someone why they might be interested in getting an MBA, you will get a range of responses, including a combination of:

  • An MBA is an objective way to show one's abilities and justify employers' trust and increased responsibilities.
  • It creates the opportunity for increased compensation and greater chances of promotion.
  • An MBA offers increased career flexibility or the chance to land a better job.
  • Business school provides networking opportunities.
  • It might please parents or relatives.
  • School is a safe place to figure out one's next step, in work or in life.
  • They don't trust or know any alternatives to business school as a way to get ahead.

Some of these reasons are obviously more indicative than others of a person's interest in advancing in business, but for those wishing to climb up the corporate ladder, who enjoy corporate life and envision future success in it, there are reasonable alternatives to getting an MBA.

Alternatives to an MBA
When it comes to finding alternatives to obtaining an advanced business degree, ask yourself these basic questions:

  • What is your dream organization/company looking for?
  • What skill sets are critical for succeeding in the organization?
  • Is spending time and money on business school the only way to acquire these skills?
  • What work experiences, training and exposures can help you develop these skills?

Obviously, companies look for employees who add value to the organization – that is, employees who have the drive to work quickly and accurately, provide unique insights and manage and lead teams aligned with organizational goals. Let's look at a few development opportunities that can help you acquire these coveted skills without returning to full-time studies.

Rotational/Leadership-Development Programs
Larger companies typically have management or leadership-development programs tailored toward young professionals that display high potential. These programs can be in specific functions, such as engineering, finance and accounting, or can be general programs for future senior managers of the organization. Professionals are often rotated around various jobs and responsibilities every six months or so in order to provide exposure to different aspects of the business.

For instance, an upstart financial analyst entering the program can be placed for a few months in departments such as audit, treasury, mergers and acquisitions, financial planning or investor relations. Having gone through such exposure can make the analyst a candidate for manager, controller or CFO down the road.

Professionals who undergo these types of programs will have gained hands-on, paid experience in different aspects of the company as opposed to merely a theoretical appreciation of the function obtained in business school. (Read about the value of experience in Top Job-Search Mistakes For Finance Grads.)

Work Experience In a Different Function
A professional can dive right in and gain experience in a certain field. An accountant who wants to transition into marketing can network and look for opportunities in the marketing department of his or her company, or join a marketing services firm. Yes, this can work.

Attitude and a successful track record are often the deciding factors in whether an applicant is selected for the job. An accountant with a solid history of success and strong references can be favored for such a position – if he or she properly communicates the reasons for the employment change – over a former accountant with an MBA who has taken a few marketing classes.

Two years' worth of experience in a certain function can be highly valuable, as one learns the intricacies and critical success factors in that field. A classroom setting probably does not provide the level of insight or the industry relationships you will need to succeed in the field. (Read more about transferring your skills to a new position in Six Steps To Successfully Switching Financial Careers.)

Moving up to management requires leading and managing teams and ensuring organizational goals are achieved. Managerial responsibilities also include financial planning and management and the handling of budgets and forecasts. Depending on which part of the organization you would like to transition to, you can prepare for a variety of designations to prepare yourself for added responsibilities and skill sets. There are certifications that are related to finance and accounting, such as the Chartered Financial Analyst, Certified Public Accountant, Certified Management Accountant and Certified Merger & Acquisition Advisor, among others.

Other certifications that are more consulting-related include Six Sigma Black Belt (for process optimization), Project Management Professional and Certified Information Systems Analyst, among others. There are a wide variety of certifications out there in virtually any field of business. Obtaining these allows you to remain employed, and successfully passing all the requirements and exams will show others your competence in the specific field of interest. An MBA, on the other hand, may be too general to convey particular expertise in an area.

Besides, there are companies out there that will gladly pay for you to obtain these certifications. Imagine that: They'll pay for you to become stronger in your field – for you to earn higher income and future promotions. Now there's a good deal.

Executive Programs, Company Training and University Extension Classes
Universities offer a variety of development programs for managers and executives that allow professionals to undertake training courses on-site during evenings and weekends. Some companies pay for such training if directly tied to one's job.

An MBA forces you to cover a variety of required topics, whether you want to or not. Executive programs and extension classes, on the other hand, allow you to target areas in which you would like to improve, allowing you to tailor learning according to your needs. These programs are typically structured so that participants must fulfill course requirements and can cover a wide variety of business topics, including:

  • industry-specific lectures
  • negotiation skills
  • leadership
  • public speaking
  • strategy
  • marketing

Colleges also offer extension, evening and online classes that allow you to improve your skills in a particular area. Alternatively, there are various for-profit training centers that allow you to hone certain skills. For instance, finance professionals can undergo training in valuation or in accounting. You can remain employed while enhancing your skills, and some companies provide reimbursement upon satisfactory completion of requirements. (Learn how you can streamline your professional maintenance at Keeping Up With Your Continuing Education.)

Other Development Paths and Independent Study

  • Executive Mentors – Industry veterans provide invaluable insights and wisdom in your chosen field. If you are lucky enough to secure time from executives that you look up to, seize the opportunity and soak up their advice. Such experienced feedback can save you lots of time, money and energy in helping you get to where you want to go.
  • Seminars and Conferences – Industry associations, clubs, community organizations, alumni associations and company-based groups often hold seminars and conferences to keep their members abreast of the latest trends and benchmark practices. Again, depending on your organization and manager's priorities and level of support, these types of seminars, workshops and training sessions can be paid for by your company.
  • Independent Study – If you spend a total of 10 hours per week driving on the road, that equates to more than 500 hours per year. If you simply listen to audio programs in your car, that initiative alone can make you very knowledgeable in a certain field. (Pass Your CFA Exams The First Time provides solid advice on studying independently.)

Parting Thoughts
Abraham Lincoln passed the bar studying borrowed law books. Universities do not possess a monopoly on information, especially not in today's "marketplace of ideas". We live in an age of efficient search engines and competition among various for-profit knowledge providers.

An MBA is a great professional tool if you know exactly what to do with it. Unfortunately, some MBA seekers are merely avoiding making risky choices. Don't enroll in an MBA program just to procrastinate. Be proactive and study practical alternative development programs in your field. You might simply just have to dive in. With so many viable alternative options available, incurring six figures in school debt by getting an MBA is acceptable only if you have truly compelling reasons.

If you do go back, don't squander your time; read Ace Your Business School Courses.

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