Five Alternatives to an MBA

MBAs are valuable. They afford people the opportunity of a management role they may never have had the chance to get otherwise. Beyond just helping those in need of an initial step-up into management, MBAs can also lead to a real development of a career, both position and salary-wise.

They are also as close as a sure bet as can be expected from a degree. Every life decision comes with an associated risk. In terms of degrees, there are some degrees that are more likely to end up in employment and others less so. Certain degrees may offer more scope for employment but may make you less employable for a specific role, for example. Some degrees may offer a good route to a role, but you still may be expected to do lots of extracurricular activity in order to have a chance at getting it.

Not so with an MBA. MBAs are a highly reliable way to assure yourself of a future role, especially a management role, at a business. MBAs are also fairly flexible, which is not something always realised about MBAs, since they educate students about a variety of the working parts of a business. Graduates of MBAs often have the choice to move into a role more specifically centred on accounting, finance, operations, strategy or marketing.

However, this reliability comes with a price. And more than one, at that. MBAs are famously very expensive, with some of the more expensive reaching as high as $150,000 United States dollars. And that’s just the cost of the program, not including the costs of relocation, of supporting oneself during the year or two of study, of the lack of full-time employment during that time and so on.

This cost burden is further compounded by the inherent nature of the MBA. These degrees are so valuable because of the chances of success post-graduation, but also because of how expensive good teachers and professors in these fields cost to universities. The best minds in business can of course earn a lot of money personally by engaging in business of their own. A move into teaching will often result in less money for them (though likely more personal time and a more reliable pay check), yet it still takes a very good wage for the best teachers to be drawn from the world of business. That is why the best courses cost so much and why you should also be wary of the seemingly cheaper options.

The average age of an MBA student depends on the location of study, but is generally around 28-32. Of course, by this point in our lives, most will have responsibilities like mortgages to pay, families to support, emotional ties to the place in which we live and so on. These further complicate the opportunity to take on such an emotional, financial and time-intensive responsibility.

With all of that being said, an MBA is not the only option one has when looking to improve one’s business acumen or work opportunities.

Alternatives to an MBA

When it comes times for you to find an alternative to an MBA, you have to ask yourself these four questions:

  • What is your dream workplace looking for?
  • What skillsets are of the utmost importance for success in that organization?
  • Is spending time and money on an MBA the only way to acquire these skills?
  • What training, work experience or exposure can you do to develop those skills?

Companies appreciate an MBA on the resume, of course, but that is not all they are looking for. They are looking for those who add value to the organization. Which is to say, people with drive, those who work quickly and accurately, have unique insights and can effectively lead teams in a way that improves the results of the business. And you do not require an MBA for these things. What then are some other development opportunities that can help you get these skills without having to return to your studies?

Rotational and Leadership Development Programs

Large companies often have development programs designed for young professionals with high potential. These can be more specific, to improve, say one’s finance or accounting skill, or it can be more of a general management program. Rotational programs can also involve sending professionals to various workings of the business, perhaps every six months or so, to provide experience in a multitude of different aspects of the business.

For example, a financial analyst could spend some time in departments like audit, treasury, mergers and acquisitions, financial planning or investor relations. Having experience in a few or all of these can lead to a very promising candidate for manager or even CFO.

These programs can be better than an MBA as they lead to practical, paid experience, as opposed to the paid-for, theoretical experience one would get at a business school.

Transitional Work Experience

Those who often engage in an MBA will do so with the intent of transferring to a different field of business- from accounting to marketing, for example. But a full degree is not entirely necessary for this, as many businesses will offer transitional opportunities within their own structure.

If this is not an active program your workplace offers, network and see if this is a possibility.

Whether or not you are selected for the job is dependent on attitude and a successful pre-existing history within the business. A strong track record and references will increase the chances of success as well, as long as the reasons for the employment change are properly communicated to management. This personal experience with an organization’s work culture, and a stable base of trust can give an advantage to the person shifting within the company over the MBA graduate looking to start a new career.

If successful, having experience in a variety of departments can be exceptionally valuable, especially with further management roles in mind, as the sort of intricacies that be learnt in real world application will not be understood in a classroom, not to say the critical industry relationships gathered from transferring.

Business Master’s Degree

Employers of course love to see an MBA on a resume, though other similar (cheaper) degrees may be just as valuable.

Students that have completed a Masters, but are perhaps yet to engage with any real work experience can entice businesses as they will be better educated than undergraduate students, but will also be cheaper than MBA graduates. Of course, this will mean that your wage will be less compared to MBA students, but when considering the cheaper course, as well as the opportunity for sooner employment, a Master’s degree in Business may well be worth more in the long run.


MBAs are not the only way to educate yourself in business.

Moving up and through management requires both experience on the personal level, communicating and leading teams, and the organizational level, bearing in mind the goals and limitations of the business as a whole. Managerial responsibilities can include financial planning, the handling of budgets, forecasts and more.

With an MBA, you will get a brief overview of each of these things, but they are each possible to learn on the job with certifications. There are innumerable courses and certificates you can earn, from the minor to the major, associated with virtually every field of business.

As mentioned, these certifications allow you to remain employed and once passed, prove a dedication and competence with a specific field of interest. MBAs are often too general to convey expertise in any particular area.

Companies are also often all too happy to pay for these certifications for you. What a deal! They pay for you to get better at your job, increasing the chances of you earning a higher income and future promotions.

Executive Programs, Company Training and Extension Classes

Although MBA courses will often offer a part-time option, reducing the hours required each week, but thereby increasing the overall time of the course, this can still require too much dedicated time to balance with other home and personal responsibilities.

Universities offer a variety of development programs for managers and executives who are a little time starved, with on-site training courses instead taking place during the evenings and weekends. Similar to certifications, some companies will also pay for this training, especially if it is directly tied to your current role.

Again, similar to certifications, executive programs and extension classes will allow you to specify your knowledge, as opposed to the broader, less specific education you will get with an MBA. These are structured programs though, and so will usually require fulfilment of course requirements in order for you to pass.

Some of these programs may be similar to an MBA in the they can cover a broad spectrum of business topics, including:

  • Negotiation tactics
  • Leadership qualities
  • Public speaking
  • Marketing
  • Business strategy

Other Development Paths

Executive Mentors: Industry experts can provide invaluable wisdom and insight in your field. Any opportunity that presents itself, you should be looking to meet and network with veterans that can pass on good advice. This is especially true if you are lucky enough to find an executive that you truly look up to.

Seminars and Conferences: Industry associations, clubs, community organizations, alumni associations and company-based groups often hold seminars and conferences to keep members and employees up-to-date with the latest business trends and benchmark practices. As with certifications, executive programs and extension classes, these seminars, conferences and workshops will often be paid for by your company.

Independent Study: It can sometimes be easier to study when committing yourself to a course as there is an expectation there for you to work and you have already committed time and/or money to it. But if you are diligent, you can find all sorts of time to educate yourself and improve your chances of success at work.

Your commute, for example, can end up being hundreds of hours per year, which is enough time to learn a skill, whether through reading, audiobooks or more general study. You could perhaps venture to go to work an hour earlier or leave later, then use that time to work on yourself.

The Bottom Line

An MBA is an excellent professional tool, of that there is no doubt. It can help your resume stand out and the lessons you can learn while embarked on such a course can be invaluable for the rest of your career. If you have the time, money and inclination to engage with such a course, and fully commit to it, then that is exactly what you should do.

If you are considering it, perhaps consider reading our article on MBAs here.

However, do remember that courses are often driven by a lot of personal study and that there a multitude of information wells on the internet and in libraries. Often what is required for a successful MBA (and further career) is a drive and will to personally educate yourself about the inner workings of a business. You can save yourself a lot of money and heartache by doing this in your own time.

This is especially valuable to remember if you are currently lacking these things and are instead using an MBA or business school course to instead ‘give’ you these qualities. If you procrastinate now, the chances are that you will continue to do so during your studies.

If you work on yourself, say for a year, and still feel the need to sign up for a business school, then you should make that your aim, but do not do so without trying to work by yourself beforehand.

So be proactive and dedicate yourself to any of the above alternatives to an MBA- before you know it, you may not need one at all.