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Blog Insight & Commentary

The Great MBA Debate: There's No Alternative (Or Is There?)

We crack open the great MBA debate with the experts who have them—and the experts who don’t

Stephanie Olsen
Contributor

Woman graduating from business school

The Master of Business Administration (MBA) degree is typically a two-year full-time program, designed to provide graduate students with business leadership and management skills. Recognized internationally, an MBA can give job applicants a foot-in-the-door advantage. Candidates with MBAs can also usually command higher salaries and more senior roles within just a few years of graduation than can those with undergraduate business degrees.

So, do you have to get an MBA to have a successful business career, or are there alternatives that can help you achieve similar results?

We’ve turned to the experts for answers, and the takeaway is: It depends.

An MBA opens doors

Olivia Jaras, founder of Salary Coaching for Women, goes even further. When we asked her if an MBA is absolutely necessary for a good job in the business world, she said: “Not anymore. With the ever-growing list of Fortune 500s opting to not even require college degrees for their positions, it's evident that the prestige of graduate degrees is declining.”

She admits, though, that an MBA, especially one from a top business school, will still open doors. “There's a network at play here just by virtue of attending these institutions,” Jaras explains. It’s just that while there’s a place for graduate degrees, “they are no longer the only way to reach the C-suite in the business world.”

But, you may already have real-world skills

Career coach Lisa Lewis tells us she’s “pretty strongly anti-MBA”. She responded in that vein when giving advice to a mid-career employee considering moving into a managerial position. In the article by Wendy Cheong, an editorial fellow at LinkedIn, Lewis said: 

“The most important question prior to making the move into management is: what skills or experiences would an employer need of me that I don't already have? Look at job descriptions for a managerial role that excites you. Look at the skills and experiences that they want in an ideal candidate, and how well your current capabilities match up.”

In other words, the 12 years of administration experience this employee has may have already given her the required qualifications, rendering an MBA (which Lewis calls “a costly and time-intensive investment that doesn’t always pay off”) unnecessary.

Read more: Ask a Recruiter: How Do I Change Careers?

Consider the ROI

Choice Careers owner and CEO Clara Console, who has two master’s degrees (an MBA and an M.Ed) tells us that in her case, she simply wasn’t marketable without an MBA. She transitioned from teaching to providing workplace development training and education services to the business and industry sector. 

Because she had to speak to decision-makers, the MBA got her in the door to have those higher-level conversations. The added education also gave her the skills to sell better. She learned how to employ strategic planning and higher-level finance in order to make the business cases required to put together bigger contracts. So, for Console, an MBA was financially worthwhile.

Alternatives to an MBA

But if an undergrad in business school doesn’t want to put the time or money required into an MBA program, they can get the same knowledge from online classes, reading books, and watching TED Talks and other business-related videos. The issue here is twofold, however: You need a career coach or mentor to steer you in the right direction, and, at the end of your self-guided education, you won’t have an easily recognizable designation to show a recruiter or hiring manager.

Read more: What to Do If You Want to Change Careers, But Don't Know What to Do

Specialized degrees

If a degree program is still attractive to you, a Master’s in Management (MiM) might be the way to go. Originally a European concept, it’s now offered throughout the U.S. The program is shorter and less expensive than an MBA and is recognized by employers.

Other specialized master’s degree programs are also an option to the traditional MBA, like those in digital marketing, data analytics, entrepreneurship, and innovation. “The MBA market is changing,” explains King’s Business School Stephen Bach. “Employers and students tell us that the appetite for MBAs has softened, hiring trends are moving toward earlier career graduates with strong analytical and interpersonal skills, an entrepreneurial mindset, and a well-developed sense of personal responsibility and resilience.”

Some companies offer tuition reimbursement programs to employees who either don’t have a college degree or wish to pursue a graduate degree. Even part-time employees can often take advantage of this assistance, so it’s certainly something worth looking into.

Leadership training programs

Alternatively, you can join an organization that trains leaders, like the military, says Alyssa Walker at higher education web marketing service Keystone Academic Solutions. Alternatively, take “an entry-level position at a high-end company that has leadership training programs. Companies like Amazon, AT&T, Marriott, and Google offer management training programs. Start small. Work your way up. Make connections—and make a career,” she writes.

The way to get around the lack of certification is to learn how to craft your cover letter and resume in such a way that you can prove your “ability to positively impact the bottom line creatively,” advises Jaras. “In particular younger generations (Millennials/Gen Z) are proving their business acumen by going the entrepreneurial route before they even leave for college,” she explains.

LinkedIn competency profiles may replace formal certification

Pretty soon, your competency profile on LinkedIn may be all it takes.

Ryan Craig, founding managing director of University Ventures and author of College Disrupted: The Great Unbundling of Higher Education, explained how unbundling (self-directed and non-traditional education) might play out on a Radio Higher Ed podcast. This is using LinkedIn to create competency profiles for members that, like university degrees, will be recognized and trusted by employers.

The first step is the platform would assess a member’s capabilities, based on work history, SAT, and other test scores. Next, the person identifies the career they want. In his example, Craig uses an environmental engineer. LinkedIn’s algorithmic analysis of some 5,000 entry-level environmental engineer jobs currently posted would show the set of competencies required for that position.

Comparing your capabilities with required competencies shows where you are—the gap between what you have and what’s required—and the most efficient way for you to remediate that gap. It’ll likely be a series of short courses, assessments, and maybe an open online course necessary to give you those required competencies, says Craig.

If this all seems far-fetched, by the way, think again. Applicant tracking systems are already being used by companies and recruiters, says executive coach and career strategist Bill Benoist. Once your resume is uploaded into a database, information from it is parsed into various fields, and then matched and ranked to job descriptions based on keywords.

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