So you’ve been considering getting an MBA.
It seems like a foolproof plan, right? After all, the MBA is the degree that opens the doors to the world of business. Never mind the two years out of the workforce or that pesky student loan you’ll be paying off for the next 15 years. The guaranteed career boost makes it all worth it in the end—doesn’t it?
Well, maybe. While an investment in business school may be the right choice for certain people, it doesn’t make sense for everyone. Let’s say you don’t yet have much work experience, or you’re already working in a field you plan to stay in. Taking time out of the labor force, while piling a debt burden onto your burgeoning career may not be your best move.
Fortunately, a pricey degree’s not the only way to get a business education. If you’re not looking to make a radical career change, aren’t completely sure of what you’d like to do next, or simply can’t justify dropping $100,000 (or more) on tuition, you can still beef up your business savvy without placing a lien on your paycheck for the indefinite future.
That’s what I did.
A few years ago, I was a former Peace Corps volunteer with a fledgling career in international development. I had landed in the right industry, but the most exciting jobs in my field called for advanced training in economics, finance, or business—training I didn’t have. Rather than risk losing the career foothold I had only recently established, I decided to educate myself on the cheap; taking advantage of the fact that many universities had begun to release digital versions of their classes, available to anyone with an internet connection. That’s right, I’m talking about massive open online courses (MOOCs).
I compared the curricula of top MBA programs with the course offerings on a variety of MOOC platforms. Then, I mapped out a course progression that was a near one-for-one match with traditional business grad programs. (I even set up a website to document my MOOC MBA journey, which I dubbed the No-Pay MBA.)
Nearly three years later, MOOCs have gained quite a bit of traction. In 2015, over 35 million people registered for at least one course. Most MOOCs are still available free of charge, though many students choose to pay for certificates to verify their work.
Meanwhile, with a few classes left on my agenda, I have already managed to score a promotion at work and am running a sideline business helping people to reap the full value of a debt-free business education.
So, instead of spending money you may not have, why not spend six months learning the basics and deciding if B-school really makes sense for you? Just taking a few courses can remind you what it’s like to be a student. And by staying in the workforce while you do this test run, you’ll be able to put your skills into practice right away and may even be able to take on increased responsibility at work. If at the end of this you discover you still need that degree, go for it! But I think you may be surprised to find that you have already gotten exactly what you need.
Here are the six subjects I personally recommend to start your business education. Note that for each option, it’s free to watch the course lectures and learn the skills. However, most platforms do have fees for verified certificates, and in Coursera there is a charge to take quizzes and submit assignments, as well.
1. Project Management
People in all industries can benefit from learning project management. Even if you don’t supervise anyone’s day-to-day work, you may be called upon to spearhead a new initiative or lead an ad-hoc team. When that happens, use your project management skills to deliver results and impress your supervisors.
Course to Try: Introduction to Project Management, University of Adelaide
Study marketing to understand customer decision-making, product positioning, and market segmentation. Learn how companies communicate strategically and position their brands in a market niche. The University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business offers a great overview of the field, taught by three of the school’s most popular marketing professors.
Course to Try: Introduction to Marketing, University of Pennsylvania
If you only study one subject from the business curriculum, I suggest finance. In large part, MBAs get both their worldview and their chops from understanding and deploying financial logic. These classes will help you read a balance sheet, interpret a cash flow statement, and use terms like ROI, NPV, and IRR with confidence.
Course to Try: Corporate Finance, New York University
Whether you’re buying a car, determining a starting salary, or representing your organization in high-level discussions, you’ll need negotiation skills. Get good at it by learning the strategies that professional negotiators use. The class below is one of the most popular business MOOCs of all time.
Course to Try: Successful Negotiation: Essential Strategies and Skills, University of Michigan
Whether or not you harbor ambitions of starting your own business, you’ll be well-served by learning an approach to generating and testing entrepreneurial ideas. Silicon Valley entrepreneur Steve Blank teaches the authoritative course on this topic, which walks you through the initial steps of developing a business idea. Fun fact: Did you know that many companies are now hiring for in-house entrepreneurial units?
Course to Try: How to Build a Startup
Strategy brings together many disciplines, including finance, entrepreneurship, and marketing. Learn how to analyze a company’s competitive position within a market. What are the forces at play within your field? Who are your competitors and what makes you different? Which opportunities should your company jump on right away?
Course to Try: Foundations of Business Strategy, University of Virginia
I’m not saying you shouldn’t get an MBA. For some people, they’re absolutely worth it. But if you’re on the fence, start here, with some valuable MOOCs and see if what you need is B-school or just a skills boost—that won’t require nearly the investment of money or time out of the workforce.