Do You Need a Formal Degree, or Will a MOOC Do?
We all know that in the modern economy, we can’t just stop learning. But how to keep educating ourselves is a complicated question. Is it a worthwhile investment to get a formal degree, like an MBA or PhD? Should you take a more targeted approach, with a short-term executive education program? Or perhaps DIY it by signing up for an online offering, such as a MOOC?
As an adjunct professor for Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business, I’ve taught multiple classes for degree programs, as well as executive education offerings. I’ve also independently developed a number of online courses so have thought deeply about which kind of programming is appropriate for professionals’ needs.
Here are three questions to ask yourself as you’re considering your next educational move.
What’s the accepted standard in your company or industry? For fields where an advanced degree is mandatory, then your answer is clear. But in many cases, professionals face a more ambiguous situation: having an MBA may be considered a selling point, but it’s rarely required for a particular job. It’s important, though, to understand the norms in your company or industry. Even if something isn’t a formal requirement, it may be implicitly accepted as such.
Through informational interviews and background research (such as scanning leaders’ LinkedIn profiles), try to get a sense of their educational background. If everyone on the leadership team has an advanced degree and you don’t, it may be an uphill battle to convince them of your merits. But if it’s uncommon, then spending six figures on a degree could be overkill: more targeted learning might suffice.
What specific skills do you want to cultivate? Formal degree programs excel at general education: an MBA, for instance, gives you a little bit of everything you might need as a leader, from finance to marketing to operations. But if you’re looking to hone specific skills, rather than get a broad overview, you might prefer a targeted executive education program or online course.
Start by looking at the job you’re aiming for. What skills do those leaders possess —and where do you currently have gaps? The more precisely you can identify these, the better. For instance, one of my Duke Fuqua executive education programs helps leaders improve their public speaking and presentation skills, and an online course I created helps professionals who are interested in blogging learn to create content more rapidly. Do you really need to learn everything about corporate finance — or do you just need some accounting basics to help you get a better grasp on reading a P&L? If the skill is narrow enough, you might be able to learn it from a book or some free YouTube videos rather than taking an entire course.
How do you learn best? It’s also important to understand how you learn best, which will differ from person to person. For instance, you might be very self-motivated, in which case an online course with limited or no interaction with the professor or other students could be perfect. On the other hand, if you learn best alongside other students, you might prefer a traditional classroom experience, or at least an online course that features a robust community. Understanding your optimal learning environment will enable you to make better choices, so you don’t waste money on an expensive in-person program (when you could have breezed through the material yourself) or an online course (which you never used because it lacked camaraderie).
It’s also important to remember — even in the era of almost limitless online courses and trainings — that sometimes, the best educational offering is the one you create yourself. In my first book, I profiled Joanne Chang, who started her career as a management consultant and ultimately became a prominent restaurateur.
The secret to her transition? In the pre-Internet era, she typed up letters and mailed them to a dozen of Boston’s best chefs, explaining her background (she had no formal culinary training), her interest in their work, and her willingness to do literally any job they might have for her. Within a day, Chang received an offer to apprentice with famed toque Lydia Shire, setting herself up for future success. Often, plum opportunities aren’t advertised; you create them yourself, by asking.
In a competitive marketplace, it’s clear that we have to keep raising the bar. By asking yourself these questions, you can determine which educational opportunities will yield the greatest ROI for your career.
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