How I’m Getting a Business Education Without Going to B-School

For several years now, I have wanted to further my professional development in business administration and management. I researched MBA programs and other related certificate programs, but the timing never felt right for me in terms of the time and financial commitments that business school would require, and the other life goals and activities I would have to put on hold in order to make it happen.

Then about a year ago, as I was revisiting this idea, I stumbled on Laurie Pickard’s website The No-Pay MBA and book Don’t Pay for Your MBA: The Faster, Cheaper, Better Way to Get the Business Education You Need. In these resources, Ms. Pickard describes the process of how she used massive open online courses to cobble together a business education while living overseas as an international development worker.

After reading Ms. Pickard’s approach, I thought, “What do I have to lose? Worst-case scenario, I waste a few hours and a few dollars on some online courses, and then decide to do a real B-school program later. Best-case scenario, I get the knowledge and growth I want, in a way that works for how my life is right now.” And that’s how I got started with creating my own business education, using the resources and principles from Ms. Pickard’s book, as well as some of my own.

Here’s how I approached my self-directed MBA, and some of the things I’ve learned along the way.

Step 1: Creating a Curriculum

First, I needed to research and chart my course. The No-Pay MBA book offered a general outline of subject areas to study, but I wanted to be rigorous about structuring and tracking my curriculum, as if I were completing a real degree. I reviewed the curriculum and credit hour requirements for several top business schools, and then I created a spreadsheet that incorporated common elements from all of them.

I use the spreadsheet to track the courses I’ve taken and the hours I’ve studied in each topic area. MOOC courses don’t always map 1:1 to college courses in terms of hours–sometimes, a single college course is broken into several MOOC courses. So I decided that tracking hours spent in a topic area would be the best way to decide when I’ve satisfied the requirement for each topic area.

I’ve set credit hour targets for each topic I’m studying, based on the required credit/contact hours for graduation in real degree programs. One thing I know about myself is that I am most effective when I have specific, measurable goals and targets, so I designed my curriculum and tracking system to leverage this!

My tracking spreadsheet has worked well. Since beginning this project, I’ve expanded my definition of coursework to include not just MOOCs, but other activities (more on this later), which I also track in the spreadsheet. Since beginning my self-directed MBA in January 2018, I’ve invested over 250 hours on coursework and other relevant activities, and I’ve spent about $700.

Step 2: Selecting & Completing Coursework

After creating the initial framework for my curriculum, I started working on courses.

There is a plethora of schools and professors looking to monetize their content via MOOCs on sites like edX, Coursera, Udacity, and Class Central. For any given topic like financial accounting or operations management, there are dozens, if not hundreds, of courses available.

When choosing a course, I base my selection on the reputation of the school or instructor, and (especially for the more difficult topics) I bail quickly if the instructor isn’t presenting the content in a way that “clicks” for me. This flexibility is a real benefit to my learning—instead of wasting time struggling with content I don’t understand, I can find another course on the same topic that helps me connect the dots.

Some MOOC platforms will string several classes together into a certificate or specialization. I’ve had good success with these; it’s nice to find several interconnected modules of good quality content.

Typically, I have one to three online courses in progress at any given time, depending on what else is going on in my life. One key feature of my self-directed MBA program is the ability to scale it up when I have some extra cycles, and scale it back when I need to focus on work or other personal goals and commitments. I typically like to be working on one difficult course and one easier course at the same time. This allows me to alternate between them depending on where I am mentally.

Most MOOCs are designed to be completed in four to six weeks. I speed through some of them faster, but some take a little longer.

Step 3: Creating the B-School “Experience”

Many MBA grads emphasize that you get the most value from “the experience” and the connections made with other professionals going through the program with you–not the coursework. In light of this, I’ve tried to include some similar features in my self-directed program. While I can’t completely recreate the experience of undertaking a rigorous program of study alongside a cohort of peers, I have been able to make some strides in developing professional connections.

When possible, I choose MOOCs with a high degree of peer interaction, like peer grading and feedback or message board components. These courses have presented me with the opportunity to consider situations in industries and geographies very diverse from my own and to interact (virtually) with a wide range of people. I’ve also enjoyed participating in the official No-Pay MBA Facebook group for the same reason.

Serendipitously, a few months after I began my No-Pay MBA endeavor, a group of colleagues from AO’s Grand Rapids office banded together for a focused professional development experience we call “Leadership Fundamentals.” Over the past year, we’ve worked together to read, discuss, and apply almost a dozen books on management, leadership, and personal and interpersonal effectiveness.

This program dovetailed perfectly with my own curriculum, and it provided the opportunity for some in-person interaction and deeper learning alongside a cohort of valued peers, with the bonus of rippling through our whole office’s culture and interpersonal practices.

I’ve also made it a priority to strengthen my network with local and national professionals as another way to replicate the “connecting” component of the B-school experience. I’m doing more networking events, lunches, and long-distance “virtual coffee date” videoconferences with industry peers.

I’ve never been great at networking. As a busy introvert, I naturally tend to prioritize getting things done and spending my social energy on family and close friends instead of nurturing connections in the professional world. Compounding this, as a woman in the man-dominated tech field who has piloted two different roles at a company which operates at the cutting edge of its field, I’ve needed to develop a lot of self-reliance. I’ve become pretty comfortable with being “the only ____ in the room” and figuring things out for myself on the fly, because people like me who do what I do are few and far between.

However, creating some focus and discipline around networking as part of my self-directed MBA has been surprisingly rewarding and energizing. As my career continues to shift away from practitioner and individual contributor into developer and manager of talent, I’m finding a lot of value and personal enrichment in interacting and comparing notes with others who are in similar roles or have been there in the past.

So, that’s how I’ve spent a year creating and working on my own self-directed MBA. What started out as an intriguing experiment has definitely helped me grow in my career, providing both tangible and intangible benefits. I expect to spend at least another year pursuing and tracking coursework and connection in a disciplined and structured way–maybe longer. However, I think the practices and learning tools I’m adding to my professional development arsenal will serve me for my entire career.