Alternatives to Graduate School: Breaking Boundaries and Creating Opportunity

You just started your career and you want to do things bigger, better, faster, but is the money you'd spend on school — and that which you’ll lose with no inbound revenue — worth the return on investment? Check out these alternative options to build your skills.

Have you ever found yourself tasked to do something you know very little about? Learning skills on the job can be excellent training, but the longing for new knowledge might have you dreaming of graduate school.

This desire is common in the early stages of a career. You want to do things bigger, better, faster — to be an expert. Unfortunately, graduate degrees can be expensive in both time and money. Analyzing the opportunity cost of formally continuing your education is crucial when making the decision to leave the workforce. Is the money you will spend on school — and that which you’ll lose with no inbound revenue — worth the return on investment?

As you’re weighing your options for self-enrichment, be sure to look beyond the scope of a traditional classroom and degree settings. Here are three alternatives to consider, that, while not degree-granting, could prepare you for the next step in your career:

Offline Bootcamp

This alternative approach to learning has been making waves in higher education for years and has recently grown exponentially in popularity. Bootcamps like those offered by General Assembly, Dev Bootcamp, and Hackbright Academy can provide great deep-dives into new technical skills, and sometimes non-technical skills as well. The bootcamps are shorter than a traditional degree, and they are considered to be more intense. You’ll emerge from these few weeks with a marketable new skill-set while saving both time and money.

Upsides: The courses are short, and the skills are targeted.

Downsides: Results often depend on the quality of instruction. Bootcamps can be full-time for up to three months.

Online Courses

Online courses, often in the form of MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) can provide a great way to improve your skills and knowledge. There are a variety of courses, which range from business to coding, offered on sites such as Coursera, Khan Academy, and Udemy. Other sites like Skillshare allow you to take courses designed for creators and makers. The possibilities are endless, but this option puts your education completely in your own hands. To be successful, you must hold yourself accountable.

Upsides: Flexibility. You can work in your free time, and courses may be taught by top professors. This is a relatively inexpensive option.

Downsides: Accountability. No one keeps track of your progress, so if life gets in the way, you may not complete the course. In addition, there’s little or no human interaction.

Online/Offline Blended Learning

Blended Learning is the new kid on the block, although it’s been around for years with the flipped classroom model in K–12. With this approach, coursework is delivered through a digital platform, but participants collaborate in person on projects and case studies. Additionally, there are coaches or facilitators who are present to provide feedback and mentorship throughout the course. This type of learning requires a full-time, in-person commitment, similar to the offline model, but delivers most material through an online platform — hence the term blended learning. Companies like Fullbridge (full disclosure: I work there!) are pioneering the blended learning, bootcamp-style education.

Upsides: Blended learning offers the best of both worlds: online and offline learning. Mentors and coaches can be crucial to success.

Downsides: Courses are not offered year-round and are only available in specific cities.

Ultimately, it’s up to you to decide which style of learning works best, and if you even need the extra boost. Before you formalize any decisions, consider your options, weigh the opportunity costs of each, and ensure that continuing your education fits in with your short- and long-term goals.

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