With the challenging job market of the past five years, many who have expensive business degrees report they can't get more than entry-level jobs.
Once they do land a more challenging position, they find it's not a guarantee a master's in business administration will pay off in terms of bigger promotions or better pay.
"I have seen, more than once, MBA candidates become frustrated when their employer has chosen not to promote them or even give them more challenging assignments," says Hannah Morgan, job search strategist for Career Sherpa.
One solution to such a dilemma for those with an MBA and for those without may be a lateral career move.
A lateral career move, which doesn't come with a more prestigious title or pay raise, still is considered worthwhile because you have a chance to learn new skills, gain fresh ideas and build relationships with key players. Often those are the critical ingredients to propel an employee up the ladder eventually in a way that an MBA will not.
Paulett Everhart is chief executive of CDI, a billion-dollar engineering tech company. She says she does not have an MBA but still managed to rise to her to position by making some career moves that were lateral and even a step down.
The key: Each move gained her more skills and experience and built relationships that she needed to succeed, she says.
While working in accounting as a CPA, Everhart says she asked to be assigned to sales and operations because she saw it as critical "to get out there on the front lines and deal with customers and clients."
Eventually, she asked to move entirely to the operations side. During these transitions, which sometimes moved her sideways or even down the company structure, she continued to add to her knowledge by taking leadership classes and "raising my hand to volunteer for outside assignments."
"Education doesn't always have to come through formal channels," she says. "I'm proof you can get to the top through nontraditional routes."
While Everhart says she would not advise against an MBA and believes they can be valuable, she believes it is just as important to self-educate and steer your career in a way that will lead you to your goals even if that means taking a lateral position.
"I've always looked at it as, 'What areas am I strong in and what do I need to learn?"
Morgan says anyone considering a lateral career move should do the homework.
If you're going to leave your current employer, she advises doing research online through sites like Glassdoor.com to ensure you're jumping to a company with a solid reputation. Look through online news or LinkedIn profiles to see if the company regularly offers advancement or if careers appear to stagnate and cause employees to leave, she says.
"In general, opportunities for growth tend to be greater in a small company," Morgan says. "You often have the opportunity to wear more than one hat, take on a variety of projects or fill gaps when the company is in growth mode."
While the salary may be less with a small employer, the experience "may be worth it in the long run," she says.
As Everhart learned when she took a position that took her further away from the top leadership for a while, moving down the career ladder also can have its advantages if it helps you gain new skills and experience necessary to thrive and move back up.
Morgan says taking a step down can be necessary if it's what is needed to get yourself established with a desired employer or if you're changing industries and don't have the experience.
In addition, sometimes a downward move can make sense for you personally, such as trimming work hours or travel, Morgan says.
"For these individuals, taking a step down is a good reason," she says. "And taking the lower position allows them to remain in the workforce vs. burning out and having to quit or get fired."
Anita Bruzzese can be reached c/o Gannett ContentOne, 7950 Jones Branch Drive, McLean, Va. 22107.