How An MBA Can Lead to Career Change

·8 min read

If you're applying to an MBA program because you want to make a career change, you are not alone.

"There are very few people that go into business school wanting to do the same thing, because otherwise they wouldn't have left their job to begin with," says Alexander Lowry, executive director of the Master of Science in Financial Analysis program at Gordon College in Massachusetts. "It's a huge opportunity cost."

MBA students often use business school to catapult into a job unlike any they'd had.

"Switching industries, functions, or both is one of the most common reasons students will decide to pursue an MBA," Stephen Rakas, executive director of the Masters Career Center at Carnegie Mellon University's Tepper School of Business in Pennsylvania, explained in an email. "It's a broad-based, well-known credential."

[READ: How to Find the Right Business School for You.]

According to admissions consultant Barbara Coward, founder of MBA 360 Admissions Consulting, MBA graduates frequently enter fields that are radically different from the areas they worked in prior to business school.

"I have so many examples of career pivots that would seem extraordinary," she wrote in an email, "but really attest to the power of this degree for complete career reinvention: A Peace Corps volunteer who pivots to management consulting. A teacher who transitions to big tech. A veteran who goes into venture capital. An accountant who moves into sports marketing. A financial analyst who becomes an entrepreneur. There is no other degree that provides the launching pad to many different possibilities to chart your next career destiny. It's incredibly empowering."

MBA graduates who switched careers say business school helped them transition to a new industry.

How An MBA Can Help Uncover a Passion

Satish Selvanathan spent six years trading mortgage-backed debt in the investment banking industry during the years leading up to the Great Recession.

"In 2006, I saw the writing on the wall and knew very clearly that my industry would not be the same for much longer," he wrote in an email. "At the same time, I felt I had lost touch with the reality of owning or operating a business. Mortgage-backed debt is a product created by statistical modeling; it is not something you can feel or touch or relate to."

[Read: What an MBA Degree Is and What You Need to Know.]

He applied to business school hoping that an MBA would lead to a fulfilling career. Today he is the executive chair at Premium Vegetable Oils, where he makes strategy and investment decisions on behalf of the business.

He says the MBA program at Columbia Business School taught him how to analyze and improve companies and helped him find his true calling: reviving troubled companies.

"Business school was very meaningful for me, because I fell in love with a topic, which subsequently became a beautiful career," he says.

[Read: How Having an MBA on Your Resume Affects Your Career Prospects.]

How an MBA Can Inspire Creativity and Open Up Possibilities

When Shelly Sahi applied to the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan--Ann Arbor, she was a business analyst at Ford Motor Company and was eager to learn more about business strategy so she could contribute to those discussions at her company.

But during her MBA program, Sahi realized the idea of starting a business excited her. She decided to use her materials science background to build a cosmetics company. Her longstanding interest in the industry stemmed from the years she spent blending foundations and lipsticks designed for people with European ancestry to match her North Indian complexion.

"In the back of my mind, I always knew that I wanted to be in the fashion and luxury goods and beauty world, but this was my chance now to explore whether I could do this," she says.

Sahi visited the Zell Lurie Institute for Entrepreneurial Studies at Ross to ask its professors and entrepreneurs-in-residence for advice. She says they encouraged her and gave her vital guidance on how to execute her vision. They also told Sahi about potential funding sources and connected her with alumni who are successful entrepreneurs, she says.

Sahi is the CEO and founder of SAHI Cosmetics, which she says probably wouldn't have happened without the support of her business school.

"It is tough to be a sole founder, so if you can put yourself amongst other entrepreneurs and bounce ideas off of one another, it really helps you succeed," she says.

How an MBA Can Facilitate Self-Discovery and Expedite Career Change

Career consultant Jeff Magnuson says business school was a turning point.

"I didn't think I would be a career switcher until I went to business school," says Magnuson, a 2011 MBA graduate from the Kenan-Flagler Business School at University of North Carolina--Chapel Hill.

Before business school, Magnuson spent eight years working on Wall Street, including five years with Goldman Sachs Group. He decided to switch to marketing in his first year of business school, a change of heart that came after a trip where he and other students attended information sessions with Wall Street employers.

"It was all very positive, and everyone was very helpful, but I just knew in my heart that was it," he says. "I didn't want to go back. Eight years was enough."

Magnuson says business school provides a unique opportunity for career exploration. "It's basically like coming to a point in the road where you can choose one of eight directions to go in."

[Read: Deciding Between an Online or On-Campus MBA Program.]

Why an MBA Helps Career-Changers

MBA students have access to a wide variety of experiential learning opportunities that allow them to try on different types of business roles, explains Shaifali Aggarwal, who received her MBA degree from Harvard Business School and is founder and CEO of the Ivy Groupe admissions consulting company.

"For instance, both summer internships and in-semester internships are a risk-free way for companies to evaluate students (i.e., potential future full-time employees who are seeking a career transition) as well as for students to determine whether the industry and job function are the right one for them," Aggarwal wrote in an email. "There may also be opportunities embedded within the curriculum that allow students to apply theory to practice, such as partnering with a company to solve a problem; such experiences strengthen students' skillsets and may even be closely related to what a student wants to do in the future, which in turn can facilitate a career change."

Alison French, an MBA alumna of the Indiana University Kelley School of Business and CEO of the Emerged Inc. health care technology company, wrote in an email that an MBA provides the "perfect platform for people seeking to switch their industry or job function," since it expands their understanding of what contributes to business success.

"Completing an MBA means you're no longer thinking about your work in silo; instead you're connecting the dots between the interdependencies of different business units within an organization," French says.

Experts on business schools note those schools are designed to facilitate career exploration. MBA programs typically include a variety of courses and provide a wide array of extracurricular activities. Reputable B-schools tend to have strong job placement rates in multiple industries, and those schools often attract an eclectic mix of corporate recruiters.

How Career-Changers Should Choose an MBA Program

When assessing the quality of a B-school, career-switchers should find out whether the school supports job-seeking students and alumni by asking recent graduates whether the school's career counselors provided valuable guidance, experts suggest. It's also prudent for a prospective MBA student to look up a school's job placement statistics within his or her preferred business sector, according to experts.

Prospective MBA students who view B-school as an opportunity for personal transformation should look for a school that will allow them to grow their skills in areas where they have significant interest but lack work experience, suggests marketing professor Michal Strahilevitz.

"So if you are strong in finance and accounting, but feel you need marketing skills to climb up the corporate ladder and get a job you are excited about, an MBA with a focus in marketing makes sense," Strahilevitz, who teaches at the St. Mary's College of California School of Economics and Business Administration, recommended in an email.

"If you are working in marketing with a strong background in content creation and communication, but want to get up to snuff in analytics, an MBA with a concentration in analytics will make you that much more marketable," she says. "Finally if you currently are stuck in a desk job that does not offer any room for growth or promotion, an MBA with any focus that excites you can open doors to your getting into an area where you will shine inside and out."

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