Using an MBA to Change Careers

Post date: Sep 10, 2012 4:29:40 AM

As an MBA admissions consultant, business school applicants often ask me whether it is appropriate to write about a desire to change careers in their applications. Some worry that expressing an interest in doing something different will negate the professional experience they have. Nothing could be further from the truth.

In my experience, many, if not most applicants to full-time MBA programs plan to make significant career changes, which is one of the reasons they are applying to business schools in the first place. Not only do business schools know this, they expect it. So they provide significant and varied resources to help students change careers.

Career Change Resources on Campus: From the Basics to More Customized Advice

Most business schools have a career services office with full-time staff dedicated to helping students determine their professional goals, find resources related to their industry of choice and prepare them for interviews and even contract negotiations. For instance, the Columbia Business School Career Management Center provides workshops on resume and cover letter writing as well as networking and industry-specific job search practices. It is staffed with full-time Advisors who provide one-on-one coaching and connect students with Career Fellows, second year students who serve as peer experts, and external professionals who serve as Career Coaches.

Columbia also offers the Executives in Residence program, through which students can meet individually with senior executives to get career advice. Executives currently include Jeff Zucker, former president and CEO of NBC Universal, Sabin C. Streeter, former managing director of Donaldson, Lufkin & Jenrette (DLJ) and real estate guru Leanne Lachman, President of her own real estate consulting firm, Lachman Associates, and Trustee of the Urban Land Institute.

Building Your Network and Getting Hired

In addition to providing a variety of options for individual professional guidance, business schools and student clubs help educate students on industries they are exploring or plan to transition to. For instance, change careers at Harvard Business School benefit from “Industry Weeks,” which are on-campus sessions that provide them with a basic introduction to industries in which they might be interested. They also cover opportunities and trends in those industries and provide advice on how to navigate the job search process in that industry.

For students who have researched their target industry, many schools and student clubs also provide students opportunities to visit companies in that industry. UCLA Anderson student clubs organize “Days on the Job,” which are onsite visits to companies around the world. These trips help students develop relationships with staff, learn more about the company and its recruiting process and what it’s looking for in candidates. Anderson clubs have organized Day on the Job events at companies including Toyota, Zynga, Google, Amazon, Disney and Taco Bell.

Business schools have begun to recognize that for some students, career change has more to do with geography than industry. So, schools like UCLA have designed resources like Anderson’s International Coaching Program for first year international students who want to work in the United States. The program helps students understand U.S. job search and work authorization processes and find American companies that hire international students.

I Don’t Know What I Want to Do, But I Know It’s Not This

I talk to a lot of people in their 20s and 30s who have no clue what they want to do -- except leave their current job. Despite the declarative career goals business school applicants write about in order to earn a spot in the class, career services offices know that incoming students can be confused about their professional future. So they have design programs to help them work through that process. Students at Harvard Business School begin the career exploration process even before orientation, completing CareerLeader®, an online self-assessment program designed to help students identify their values, interests and skills in order to figure out what they want to do with their lives. First year students can also participate in Career Teams in order to get peer support to discover or narrow down their career interests. Students meet in a small group to work on exercises facilitated by trained second year students.

Do You Really Need an MBA to Change Careers?

As an MBA, and an MBA admissions consultant, I will be the first person to say that the degree is not for everyone. An MBA is not required or relevant for the vast majority of jobs. In addition, business school is definitely not the place to figure yourself out, as I have heard many people suggest. It is an incredibly expensive way to “get unstuck.”

Consider the fact that most full-time MBA programs mean that students forgo two years of income and, often, take on tens of thousands of dollars in debt to pay for their education. What happens if you figure out your career goals during the MBA program and realize that what you want to do doesn’t require an MBA? Now you may be saddled with debt, which quite understandably, might motivate you to take a high paying job instead of pursuing the career you really want. I have personally seen this happen a lot. Then, you’re in what may be an equally painful position, which is, "I know exactly what I want to do, but I have to take this detour to this industry that will help me pay off my debt".

Planning a Career Change Before Applying to Business School

Because business school is such a big investment in time and money, and may not really be necessary for your future career, it is important to invest the time to figure out your career goals before you decide to apply to business school. So how do you do that?

If you’ve already read the classic career book,