How to Branch out while in School

  • Phil Han, Associate Director of the Parker Career Management Center at UCLA’s Anderson School of Business
  • Julie Morton, Associate Dean of Career Services at the University of Chicago BoothSchool of Business
  • Regina Resnick, Assistant Dean of MBA Career Services at Columbia Business School
  • John Worth, Director of Career Management for MBA Alumni and Executives at the Kenan-Flagler Business School of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

Want to use an MBA to change careers? In business school they’ll call you a career switcher and you’ll find that you aren’t alone. Up to 90% of MBA candidates consider switching careers during their time on campus. Within just one or two years you can learn the skills and gain the context you need to launch into a new direction. This time we’ll take you through the process that you would experience through the career management center at business school. You’ll learn how to make your past experiences relevant to future employers, how to update your resume and network your way into new opportunities. You’ll hear from the heads of career management from four top MBA programmes.

Those in business school may already be aware of the benefits to getting an MBA in changing careers. At UCLA Anderson School of Management, nearly all in the full-time programme are career switchers. Phil Han is Associate Director of the Parker Career Management Centre, “We do a survey of all of our incomingstudents every year about are you acareer switcher,regardless of whatthey may have said in their admissionsinterviews and we found out that about90 percent of our students are careerswitchers in one way or another. Itmight just be switching an industry, orswitching functionsor making a wholeswitch of everything.” 

Julie Morton is Associate Dean of Career Services at the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business, she says about 75 to 80 percent of their students are career changers. 

With so many using an MBA to switch into a new direction, the career management centre at your business school will understand what kind of support you’ll need in the process. So the very first step, Morton says choose what you want to do, “One of the things that weaskthem to do is really think aboutwhat it is that they’re interested in,what their skills are,what their experienceshave been to make sure thattheir career destination is somethingthat’s rooted in their passions, not kindof the next hottest job that’s out thereor the nextkind of band wagon thatpeople are jumping on. You know thestudent who comes in andsays, ‘I reallywant to be a consultant but I’m notsure this whole travel thing is right forme’ that requires some real thinking ofwhat is the subset of firms that mightbe appealing to the student and why isit that the student is interested in consulting; you know whether that studentpossesses the skillsthatconsulting is driven by that or whether he or she can acquire by beinghere for sureaswell.” 

To help you discover what you want to do, most business schools offer a variety of activities like hosting panel discussions with representatives from various industries. There are student groups you can join like the investment banking group, new venture or real estate and there are also networking opportunities with alumni who may be in a position you’re interested in.

Anderson’s Phil Han says once you’ve made your decision the next step is to understand your transferable skills, “Wediscuss with them what are the coreskills andattributes their target industryor function might be looking for. Wework with the students really hard onhow do we translate their past experienceinto and there are also the skillsthat they have the basic talents thatthey have, into what their target company,targetindustry or function is lookingfor. And when we do that it canrange anywhere frombreaking downstep by step what are some of theduties and responsibilities that you hadin their past positions and thinking aboutwell how does that apply to what thecompany is looking for, how does thatapply to the skills that are necessaryto be successful in their rolethat they’relooking into.” 

Regina Resnick is Assistant Dean of MBA Career Services at Columbia Business School, she says demonstrating transferable skills also depends on whether you’re changing industry or function or both, “If you’re changing industry butnot function, presumably you have alot ofthe skill set that you can demonstrate.If you’re changing function butnot industry you maywant to focusmore on the attributes of the work youdid with the industry that relate. Andif you’re changing both that’s kind ofthe hardest career switch, your workexperience shouldreflect everythingthat you’ve done and be complete andaccurate but you may want to putmoreemphasis on thosethings that relatemost closely to yournew job opportunityand ifthat meansenhancing morewithin your educational area to demonstrate the relevanceof the work you’ve done andthat’s important to do that and anythingextracurricular as well.” 

Your resume should reflect skills your target company or industry is looking for. Resnick says don’t make your future employer work hard to figure out your transferable skills, “So thatyou have totake your resume that you’ve had beforeand make sure that you really almostmatch it one for one with those skillsets that are outlined in the job description.So itobviously has to be consistentwith the experience that you’vehad before but you have totake thatexperience and cast another light on itif you will to show how it would relateto the new job that you’re looking for.”

Chicago GSB’s Julie Morton says make sure your resume is in the language of the industry you seek. “So you knowmaking sure that their bullets on theirresume don’t soundengineering butsound actually analytical and criticalthinking and problem solving orientedso that those can be read by a consultantor a banker or a trader dependingon what it is that they want to do andthey can be in the language of thatfuture career rather than where theycame from.” 

Another way to demonstrate new skills is through MBA course work. Again Regina Resnick, “It’s also I think reallycrucial in order to enhance your resumeis that with the MBA itselfthrough classroomexperience you can show youknow your interest, and your passion,youcan get fundamental skill set thatwill relate to whatever the new job is.Also I would that say extracurricularprojects are really critical and it’s alsopossible that you could do project work within your classes that would demonstratethe ability to move into a newcareer.” 

The number of career switchers is growing in executive MBA programmes. John Worth is Director of Career Management for MBA Alumni and Executives at the Kenan-Flagler Business School of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, he says when looking for a new opportunity executive MBAs as well as full-time MBAs shouldn’t underestimate the power of networking. “What we try todo is encourage them to really activelynetwork, buildtheir contacts, developin house ambassadors at companies thatare of interest to them anduncover hiddenjobs, jobs that may not be advertisedand really network their way intoopportunities that may or may not beadvertised in different kind of hostingand job search sites.” 

For those who aren’t yet comfortable with networking or for many who come from different cultures outside the US, networking may be uncomfortable and awkward. Worth says: view it as a way of learning and helping yourself, “I thinkthe most important way to become comfortablewith networking and to look atit as a beneficial opportunity is to thinkof it as networking to learn. What Ioften suggest to people is as they networkwith people who may have degreesfrom the business school that are in thecareer advisor network thatare inessence warmed contacts that theyshould understand that these peopleare willing to be responsible and willingto help, that they should approachis as ‘I’ve noticed that you’re ina positionI’m targeting’ or ‘You work for acompany that I’m interested in. I’d loveto spend a few minutes with you andjust learn your perspectives. I’d like tolearn more about what you do. I’d liketo know more about thiscompany.’Generally people are very willing to talkabout themselves, what they have tooffer , what they’ve done, how theircareer has gone,so when you’re networkingwith somebody you don’t know,you’re not asking for a favor, you’re notasking them to do something for you,you’re looking to learn, you’re lookingfor their insights and perspectives andmore often than not people are quitewilling to help andprovide that kind ofinformation.” 

Looking at the sheer number of people studying an MBA to switch careers, it’s probably safe to say that earning an MBA can be a good way to do just that. However, it’s also a hefty investment of time and money. Regina Resnick says it’s not going to be easy either, “I thinkthat the MBA does give you some leveragebut I think that it is important torecognize that it’s not going to be acake walk that you do have to make areally cogent argument for whyyouwant to go into this new field. And withthe MBA the reason why I think that acareer switch is easier than in theabsence of it is that you have an additionalstory to tell aboutcourseworkthat you’ve taken that substantiatesyour interest or and that perhaps givesyouthat platform to go into somethingnew, whether it’s an analytical skill setor an ability to you know better understandmarkets, things like that.”