As the workforce becomes more accommodating to occupational "fluidity," staying in one career seems like a thing of the past. So potential career switchers taking the MBA route shouldn't balk at veering off the steady path. Instead, experts point out that going to B-school in order to make a transition really works.
Career center professionals, such as Abby Scott, director of MBA career services at the University of California-Berkeley's Haas School of Business, regularly see career switchers in action and are more than willing to discuss suggestions for pulling off a flawless career change (see BusinessWeek.com, 7/6/07, "Real Life Career Changers").
Scott, a former product manager, recently spoke with BusinessWeek project assistant Alina Dizik and offered some quick tips and advice to potential career switchers. Here are edited excerpts of their conversation.
Are many MBA students going back to school in order to make a career switch?
Certainly. During orientation, we always ask, "Who knows exactly what job they want to be doing after graduation?" Only 20% of the hands go up. Then we say, "Raise your hand if you don't know what you want to do and know you don't want to go back to what you were doing." Almost all of the hands in the room go up—that's our informal poll.
Where can students find information about switching careers while in B-school?
The entire B-school experience is about making a career change, so it actually starts from the classroom. From day one they attend courses that they want to make into their career somehow—in addition to also taking the core classes.
What's the first step?
For someone who wants to make a career change, it's imperative to focus on related courses and choose relevant electives that have a project component. For example, a student who's interested in a nonprofit could encourage his team to focus on the organizations that do this type of work. It's also a chance to make contacts in the desired industry.
When is the earliest a student should turn to the career center for help?
These days our career advisers are even seeing students in the summer before their first year. Most know they want to get out of what they've been doing, but aren't sure what they actually want to do, so we'll talk to them in the summer to help them get started.
What kind of advice do you give students who are just starting to explore career options?
First, evaluate and see where your original career can be rewarded in the marketplace. Then we encourage exploration of those target careers and students can read more about them and talk to people that work in those industries. All of our students take the CareerLeader self-assessment—an instrument designed to help students. It's a pretty comprehensive tool and specifically tailored for MBAs. The temptation is just to interview with contacts, but that's one of the last steps.
Besides classes, how else can students get involved with making a career switch?
First-years are invited to attend sessions by former interns who have spent the summer working. One day they can learn about consulting and another day they can learn about a business development internship. Also, they can listen to industry panels and start to explore by asking questions—it's a combination of all these things. They should get the basic information from an industry perspective and then choose specific companies—to attend their corporate presentations late in the school year.
When should students have a specific direction to their new career?
The earlier the better. Even during the second week of classes, students are already in their exploration phase where they can read about different industries. They only have four semesters to take courses, but they definitely have the first semester to figure it out. We encourage students to head down a path almost right away even if lots of them won't get it right the first time. If they don't like the direction they're heading, then they can go back to square one. Those students often come back with clarity. Other times the new career path is something they were just trying and they use it as a stepping stone to yet another field. We always have a lot of programs, and by first semester they've usually figured out at least the path they want to be on.
How can students make the leap to an actual position after finding they want to work in a new field?
Students should put together a targeted résumé. At the interview, students need to learn to talk about their experience and why they're [applicable] to this new industry. Getting the story down makes a big difference, and that means including skills [gained] prior to business school. But having a story doesn't come together until the second year—it's an important part of networking and getting a job.
What should students take away from their old career?
The key is transferable skills, and they are definitely there. For example if someone has a lot of experience working as an IT consultant, they may think of their nontransferable skills. But if you break down the job and look at the raw skills such as teamwork, collaboration, and the ability to manage projects on time, these are quite transferable and fit many new careers.
What's an easy tip for a career switcher?
It's important to start using the vocabulary of the target career. If I'm interviewing for a position, I want to make sure that when I tell my story I use the language. If it's marketing, I use terms like target, positioning, target audience—I want to think about my previous experience and make sure I'm explaining it using these terms.
Also, it's important to understand the hot topics that are important to those in the new industry. For example, one of our most frequent interviewers got a job in I-banking with an engineering tech background because he did smart networking in his desired industry. Through research and learning about accounting and finance, he knew the terms and hot topics prior to taking the courses and then reached out to people while being able to speak their vocabulary.
Is it harder for students to switch careers or to stay in their original field after two years of school?
I think your motives are questioned either way. If it's a position similar to the one that you left they say, "What the heck are you doing in B-school?" And you're going to have a compelling story to tell when switching careers. You need to convince them that you're capable of doing your job, and that you bring value to the firm from your previous experience.
Are there any traps when making career changes after earning your MBA?
The key is to make transitions that are building on your previous job experience. It's more of a zig-zag. If people want to have a career path and upward mobility, then they have to make sure that their transitions are not so radical. But that's not to say that a person can't go from I-banking, then in-house to Clorox (CLX), and then transition to work for Intel (INTC) as a chief financial officer, and move through three different industries. They can do that, and are still building on their career. I just had my 10-year B-school reunion, and you can count on two hands the people that have held the same careers.
For more on MBA-driven career switches, visit BusinessWeek's slide show.