One of the major selling points of business school is the potential to change careers: B-schools like to tell prospective students that an MBA will open the doors to jobs in almost any sector. And over 50% of incoming students at top tier business schools say that they are interested in career switching, so b-schools are clearly preaching to the choir.
But the million dollar question (or $200,000, if you just count business school expenses) is: Will you really be able to switch into any career you want if you get an MBA?
Answer: Kind of.
Yes, b-school gives you the chance to focus almost completely on professional development and provides you with two years to think through your long-term career goals. If you’re smart about your choices, do a good job of aligning your new interests with your past experiences, and don’t mind putting in the hours, then it’s definitely possible to pursue a career switch. That said, there are certainly no guarantees, and it can feel frustrating to spend a long time looking for a job when you’ve invested a ton of time and money in a b-school education.
In the end, though, I do think that wanting to change careers is a good reason to get an MBA. It’s one of the main reasons I came to b-school—career switching is a lot of work, but taking two years off to hone my professional skills and really focus in on what I want to do long term felt to me like an extremely unique opportunity.
If you’re going in for the switch, there are a few things about your b-school strategy you’ll want to give special attention to. Here are three moves to make to turn your time at school into a successful career swap.
Focus on Industry or Function, Not Both
There are two high-level components of every job: industry and function. (I, for example, worked in the nonprofit industry in a technology and communications function before coming to business school.)
The number one thing to keep in mind when you’re switching careers is that it’s extremely difficult to switch both industry and function simultaneously, just because you may not have enough transferable skills to get noticed by hiring managers—even with your shiny new MBA. Therefore, if you want to make a change, it’s best to decide whether you want to start with a new industry or a new function and pursue them one at a time. For example, if you were working in the finance sector and you want to try out a tech company, consider applying for roles in tech companies’ finance departments so that you can get your foot in the door.
Once you’ve chosen one, you can focus in a number of different ways: Take a bunch of finance classes if you want to move to the finance industry, join relevant professional clubs, attend conferences, read blogs that are widely read by people in your new function, or make friends with the people on campus who used to hold the job you’re interested in.
All that being said, one sector that accepts MBA students regardless of their area of expertise is consulting. If you don’t have a quantitative background, then you’ll likely have to work a little harder to prepare for the interview process, but consulting can be a great option if you want to make a big, immediate change.
Choose Your Summer Internship Wisely
The vast majority of full-time b-school programs expect all of their students to work in a summer internship between their first and second year. The opportunity to intern was one of the major things that sold me on getting an MBA—internships are basically a risk-free way to try something out and gain experience.
The way you approach this internship, however, can have a big impact on your ability to switch careers. There are two schools of thought about the b-school internship: You can either test a role that is completely outside of your comfort zone or build experience in a new sector that you are interested in focusing on long-term.
If you want to change careers, it’s important that you use your summer internship as a way to get work experience in the area you are hoping to switch into. Unfortunately, this may mean giving up opportunities that sound really exciting. This is something I’m actually struggling with right now: Because I want to get experience in for-profit tech, I’ve had to steer myself away from some flashier postings in the entertainment and beauty sectors that I know would be really interesting but don’t align with my long-term goals.
Be Ready to Invest the Time
There’s no way around it: It takes a lot more time and energy to switch careers than it does to find an internship or a job that’s more aligned with your past experience. You’ll have to really put in a lot of hours to learn about your new sector or function, network to cultivate contacts, conduct informational interviews to get a sense of available positions, and hone your resume so that it is appealing to recruiters. There are only so many hours in a day, which means that prioritizing a career switch will give you less time to focus on other things you might be interested in. As long as you’re prepared for the tradeoff, however, you should be able to carve the necessary time out of your busy schedule.
Almost all b-schools have a career services office that will help you out with this process—which is a major pro about going to school—however, the resources they have available will depend on the industry you’re interested in. If you are a career switcher, make sure you research career services and job placements at all of the b-schools you’re interested in so that you know what will be available to you.
And no matter where you go to school, be ready to put in the necessary hard work to get yourself where you want to be.
Career switching is hard, but it is possible—you just have to be persistent. Hopefully these tips will help you navigate the process successfully so that you can land your dream job.