Using an MBA to Forge a Seamless Career Transition

The degree can be a transformative catalyst, enabling you to leap into a different industry, functional role or geography

Career transitions have become increasingly common and, at times, necessary for personal growth and fulfillment. For ambitious individuals seeking to embark on a new professional journey, an MBA degree can be a transformative catalyst, enabling you to make a seamless leap into a different industry, functional role or geography (or all three at once).

Whether you aspire to move from finance to marketing, engineering to entrepreneurship, or any other trajectory, an MBA can be the key to unlocking new horizons and capitalizing on emerging opportunities. It is an advanced degree that equips individuals with the knowledge, skills, and network needed to navigate unfamiliar terrain.

“An MBA program provides a natural platform for career exploration and change. As a student, you’ll have time to consider and reflect on your career interests, goals, and values. Simultaneously, you’ll be gaining new knowledge, building skills, and experiencing a world of new opportunities in and out of the classroom. And through a summer internship and other experiential learning, you even get to try out new roles and organizations before you graduate,” says Sheryle Dirks, associate dean for career management at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business in North Carolina.

The power of an MBA as a career-switching tool

In fact, this is a key reason why people embark on an MBA in the first place. “I’d estimate between two-thirds and three-quarters of MBA students are looking to make a career change, whether by job function, industry, or both,” Dirks says.

Successfully transitioning into a new career is a highly personal journey based on where you’re coming from, where you’re going, and how you build a bridge between the two. But Dirks stresses the importance of telling your story in a way an employer can understand and will find meaningful.

“For example, your transferable skills are only valuable if you can explain what you’ve done in the context of the new field you’re targeting and how it will add value there,” she says.

Another one of her tips is to spend your time in school wisely. “There are more activities in business school than any one student can ever participate in, so the choices you make speak loudly to employers about your interests and priorities,” says Dirks. “Make sure your CV reflects the alignment between what you say you’re interested in and how you spend your time, from professional clubs to elective courses and co-curricular experiences.”

Gain relevant, practical work experience

If students are looking to transition into a completely new sector, it’s important to demonstrate commitment through your CV, says Sadia Cuthbert, director of CJBS Careers at Cambridge Judge Business School in the UK: “One way is to get practical work experience before the MBA, even if it’s a short spurt. This will also help inform students if this particular area is right for them.”

She says that industries, opportunities and roles are growing – just consider the growth in digital healthcare, open banking and climate-change action, to name a few. “These are exciting times and there are so many diverse opportunities which require transferable skills from other industries, functions and geographies,” Cuthbert adds.

According to CJBS’s last employment report for 2021, 97 percent students made at least one shift of job, industry or location — and 42 percent achieved all three. For example, one student with an arts background  worked at a noteworthy auctioneer for a few years. As part of the MBA, she worked with a quantum-computing company on a team project. This tweaked her curiosity and subsequently led her to work with a tech start-up focusing on NFTs (non-fungible tokens).

Create a clear goal and a transition plan

The versatility of an MBA allows students to explore various career options. Once you have settled on a path, you should create a well-defined transition plan, according to Alan Kwa, an MBA career advisor at National University of Singapore (NUS) Business School. “By identifying their desired industry, function, or role, students can align their coursework, extracurricular activities, and networking efforts to support their career transition,” he says.

Further, he says MBA students should seek guidance. “Engage actively with student clubs and take part in recruitment talks and networking events. Build meaningful connections with classmates, alumni, and industry professionals. Networking provides valuable insights, opportunities, and potential mentors who can guide you in your career transition,” Kwa adds.

But Christy Murray, associate dean and managing director of career services at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business, says MBA students should stay open-minded. “Be prepared to adjust your goals and pivot multiple times during the program. You may discover another career path that is better suited to your strengths and skills, and you will likely grow in ways you would never have anticipated.”

Your business school should be on hand to help you in the transition to a new career, including through engagement with students, faculty staff, and alumni. “Each week you should make it a goal to meet and connect with at least one new person,” Murray says. “Ask them when their career took an unexpected pivot or how they successfully navigated transitioning into a new industry. Very few career pathways are strictly linear and the more stories you hear, the more you will be able to shape your own narrative.”

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