Career Changers Consider a B-School Injection

Take one or two years off to earn an M.B.A., and changing professions may not be too difficult.

In a tough economy, it’s harder than ever for professionals to switch to new career fields. But take one or two years off to earn an M.B.A., and changing professions may not be too difficult.

That’s what recent B-school graduates who made dramatic changes in their careers after they got their degrees tell us. You don’t even have to know what you want to do when you enroll, says Chris Watkins, an Iowa high-school teacher who became a bank lending executive after completing an M.B.A.: “I was your typical kid graduating. I didn’t have a master plan coming out of B-school, but I like what I do now, even though I fell into it by accident.”

It’s easiest, of course, to change careers when the economy is hot. Two graduates we interviewed landed their new roles during boom times. It will be harder now to switch professions because of the limp economy, says Mel Penn, president of the M.B.A. Career Services Council, a professional group, and an executive at the University of Oklahoma.

Choosing a narrow field or location to work in are other key reasons why some B-school graduates don’t succeed in making a switch, says Mr. Penn. Not securing internships or making needed contact in a new field are others, says Janie Thomas, M.B.A. director of placement at the University of Kentucky.

Mr. Penn estimates that typically only between 5 percent and 10 percent of new M.B.A.s at most have trouble changing careers for those reasons. “It’s not degree-related,” he says. “Changing careers is a valid reason for going to B-school, but if the employment outlook in every industry is poor, you aren’t going to be able to cross into any industry.”

Expanding Career Options

While school officials don’t know the exact percentage, most say between half and three-fourths of their students enroll in M.B.A. programs to switch careers. The Graduate Management Admission Council in McLean, Virginia, which polls B-school graduates nationwide, doesn’t ask them if they have changed careers. But for the past three years, about three-fourths have said getting the degree has expanded their career options because they can now seek jobs in different industries or organizations. This year, about 60 percent said the M.B.A. increased their career options by allowing them to make a career transition.

“We tell them that wanting to get an M.B.A. to change careers is the right decision,” says Jim Gray III, associate dean of marketing and communications at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business in Durham, North Carolina. “We call them career switchers and more, not less, are wanting to do that.” He notes that most career changers enroll in the Fuqua School’s full-time day program, not its part-time evening or weekend classes.

At Iowa State University’s College of Business in Ames, about half of graduate business students want to make a career change of some type, says Mark Peterson, director of graduate career services. “They come back to retool to put a new spin on their careers or move in a different direction,” he says. And at Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management, the “vast majority” ends up changing careers or industries after earning M.B.A.s, says a spokeswoman.

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