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.

Of course, as a career-change tactic, this one isn’t cheap. Tuition, room, and board ranges from about $20,000 for two years at a lesser-known business school to about $100,000 at a highly ranked one. The rate of payback depends on the salary you earned when you enrolled versus what you earn after the degree.

For those who aren’t sure what career path to follow, getting an M.B.A. can help you solidify your choice. We asked a former teacher, customer-service representative, and nonprofit employee how getting an M.B.A. helped them to move in new career directions. Reviewing their accounts may help you decide if B-school is a good option for you.

Melissa Lyons

After getting an undergraduate degree in 1989 in environmental science at the University of California-Irvine, Melissa Lyons “dabbled in all kinds of things” for a decade, from counseling foreign students to retail sales. While working as a branch sales manager in Michigan for Enterprise Rent-a-Car Co., she realized she wanted a different role in business. “I knew I didn’t want to have to depend on a commission, and I wanted more involvement in company decisions,” says Lyons.

She visited professors at the University of Arkansas’ Sam M. Walton College of Business in Fayetteville, near her parents’ home, to discuss getting a master’s degree in finance. “I told them about my personality and what I liked,” says the 35-year-old. “They said an M.B.A. would be better for me and convinced me to try it.”

Lyons enrolled in the college’s one-year M.B.A. program in 1999 at age 32. To offset her tuition, she worked three hours a day helping to administer the school’s entrepreneurial program. In 2000, she graduated with an M.B.A. in finance and marketing. By then, she knew she wanted a job that involved financial analysis and marketing. A professor suggested she investigate marketing roles at consumer products companies. She found plenty of them in nearby Bentonville, which is home to Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and a hotbed for companies seeking a bigger share of business with the world’s largest retailer.

Lyons landed a position as category-products analyst with Whitehall Robbins, a pharmaceuticals maker, and a year later switched to a similar job at Del Laboratories Inc., which sells three cosmetics lines and nail-care products. Now 35, she’s been promoted twice and is a category development manager. She makes upward of $80,000 annually, almost $60,000 more a year than in her car-rental-agency job.

Lyons becomes emotional when describing her gratitude for her professors and what the degree gave her. “I wanted to get to the point where I made more money and felt successful at what I did. Three years ago, I never thought I would own a house. I’ve been promoted twice in this job and I just bought my second house. The M.B.A. gave me an overall view of how business should be run and how women function in that world. The professors made it easy for me. It was one of the most inspiring experiences I ever had.”

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