Categorized | Career

MBAs Open Doors To New Careers

Posted on 15 October 2009

Most professionals enroll in b-school to advance in their profession, but a good many also are seeking a change in careers.

Consider Pete Laviola, a risk analyst with GE Capital in Cincinnati. He’d been an engineer with a marine engineering firm in Arlington, Va., for eight years. His work, although interesting, became repetitive. “I’d do a cycle of ship programs and move on,” he says.

He enjoyed working on budgets and began to explore a possible career in financial services. He’d had engineer friends who transitioned to finance-related careers and knew it could be done. So he left to pursue his M.B.A. full time on a partial scholarship to Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y.

Ginny Rehberg, a career coach and television commentator in Boston, tells professionals eyeing the M.B.A. route to career change to “go inside yourself first.” She recommends probing the obvious but often ignored question: “What is it that I really want to do with this M.B.A.?”

But adding b-school credentials to your resume isn’t enough to make a successful change. You’ll need to choose the right M.B.A. program, build strong personal connections with others through networking, identify your transferable skills and demonstrate them to employers. Here’s how some newly minted M.B.A.s made their career transitions successfully.

The Program and Your Goals

Career changers find the type of M.B.A. program they attend plays an important role in their transition. Take Donna Fernandes, a former researcher and animal curator, who wanted to become a zoo director. She has a Ph.D. in animal behavior but she needed an M.B.A. to reach her goal. Men dominate zoo management, so she chose the Simmons Graduate School of Management in Boston, an all-women’s school. She wanted a program that would present academic excellence as well as give her skills to become a “strong female leader,” she says. She’s now combining her scientific background with the practical management skills of her M.B.A. as the president of the Buffalo Zoo in Buffalo, N.Y.

Then there’s Sarah Heckscher, a former consultant in business process re-engineering and strategy consulting, who wanted to create new products and services and market and develop them, a process not traditionally part of consulting. She chose the M.B.A. program at Kellogg Graduate School at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., for its focus on entrepreneurship. “One of the places you learn from is the student body,” she says. Through networking with her classmates, she became interested in Internet services. “I talked to lots and lots of people. I asked them questions about what they do during the day, who they interact with.”


Networking is a key job-search tool, especially for career changers, and b-school is a great place for it, says Ms. Rehberg.

“Business school is one large informational interview,” says Brett Huff, director of product management for, a Boston maker of software for Web-based billing, time and expense tracking.

The Kellogg M.B.A. and one-time Deloitte & Touche management consultant did his homework on prospective fields and employers in both the classroom and the halls. “You’re not really talking to strangers. You’re talking to classmates,” he says.

But the connection that secured his first position after graduation came through off-campus connections. Mr. Huff had kept in touch with a man he once met on a plane. When the man started, he tapped him to join the fledgling organization. In 1999, Mr. Huff was one of eight employees and is now one of 50.

Likewise, Ms. Heckscher landed her job through her off-campus networking. She was at a wedding in Minneapolis when she got a tip about a dot-com in the San Francisco Bay area, where she’d wanted to live.

She traveled to there several times at her own expense for interviews and informational meetings. During one trip, she connected with Epicentric Inc., a provider of next-generation portals, the dot-com she heard about at the wedding, and is now its director of business development/syndication and exchange services.

When networking, tap the connections you’ve made from college, former colleagues, family and friends. Some b-school grads even send out a broadcast “Do you know anyone who…?” e-mail. Ask the contacts you meet what they read and then hit the books, says Ms. Rehberg. You’ll need to learn the language of your prospective career. Traveling, schmoozing, reading and meeting people are all part of the networking needed to make a smooth career transition, she says.

“Collect business cards,” she says. “If you’re going to be in town a few days, see if it would be possible to meet. It will create urgency.”

Tips for Making the Transition

  • Identify Your Transferable Skills

Identify the skills and experience you’ve gained in your current field that are transferable to your new one. Ms. Fernandes was able to show that her scientific experience was a solid foundation for her Simmons M.B.A. For example, she knew at a zoo fund-raiser to locate a loud band away from animals, which might react adversely to the music, and thus averted a potentially costly mistake.

  • Connect Your Work and Education to the New Job

You can’t just insert your M.B.A. into your old resume and expect magic. To help you identify your most marketable skills, make a T on a sheet of paper. On one side, write eight to 10 skills that you’ll need in the job you’re after. On the other side, list the skills and experience you earned in your professional experience and education. Match up the two lists. Seeing these connections in writing should help in interviews, writing cover letters and resumes and talking to networking contacts. In interviews, help your prospective employers connect the dots.

Mr. Laviola looked at the skills he used as a mechanical engineer and applied them to the financial services arena and came up with many matches. In shipbuilding, he’d had to examine the implications of particular calculations and be analytical and precise – three things a financial services employer seeks. These links between his past and his future helped him make a smooth career change.

  • Don’t Look to Recruiters for Help in a Career Transition

Executive recruiters may not be able to help you make a career change. Headhunters usually place candidates within a particular industry. While some will place an executive outside of his or her field, it’s not the norm. If you’re yet unproved in a new career, your best bet is networking, on-campus recruiting and contacting companies directly. Headhunters aren’t career counselors.

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