Will the MBA help me switch careers? And how to answer the ‘Why now’ question?

Will the MBA help me switch careers? And how to answer the ‘Why now’ question?

Before I present an answer, allow me to elaborate on this question, and what ‘switching careers’ really means. Ask any B-School’s career center, and they will proudly say that over 70% of their students are career changers. Given the diverse backgrounds that students come from, and the kinds of roles that are posted at B-Schools these days, it may be a little difficult to bring complete transparency and objectivity to what a career change really is. At most schools, a career change is considered as a function OR industry shift.  This, in practicality, is very achievable, but is this really a career change?

A career change, arguably, is when you want to do something else because you don’t like what you are doing now! Given that you only have experience in what you don’t like doing, you find yourself in a vicious circle.  Not liking your current situation is only natural, but it does not mean that you have to radially change your situation to find your true calling. Career centers at most schools will also advice you against radical changes.

The MBA, in itself, is not a specialization – it is a program designed for specialists, and hence the experience requirement in the application.  At most top schools, the average experience is around 5 years, and there is a reason for this.  With the ‘why now’ question, Schools want to gauge whether you have acquired some level of functional or industry depth.  At this stage if you want to change careers, it is more difficult for the School to launch your career because the MBA will not provide you depth – it will only provide you breadth.  Hence, it is necessary to look at your post MBA job as an evolution to your background. Rather than a career change, look for career growth.

The top 200 to 300 jobs posted at the Indian School of Business, or for that matter, at any other top B-School, arguably, will not weigh past experience over brilliance – these are strategy, consulting and leadership rotational roles that will look at intellectual horsepower and problem solving ability over depth of knowledge.  The companies that hire for these roles will look at your CGPA, brand quality of your undergraduate institution, and a competitive pre-MBA job as evidence of potential.  They will have multiple rounds of case based interviews to ensure that you can address problems quickly, with confidence, and with incomplete information.

For an engineer who has worked at a manufacturing unit, will a job at a top consulting firm be considered a career change? For an arts graduate, will a tech or digital role at a branding agency be a career change?  For a commerce graduate, will an operations leadership role at an ECom giant be considered a career change?

What about the rest of the jobs? Recruiters will, for the most part, shortlist candidates based on experience, and will consider either functional knowledge OR industry depth when evaluating your profile.  A Chartered Accountant working as an analyst in a bank could be selected for a finance role in an engineering conglomerate, or a sales professional working in a consumer electronics company could be selected for a category management role at a major retailer.  Are these career changes?

The term ‘career change’ is really irrelevant – what is relevant is whether an opportunity poses career growth.  Also relevant is whether the candidate is satisfied with the outcome of his or her final placement.  I don’t view most post-MBA jobs as career changes.  I view them as career growth opportunities, and for years I have observed that most students who crack these roles are satisfied with their outcomes.

To maximize opportunity, one should make use of the school’s ecosystem and strengths.  I do not recommend that students go off on a wild goose chase looking for that dream job. I have gone through enough data to conclude that your likelihood of getting a job through campus-facilitated sources (In India) is much higher than going off on your own.  Top recruiters get tens of thousands of applications per month, and your application, most often, will not even reach the hiring manager’s desk.

My advice to you is this – once you get into an MBA program, do everything to get into the best possible company as early as possible.  Obviously, this is not easier said than done!  However, at schools such as the ISB, you will be immersed in Career Services and L&D activities from the beginning – you will network not only with alumni, but also with recruiters who visit campus for various club activities.  You will form strong bonds with the Career Services staff. Career Services maintains personal relationships with the who’s who of the recruiting community, and have the ability to push your CV into the right hands when required. It is very important for you to network with such people who can get you your next break.  Social capital is a predictor of success, and I can say with a fair amount of ease that students who spend more time with the placements department find it easier to navigate their job search and interview processes.

At most schools (in India), placements are designed for the most sought after recruiters to visit earlier – the top companies will come earlier, and hence the best students will get placed earlier.  Try to get placed earlier, for this will be the only time in your life when you will have the upper negotiating hand with recruiters!

As far as you application is concerned, try to answer the ‘why now’ question by stating why the MBA will be a natural progression to your career, given your past background.  Bring flow to your short and long-term career goals, for the admissions committee is unimpressed by dots that are not connected, and will probably give you a hard time during the interview in case you are shortlisted for one.  If you want to be a product manager at that ECom giant and you don’t have relevant experience, at least show that you have done some work in technology.  Or try to provide evidence of interest.  If you want to work in banking, be prepared to answer finance questions during the interview if you don’t have relevant experience or education.  If you want to work in consulting, make sure you have an answer for why you will be a good fit.

So will the MBA help you accelerate your career?  For the most part, you can’t go wrong with it, especially from a top school.  The best schools will provide you an unparalleled ecosystem and access to a plethora of opportunities.  Having said that, times have changed – in comparison to the past, organizations now have different requirements, education systems have evolved, and for sure the new generation is much more aware.  I tend to believe that, in the future, a narrower focus will be of advantage to the aspiring professional.  If you haven’t acquired some level of industry or functional depth by the time you begin your MBA application, hang on just a bit.  Also consider a specialized Masters to put your career on the fast track!


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