Why It’s So Hard to Switch Careers
“Boy, did I make a mistake.”
Sound familiar? Many college graduates voice those doubts after a year on the job. If you’re teaching 6th graders, you’re weary from the parents blaming you. If you’re slaving at an investment bank, you wonder if there’s life beyond the almighty dollar. If you’re pitching software, you dream of sitting on the other side of the desk. It’s natural. You gravitated towards a major with visions of big paychecks or making a difference. Eventually, it hits you: Change is slow. The system is rigged. And you’ll rarely get a shot to flash your real talents.
So where do you go? Business school, baby! After a few years in the trenches, you’ve probably found your passion. Chances are, you convinced an adcom that you had a vision to go along with it. After earning an MBA, you’d think employers would laud you for following through and investing in yourself. Companies should be chasing after you, with an MBA symbolizing your brainpower and dependability. According to a new study, that’s not necessarily the case.
This week, the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) released a working paper called “Exploration for Human Capital: Evidence from the MBA Labor Market.” Authored by Kenan-Flagler’s Camelia Kuhnen and Stanford’s Paul Oyer, the paper finds that employers consider some MBAs far from a sure bet when hiring. Since many employers value past performance and expertise in hiring selections, MBAs transitioning to a new career are deemed to be hiring risks.
According to Quartz, which conducted an analysis of the study, “employers explicitly look for certainty about productivity and fit in their new hires.” To put it another way, the more experience someone has in an industry or function, the higher the certainty an employer has (and vice versa). In the research of Kuhnen and Oyer, companies were nearly twice as likely to hire the candidate who remained in an industry than the one who’s transitioning into it.
Let’s put it another way. Using odds – where a 1 would mean an employer has no preference one way or another – experienced MBAs were 1.83 times more likely to get the job than less experienced MBAs (i.e. career switchers).
Kuhnen and Oyer also break the data down by high-prestige and low-prestige firms. At the latter, career-switching MBAs are regarded as an even bigger risk, with those firms 2.58 times more likely to make an offer to an ‘experienced’ MBA (compared to 1.57 at a prestigious firm).
The reason? Quartz cites that more prestigious firms have “a steady stream of applicants.” In other words, they have the scale and budget to more easily replace hiring mistakes. More prestigious firms – which often serve more diversified clients – may also require a broader range of industry experience and skill sets. As a result, they are more apt to take a flier on someone with limited industry experience.
Conversely, low-prestige firms are generally more focused on survival, where training and development are luxuries. As a result, experience is premium to them. They simply cannot absorb the cost and risk of hiring a potentially weak performer who may need to be replaced.
That’s particularly evident with internships. At low-prestige firms, high certainty interns are 3.57 times more likely to receive an offer than low certainty candidates. That number drops to 1.74 at high prestige employers.
Every hire comes with some uncertainty. But MBAs are often six-figure hires. While they may own successful track records in other industries, that prowess may not translate to new markets, practices, and expectations. And some companies simply cannot afford to stand back while these hires find their way. So here’s the lesson: If you’re an MBA who lacks industry experience and referrals, you might be better off targeting larger and more prestigious firms.
DON’T MISS: 10 THINGS I WISH I’D KNOWN ABOUT GETTING AN MBA
These days, you’d be hard pressed to find someone who stays with one company or even one industry throughout his or her entire professional life. If you’re looking for the fast track to gain the skills and network to launch your career in a new direction, a popular way to do so is through an MBA program. In fact, by some estimates, two-thirds or more of graduating MBAs use the degree as a means of switching careers.
While students often set their sights on a job in finance or consulting, the skills typically strengthened during business school—leadership, intellectual creativity, analysis and critical thinking, cross-cultural awareness, communication, even greater IT mastery—will serve you well as you find your way toward your ultimate career goal.
So-called career switchers look upon the degree as a way to expand international job opportunities, develop the right connections for future employment, and establish the potential for long-term income and financial stability. I personally went to business school because I wanted to transition from finance to marketing. While I did achieve this, I also found that the MBA experience in and of itself opened up my mind to an array of new possibilities. I ended up in a career with a marketing focus, but it unfolded in a way I never would have considered pre-MBA.
Since application season is in full swing, I have a few words of advice for those applying to an MBA program now or in the near future. Business school demands a huge investment of your time, energy and finances, so make an airtight case to the admissions committee for why you want to go into this new field. Show that you know what the industry requires, the challenges you expect to face, and convey all previous experiences that demonstrate you have the transferable skills to make this switch.
One former SBC client, Sheila, worked as a real estate attorney focused on commercial transactions when she decided that she found working with the financial details more interesting than the legal intricacies. She passed the first level of the Certified Financial Analyst exam, but had a very limited understanding of other areas of business management. Though the CFA program is a tremendous resource, she had enough experience to know that she needed to develop the skills best provided by earning an MBA. Going to business school became the next logical step toward Sheila’s objective of working in real estate banking at a Wall Street firm.
If your undergraduate degree or work experience falls into the non-traditional category, make sure you clearly convey your long-term career goals within your application and essays, and explain in detail how you arrived at the conclusion that an MBA would help you further your professional aspirations. Know that the elite business schools welcome applicants from the humanities, but, unlike their business major peers, these candidates will need to prove to the admissions committee that their relatively minimal academic experience in quantitative subjects won’t be a hindrance once they hit those core courses.
Your GMAT or GRE score is the first and most obvious piece of the puzzle that indicates your ability to handle MBA-level course work, so allow yourself plenty of time to study for the exam. According to the Graduate Management Admission Council, which administers the GMAT, the average amount of study needed to achieve a score between 600 and 690 is 92 hours, and getting above that brass ring score of 700 is 102 hours. If you find your score has settled at the lower end of the spectrum, find other ways to demonstrate your quantitative competence, such as taking a college-level calculus class with a score of a B-plus or better.
Once you’re in b-school, opportunities abound to try out that new industry through coursework, student groups, internships, or networking with alumni. Self-reflection and exploration are key components of the MBA experience, giving students a chance to sample various fields and functions without making any firm commitments.
Embarking on a new career path with a freshly-minted MBA tucked under your arm isn’t just about new knowledge acquired in the classroom. It’s about leveraging your existing experience with enhanced skills, and even more so, it’s about making the most of personal relationships. All of the people, classes, activities, etc. in an MBA program catapult you into a whole new sphere, and you may come out with completely new ideas which help facilitate career change in ways you would not have thought of before. For me, this is the best part and the real opportunity business school provides.
The article originally appeared as a guest post for our partners at MBA Insight.
This entry was posted in Application Tips and tagged career change, career switcher, MBA application advice, MBA Insight, non-traditional applicants, test scores, why an MBA.
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