Why The MBA Is The Right Choice For Career Switchers


It’s a well-known fact that a two-year, full-time MBA program is an ideal way to change one’s career. After earning an MBA, many students switch industries, disciplines and locations to start a new. A surprising number of MBA graduates, in fact, do the so-called “triple jump” and change all three aspects of their careers.

To explore why the MBA is the right choice for career switchers, Poets&Quants and the Kelley School of Business at Indiana University joined together to organize a trio of detailed discussions on how to leverage the MBA as a doorway to changing your career. The first of these sessions, featuring Kelley Dean Idie Kesner and MBA Program Chair Kyle Cattani, focuses on why an MBA at Kelley is a great vehicle to do a career switch. The second will explore how MBA students do it, and the third and final discussion delves into the who makes the switch and highlights alumni who have made dramatic career transitions.

Among the MBA students and graduates you’ll meet in the series is a former riding instructor who turned in her riding boots for high heels to work in consumer goods for General Electric. You’ll also meet a former fitness trainer who used his Kelley MBA to land a plum job at Microsoft. An edited transcript of the first conversation with Dean Kesner and Chair Cattani follows (you can also watch the event in the above video).


John A. Byrne: So many people come to business school not just to learn accounting, finance, strategy, and marketing, but they come to really change who they are and what they want to pursue. Why is the MBA the quintessential tool to change your career?

Dean Idie Kesner: I think the MBA is a great way to get an introduction generally to business. You get a chance to explore a variety of different functional areas, sometimes without the deep dive that you would necessarily get in an MS program, a customized or specialized MS program. And when you’re changing your career, you need that breadth of perspective. You need that cross-functional disciplinary perspective in order to be successful in whatever executive career that follows. So I think that it’s particularly well suited for that. And of course, I naturally think the Kelley School is indeed very well suited for helping students make that transition, but the general nature of the coverage that an MBA provides is really a good starting place.

Byrne: The other interesting thing is that transforming one’s career is pretty much a uniquely American phenomenon. In many parts of the world, who you become at an early age is who you end up as. The MBA is an opportunity for someone who is in their mid-to-late twenties, even in many cases in their thirties, who are able to completely make a detour and do a successful career change. The acceptance of the degree to do even dramatic career switches is uniquely American on some level.

Kesner: If I might add, it’s also the way to take what you’ve learned before, what you might’ve been doing before, and take lessons from that and transition it into the next role. So it’s not as though you forget everything or all of the experiences that you’ve had, but you learn to contextualize those experiences. You learn to take them into the next role with a more rigorous and advanced approach. I think that is a unique feature of the US educational system.

Program Chair Kyle Cattani: It may be uniquely American, but there are a lot of international students who want to emulate the American pattern and join our program.

Byrne: That’s for sure. We’re going to meet a couple of them later today in our other panel discussions. So Kyle, you have some statistics on how many people actually come to Kelley and want to change their careers.

Cattani: Yes,  we have designed our program to be the MBA program of choice for career switchers. We did a recent survey of our current students and asked them the question, ‘Did you come to Kelley to change your careers?’ and over 90% of them said yes. It confirmed what we suspected. And it was interesting because we also asked them the job title for the job that they left and the job title of the job for which they were aspiring. Among the 10% who said they were not career switchers, most were still making significant changes. For example, there’s a veteran who was in supply chain management but was leaving the military for a civilian career also in supply chain management. It’s also the case that there were a number of our sponsored students who said they weren’t switching careers because obviously they’re not switching companies, but that they were looking to change positions within their companies. So is that a career switch? I don’t know, but certainly there’s a lot of interest in career switching.

Byrne: So even those who technically said they’re not career switchers are on some level changing something, including the military person who is basically making the transition to civilian life. Even though he’s leveraging skills that he learned in the military, I think the application of those skills in private enterprise would be dramatically different than they were in the military.

Cattani: Right, and he has to figure out how to find the position that is a good match for him as he changes, so that’s a big switch in itself.

Byrne: That gets us to a key point: What are the ingredients in the Kelley MBA that facilitate one’s ability to change their life?

Kesner: Maybe I could start and you can add with some examples of students who have done this. I think we have a series of support mechanisms in the Kelley MBA that almost create a personal board of directors, if you will. Not a professional group that you might think of as a board of directors, but someone to support you personally in that transition. So we begin with a program, I know you’re very familiar with Me, Inc. which begins even before classes start here and that’s all about creating a personal brand for you, asking yourself what are your skills and abilities, what are you good at, and most importantly, how do you sell yourself and how do you communicate your capabilities and your skill. But it is also identifying your weaknesses because if you understand your weaknesses, you can build the MBA curriculum to fill those gaps and that’s very important.

Me, Inc. also carries forward throughout your time here in the program, so you have many opportunities.We also have the academic advisors. Of course, most programs would have that. You’re immediately connected to a career advisor or career coach in this case. We have a series of peer tutors that help our students. We have a program called Academies here, which every student is a part of, and an Academy is a career pathing mechanism. You basically join a career path that you’re interested in. It’s a series of courses, networking events, experiential types of exercises, trips that you might take with your fellow members, projects that you work on together. And each Academy is led by a  director who’s specifically geared toward your career path. That director helps you as well and is a member of your personal board of directors.

Byrne: And we’re going to meet the director of the Marketing Academy a little bit later on. How many Academies do you have?

Cattani: We currently have six.

Kesner: There are actually some Academies in the second year that all students can participate in. That’s why I looked at Kyle for the exact number. We have a Leadership Academy that occurs in the second year. We have an Entrepreneurship Academy that occurs in the second year that students can join and add to their existing Academy experience. But we also have something called Academy PLUS, which is for students who are really interested in the life sciences industry, which is a very unique industry unto itself. You have to know the language, you have to make contacts, you have to understand the structure of the industry. So we have six traditional Academies, and then we have these other groupings we also call Academies that you can add to your MBA experience.

There’s also an alumni mentor that you get when you’re here. And so you’ll have this broad group of people who are circling you to help you make that transition, to help answer your questions, to help give you guidance, and to help you set the curriculum and the path that’s going to be important for you. There are not many programs that provide that kind of support, and there are not many other types of educational experiences like a full-time MBA that give you that kind of support, either. So I think that that’s what makes it different and that’s what makes a full-time MBA particularly valuable to career switchers.

The Entire MBA Career Switching Series

Why The MBA Is The Right Choice For Career Switchers

How To Make An MBA Career Switch Successful

What Success Looks Like For An MBA Career Changer

VIDEO: The Ultimate MBA Career Switches In New York

VIDEO: The Ultimate MBA Career Switches In San Francisco


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