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Starting the New Year with Plans to Career-Switch (Part 1 of 2)

The start of a new year often offers time for reflection, as well as a chance to make new resolutions, set new goals, and aspire to make changes, both great and small, in one’s life. For rising MBAs – roughly 2/3 of them, by most counts – that means setting one’s sight on switching career paths in some tangible way, rather than merely seeking to accelerate one’s promotion track or “trading up” employers within the same field or function.

This New Year, whether that desire to switch careers is expressed in admissions essays, or more covertly planned for, the timing may be right. “More MBA Grads Are Switching Careers as Job Market Improves,” declared BusinessWeek last April, noting that “the fact that companies are once again willing to take on management-level hires with relevant – though not direct – industry experience is a strong indicator of an improving MBA job market.” The trend is also not lost on business schools, many of whom address the topic via FAQs such as UNC Kenan-Flagler’s Top Questions to Ask Your MBA Admissions Rep About Career Switching.

So, how do you switch careers, and what criteria should you use to assess whether career-switching is right for you? The answer to the first question requires its own post – hence, look for next week’s “part 2” segment – but the second question is no less important and deserves close attention now.

If you’re thinking of entering a new industry or a new function, and of finding a new employer in the process, try using this simple framework and step-by-step process …

First, control for whether your desire to switch careers stems primarily from present-day frustration with respect to your existing role. Can the problem be solved by joining a new organization, switching work teams or supervisor, transferring to a different office / city, or finding a new functional niche within the same industry? If yes, then maybe you are on the right career path and merely need to ‘job sculpt’ and change some, but not all, parameters of your professional life.

… If so, business school can offer a great opportunity to realize this sort of change, and may also provide you with a way to stay on a steady, rising curve in terms of compensation and level of responsibility, rather than face the prospect of “starting over” again in a new line of work.

Second, think about your abilities within the context of your current and prospective industry or function. Will what made you successful in the past carry forward into the future and your new career? Or, is there latent, untapped skill and ability that might flourish in a newfound career track?

While most post-MBA career paths are open to just about any student with the motivation and will to break into the field, some transitions are harder than others. If you’re lacking in quant skills and a math-orientation in your prior academic or professional life, then becoming a hedge fund analyst may not be impossible … but it’s guaranteed to be a lot more onerous for you than for someone who has spent his/her former life swimming in numbers. (Think in terms of who has the greatest personal comparative advantage, in a business school context in which everyone is smart and high-achieving, for a chosen line of work.)

Picking a career transition that is at odds with your prior schooling, work, and personal proclivities may seem super-cool and daring, but for most MBAs, it’s almost surely a recipe for feeling cognitively deficient as well as underappreciated. The journey to achieving that sort of career-switching goal will necessarily require more sweat, toil, and suffering for a student who lacks the natural aptitude (plus practical experience) than for an MBA who has the underlying abilities for the career-switch and for whom it’s a natural fit.

Third, if you are considering a career switch, think about your true interests. I don’t mean your interest in being recognized and rewarded for your labors in a chosen field, nor whether prospective employers in that field are interested in you, nor whether a career path in that field is viable for you from a skills and abilities perspective, but rather, whether, given a bunch of free time and nothing else to do, you would find yourself naturally drawn to the topic and attracted to the day-to-day experiences in a certain industry or function.

Because MBAs tend to have so many diverse skills and abilities, the second category described above (one’s abilities) is often a weaker filter than this third question of level of interest and of ‘likes and dislikes’, which seem to be more deeply ingrained. Yet what is true of trying to career-switch into a field for which one lacks skills and abilities is also true, in a different way, for career-switching into a field that one is not truly interested in.

Again, the process of making the career transition proves more onerous, time and energy-consuming, and prone to mishaps when the new career track one pursues doesn’t truly capture one’s attention (not to mention that you will likely be miserable in the long-run, if you succeed). One common pitfall is for MBAs to pursue their roommates’, rather than their own, dream job (transference by association), or to decide to pursue that career path that they happen to sound most convincing in describing their desire to pursue (convincing other people being a key, helpful ingredient in misguiding oneself).

So, what is the best way to discern a true interest, whether in oneself or in other people? A good method is to note which news events, articles, television programs attract your interest the most, or to make note of those business school classes in the course guide that simply jump off the page as ones that would be incredibly fun (rather than merely useful or strategically prudent to take)? Another is to listen to the words that you yourself or that others use to relate how they feel about their work; is it merely that one’s job is “important” or “pays well”, or is approved of by society, or does the person use words and phrases like “love” and “can’t wait” and “feel excited about” to describe work-related projects, tasks, goals, and interactions? … The latter are an indicator of true interest.

Last, to discern your true interests, make sure to vet opinions from people outside of the business school context, including your friends, family, and even former colleagues who knew you before you decided to become an MBA. Their opinions might offer a good antidote to some of the ‘herd effects’ one can encounter in business school, whether those herd effects are “pro-” or “anti-” traditional MBA paths.

So, as you await admissions decisions and/or approach the start of business school itself, and before you dive headlong into the “how” of switching careers, take a moment to self-audit your experiences to date, and be sure to cancel out feelings and sentiments that are transitory, focus on skills and abilities that give you a meaningful comparative advantage, and be sure to dedicate your efforts into breaking into a line of work that matches your true interests. Then, tune in next week for more on how to get the job done …

Ivan Kerbel  – bio:

Ivan Kerbel is the CEO of Practice LLC, an educational services firm that conducts an intensive, annual pre-orientation program for newly-admitted MBAs, The Practice MBA Summer Forum.

Ivan served previously as Director of the Career Development Office at The Yale School of Management and as a Sr. Associate Director at Wharton’s MBA Career Management office. He is a Wharton MBA alumnus and a former management consultant at Katzenbach Partners, a New York City strategy consulting boutique. Ivan can be reached via LinkedIn.