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

Last week’s column covered the topic of how to analyze whether attending business school as a means to switch careers makes sense (and how to decide whether doing so is right for you). For those who do decide to embark on a new career path as MBA candidates, the next step can often feel a bit hurried.

Often, students in the first few weeks of business school make a snap judgment about what internships to pursue, and by extension what career path they are committed to. Corporate presentations, coffee chats, and other employer events loom large on the recruiting calendar, and students, doing the best they can with the information at hand, frequently switch gears directly into a combination of personal makeover, early interview prep, and professional networking required to position themselves well for the internship job search.

Diving into the process of “selling oneself” for a new position too quickly can be a handicap, however, because the process of creating that dynamic shift in one’s life is less about the things that a student does to re-shape him or herself (it’s less about creating that new elevator pitch, though that will need to be done well in due time), and more about one’s ability to learn and absorb the big picture as well as the minutiae of a new career domain.

It’s a point worth repeating: switching careers and getting the right job in a new industry is less about creating a narrative that supports and rationalizes your career-switch than it is about your understanding and absorption, on a deep level, of the ins and outs of your anticipated new career track.

This is important because, given the great number of evaluative interactions and formal interviews that exist as part of the MBA recruiting process, merely having a good pitch and a description of how your skills and past experiences in one professional sphere will translate to a new one begins to wear thin eventually. At some point, the candidate and interviewer will need to speak to one another as peers in the industry who are sharing insights on marketplace trends, recent events, the competitive landscape, etc.

Hence, preparing to career-switch, after deciding that it’s the right thing to do, requires becoming a scholar of one’s intended new industry and function. (Applying the concepts taught in an MBA competitive strategy course to one’s chosen field is a good way to approach the topic.) By the time you are preparing for interviews, you should know the history of the leading organizations in your field, their current leadership and cultural quirks, recent M&A activity, R&D pipeline (if applicable), organizational structure, product and/or service lines, operation in different countries, supply chain, retail strategy, and a slew of additional information that you’ll have less, not more, time to learn about as you get past applications and closer to interviews.

To give an example, one of the students I worked with at Wharton planned to switch from a career as a writer and editor in online media to a career doing business development for a big tech company. His method for acquiring the expertise he needed to be able to “talk shop” in interviews with tech managers was to start and build a successful blog (both prior to and during his time as an MBA) about new trends in technology, an experience that both taught him what he needed to know and also functioned to highlight his insights and perspectives to interviewers who, in a couple of instances, had read his work online before meeting him at Wharton. He made a transition from being one of the least likely candidates for firms normally seeking MBAs with engineering, computer science, or other technology backgrounds, to being one of the star candidates in a highly competitive field (yes, he got the job he was seeking).

Lest starting an industry blog in order to prepare for a career-switch sounds like overkill, consider how hard it was to get into business school and then consider how low the “admit rates” (job offers) are among MBAs pursuing the most competitive positions. If career-switching is in your future, recognize that the next step, after deciding to career-switch, is to become an expert in that new field. However you accomplish this task, the end result will make it much easier for you to translate the work you’ve done in the past to the work you’ll be doing in the future.

Please tune in for next week’s post, in which we’ll examine a model for how to frame and present your candidacy (whether you are a career-switcher or not) to MBA recruiters.

BIO and contact info:

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.