How to Choose an MBA Career That Will Make You Happy

How to Choose an MBA Career That Will Make You Happy main image

Choosing an MBA career can be overwhelming. After all, the degree has become more versatile over the years, so there are a multitude of choices. Sometimes, people mistakenly believe banking and consulting are the only options – which aren’t the top industry for alumni at many schools. Nowadays, technology often comes ahead of more traditional MBA careers.

Liza Kirkpatrick, senior director of Career Management Center for Full-Time MBA Programs at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management says, “Excellence takes time and aspiring MBAs may not be as exposed to all the potential possibilities. The MBA is the best time to stretch to explore new interests and discover new areas of strength. It’s truly a transformative experience.”

Still, some MBA applicants and students need a road map to help them decide what they’d like to do with their career. QS recently asked career placement officials at top MBA programs to share their best advice:

Get to know yourself

First, you should use the time as an applicant to reflect on the type of MBA program and career you want to pursue.

Sheryle Dirks, associate dean for Career Management at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business says, “A lot of soul searching happens when you apply to business school, which you can use to really clarify your aspirations – not just for the MBA experience itself but for your career as well. It’s a great time to learn about the spectrum of jobs MBAs take and the industries where they go to work." 

Once aspiring MBAs understand all their options, they should schedule informational interviews with those in their chosen field, which also helps them cultivate professional relationships, she adds.

Talk to those in the know

In fact, Jeff McNish, assistant dean of Career Development at University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business, says informational interviews are the best way to explore career options.

“Reach out to an individual(s) who isn’t a friend or relative – perhaps the person is an alumnus of the school you’re attending or wish to attend,” he suggests. “Ask for 30 minutes of their time over a cup of coffee (that you pay for!) to learn about what skills they mastered to land that role and how they filled any gaps. Be sure to follow up in a timely manner with a thoughtful, hand-written thank you note or email.”

Make the most of informational interviews

MBA students at New York University’s Stern School of Business are encouraged to reach out to people in their networks. Stern directs students to use undergraduate alumni directories and LinkedIn to make connections with those in fields that interest them, says Beth Briggs, assistant dean of Career Services at Stern.

“When having those conversations, students should have a keen ear for aspects of the jobs that align with their own skills and preferences,” says Briggs. “Understanding what different industries and functions value in terms of experience and skills will help them target their job search and better position themselves when applying.”

Start early

Of course, the sooner you decide your career path, the better off you’ll be, she adds. At Stern, like at many business schools, students start career exploration before beginning their first semester.

“This initial engagement helps students define what their career goals are and helps them clearly articulate their skill sets,” says Briggs.

Continue to explore

Exploration and self-reflection doesn’t end once you start business school. In many ways, it’s only just the beginning.

“We recommend widening the aperture on your initial areas of interest, especially at the beginning,” says Kirkpatrick. “Sometimes knowing what you don’t like can be as powerful as what you do like. Additionally, developing discipline around getting and sharing feedback will allow you to own your professional development and is essential for charting the next step in your career.”

Be flexible about the long-term future

At Stanford Graduate School of Business, students are encouraged to know themselves well and take action accordingly. However, they should also recognize this isn’t their father’s MBA or career.

“Consider multiple options,” says Carly Janson, acting assistant dean and director of the Career Management Center at Stanford Graduate School of Business. “Today’s job market is about careers design. The vast majority of our alumni not only have multiple jobs but multiple careers. After all, it's hard to predict your long-term career journey in advance.”

Pay attention to industries for which the stars align

Figuring out what criteria must be met is necessary to analyzing the fit of a career.

Heather Byrne, managing director of the Career Development Office at University of Michigan’s Stephen M. Ross School of Business says, “People are successful in their jobs when they are passionate about the work, it’s a good fit for their inherent talents and strengths, and they are being challenged and have opportunities to learn.”

Byrne cites a number of ways MBA aspirants can choose the right path for them:

  • Take assessments to help you recognize strengths, weaknesses, and interests.
  • Talk to people, including career coaches, alumni, and peers to learn about their experiences.
  • Expose yourself to new experiences, so you can determine what you like and don’t like.

Most importantly, experts agree that aspirants and students alike mustn’t stress. This should be a pleasant experience trying on different hats and getting to know one’s self better. Managing expectations is a necessity.

“So often students put additional undue pressure on themselves to get the ‘perfect job,’” says Byrne. “No such thing exists right after your MBA program. It’s more important to get a job where you can utilize your skills, gain new skills, and position yourself for success.”

Francesca Di Meglio

Francesca Di Meglio has written about higher education for two decades. She covered business schools and all aspects of management education for what became Bloomberg Businessweek from May 2004 to December 2013. Di Meglio was the consultant editor for the book Admitted: An Interactive Workbook for Getting into a Top MBA Program (85 Broads Publishing, 2011), which was written by admissions consultant Betsy Massar. In addition, she is a family travel and parenting blogger at the Italian Mamma website

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