Rich Berens had only one thing on his mind after graduating from college: to be the next Pete Sampras. A three-time all-American tennis player in college, Berens believed his game was good enough to play professionally. Yet he gave it up three years after going pro. "You get to the point when you realize, 'I'm not going to be a top-20 tennis player,'" he says. "It's one of those breaking points."
Berens turned his attention to the world of stock markets and financial spreadsheets. To make this switch, he decided to get an M.B.A. So he headed to the University of Michigan, where he got his M.B.A. in 1997. Berens now works for Root Learning, Inc., a Toledo, Ohio-based strategic planning firm whose clients include about 80 Fortune 500 companies. Berens knows his career change wouldn't have been possible without going back to school. "The M.B.A. was critical and was really my post-tennis success."
Berens is part of a major trend in the workforce. Each year, millions of people in this country switch occupations, and according to a 1995 Gallup survey, 47 percent of Americans said that they would choose another line of work if they were given the chance to start over. Peter Veruki, executive director of admissions and career planning at Rice University's Jones School of Business, points out that this is a fairly recent phenomenon. "Twenty-five or thirty years ago, people didn't make career changes," he says. "You pretty much stayed in the same place."
But now, it seems, everyone's a job switcher. And for those who want to jump into the business world from another profession, an M.B.A. degree is almost a must. "An M.B.A. is a license to switch careers," explains Michael Ronen, who worked as an attorney in Israel before attending NYU's Stern School of Business and who now works for a top-notch New York investment-banking firm. "If you're doing it without an M.B.A., I think you have a harder time."
According to Carol Swanberg, the director of admissions and financial aid at the University of Chicago's Graduate School of Business, there are a variety of reasons why people choose to get M.B.A.s. Perhaps they're seeking the skills they didn't obtain as undergraduates; or they've become bored or disillusioned with their current jobs; or -- as was the case with Alyse Forcellina -- they've hit a ceiling at work.
From Capitol Hill to Consulting
As a twentysomething woman in the old-boy's network of Washington politics, Forcellina was making a name for herself, particularly in health care. She helped draft important health care legislation in 1992 as an aide to former Democratic Senator Harris Wofford of Pennsylvania. She also worked to kick off Hillary Clinton's far-reaching (but doomed) health-care task force. She even dabbled on Bill Clinton's 1992 presidential campaign in Little Rock.
But Forcellina, then a 24-year-old Yale grad with a degree in American Studies, noticed that she had hit a ceiling in Wofford's office after being passed over for a promotion. "I looked around me and saw that everyone had a degree from Harvard Law School or [Princeton's] Woodrow Wilson School," she says. "I knew I wanted to do a public policy degree."
So, in the fall of 1993, she headed south to Texas, to get a masters in public policy at the University of Texas's Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs. But she didn't stop there; she also enrolled in UT's Graduate School of Business to get a dual degree. Forcellina says that one of her shortcomings in the health care arena was her lack of knowledge about the business world and its impact on the health care industry. "I was a bit frustrated in not being able to understand the issues as I should have," she explained. "I didn't really know what the stock market was."
As it turns out, Forcellina fell in love with business, and after graduating in 1996, she signed on with Deloitte & Touche in Chicago to work as a consultant. Now she works as a senior associate at True North Partners, a hybrid hedge fund and consulting firm that focuses exclusively on the health care industry. She's particularly happy that her current job combines her two interests: health care and business. "Going back to school was the best decision I have ever made." Forcellina even says she wouldn't mind returning to politics, especially since she now has an excellent grasp of how business and the health care industry interact.
Trading Chimps for Classrooms
Then there is Leah Buhl. Six years ago, working on a Ph.D. in anthropology at the University of Texas, Buhl was studying wild chimpanzees in the Ugandan rain forest. But after receiving her master's degree, Buhl left the program. To complete her Ph.D. dissertation, she would have had to spend another 18 months in Africa, and she didn't want to put her personal life on hold for that long. "I didn't love it enough to make it my whole life," she says.
Buhl moved to Philadelphia and went to work for the city's chamber of commerce. She liked it so much that she decided to make a career of business. And she knew what she had to do next: "I never took a business course at all as an undergraduate. I needed to go back and get an MBA." Buhl finished her first year at the Wharton School of Business, and interned at Comcast Corp. in Philadelphia this past summer. She's loving every minute of it: "I really enjoy the interaction with people and the challenges you have on a daily basis."
Washington to Wall Street
Consider John Curtis, who last year was a lobbyist at a giant trade association in Washington, D.C. Curtis was once advised that, when judging the long-term prospects of working in a particular profession, you should examine what the people 10 or 15 years ahead of you are doing. When he applied that test to his lobbying job, he realized that he didn't find his supervisors' work too appealing. "I didn't see a lot of things that would keep my interest for 10 years." Curtis enrolled at the University of Chicago's Graduate School of Business, and recently completed a summer internship on Wall Street at the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce.
All career changes aren't as radical as these. Marian Gibbon, for instance, was working as a Washington, D.C.-based consultant for Ernst & Young. Yet after a few years, she felt she was lacking something. "I wasn't holding any skills that I could walk into a room and say, 'I'm an expert in this or that.'" So she headed off to Wharton.
After graduating in '97, Gibbon worked in investment banking at Merrill Lynch in New York. But about a year ago, she decided to play the dot-com roulette wheel. She moved to San Francisco to work for Violet.com (an online boutique that recently went out of business) where she directed the firm's business plan and raised the necessary capital. But after 10 months at Violet, she knew that she wanted to go back to investment banking. A couple of months ago, she moved to New York to work for Bank of America. "I missed banking," she said. "I love corporate finance, and I love looking at corporate balance sheets and growth strategies."
Of course, enrolling in an M.B.A. program isn't a guarantee for success when switching careers. But the job changers interviewed for this story offer some helpful tips for making a winning career transition. According to Forcellina, it's a must to use graduate business school as a means to make the contacts that will later benefit you in the business world. After all, she says, getting an M.B.A. is about "the people you meet and the networking." Some of the best career-switching advice you're likely to get will come from other students who have made similar moves.
Forcellina also says that many who are making radical career changes -- like hers from Capitol Hill to the business world -- often have little of the business experience that future employers are looking for. So while she was at the University of Texas, she sought out b-school courses that offered part-time work at some Austin-based companies. That allowed her to pad her resumé with some more relevant skills. "I was able to get some more experience," she said.
Berens stresses how important it is to choose a line of work in the business world that stimulates you. Many of his fellow M.B.A. grads, he says, chose a job because it paid them the most money; some of these people have since quit these jobs. "They really didn't understand what drives them and what makes them tick."
A Different Kind of Switch
According to Mordy Wiseman, getting an M.B.A. isn't the only way to switch careers and become a better businessman. He has another idea: joining the Israeli Army. Wiseman emigrated from Israel to the United States when he was 16 and, consequently, he was able to skip the mandatory military service for all 18-year-old Israeli citizens. He attended Cornell University as an undergraduate, and then received an MBA from Cornell in 1997. Since then, he's been working in Silicon Valley for Quantum Corp., a computer hard-drive company.
But now, regretting that he missed out on his military service, Wiseman will leave his job in the fall and enlist in the Israeli Army. After completing his tour of duty, he plans to reenter the business world to work in international business. Wiseman says his enlistment isn't a calculated move to advance his business career, though he believes that his military experience will further develop his leadership skills to make him even more successful in the business world. "I think the experience will round me," he says. "Leadership is something that life teaches."