When MBAs attempt a career triple jump

(Poets&Quants) — The triple jump is the most difficult thing an MBA student can pull off. For many, it might well be the hardest challenge they’ll tackle over a lifetime. Just a select few attempt it — and even fewer succeed. It is the ultimate act of reinvention.

Instead of leveraging the MBA to make one or even two career changes — such as securing a promotion or moving from a small financial services firm to Morgan Stanley (MS) — triple jumpers shake up three variables all at once: country, job function, and industry — and they do all of this in a highly compressed timeframe.

At first blush, it may not sound like a particularly bold move, but imagine switching from product marketing for a semiconductor firm in India to strategy consulting for a hospital in Canada. For triple jumpers, the traditional hurdles of academics, networking, and job hunting are compounded by language, visa, and cultural barriers. Post-graduation, they must compete against students with more years of in-country and industry experience.

Few B-schools encourage the practice. Applicants candid enough to tell admissions that they want to change countries, disciplines, and industries all at once are likely to be rejected by many schools. Triple jumpers are simply too risky: The odds are not exactly in their favor, even when using a summer internship to ease these unusual career moves. As schools know too well, unsuccessful graduates usually turn into unsatisfied alumni. Few business schools want to graduate jobless, disenchanted students who could ultimately hurt their rankings.

A rare exception is the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management. It supports students bold, or simply crazy, enough to face the daunting odds of making a triple transition. Rotman’s location in a country with a pro-immigration policy makes it a more accommodating environment. But it’s still a risky proposition, with few guarantees. “It is a difficult thing to do, but it’s not impossible,” says Leigh Gauthier, Rotman’s director of careers for full-time MBAs. “I do believe that the MBA is a very good way for a young professional to start a new career. We want to support that, but we don’t paint a rosy picture that it’s going to be a cakewalk — that you can do it with no problem.”

Gauthier compares the MBA version of triple jumping to the Olympic one. “You take a pause from whatever you’re doing in your life, and you’re 100% focused on your studies and your career and your training,” she explains. “You’re doing everything you need to do to achieve your goal in a finite period…. It’s tough to do, but very inspiring to watch.”

Students’ experiences attest to the extreme difficulty of making major life changes on three planes at once. Here are the stories of a few successful Rotman triple jumpers:

Partha Dev

Country jump: India to Canada

Industry jump: Semiconductors to healthcare

Function jump: Product marketing to internal strategy

Partha Dev is an exception in a workforce plagued by discontent. “I’m doing what I love and what I’m good at, which is very rare,” says the 33-year-old. But it wasn’t easy. The former product marketing engineer and native of India says moving to Canada and making the leap from semiconductors to healthcare was the hardest thing he’s ever done.

For Dev, the single biggest challenge was convincing Canadian employers to take a chance on someone with limited experience in the country and in the healthcare industry. “My personal opinion is now the interviews are not about selecting a candidate. It’s about rejecting a candidate, because they really want to find the best, and they are always looking for a reason to reject you,” he says. Dev spent roughly a year applying for jobs.

During his search, he filled out some 70 job applications through Rotman, more than 100 external applications, and endured 40 often-grueling interviews. He estimates he was among the last 15 students in his graduating class to land a job, which he found several months after earning his MBA degree in June 2013.

Dev credits his MBA internship with healthcare IT firm Agfa for his current job as an internal consultant for Baycrest Hospital and Health Services. “When I went for the interviews, it was definitely a huge plus point because everyone knew of Agfa…. If I hadn’t done the internship, it would have been impossible to have made the switch; it showed my passion for the industry, and a lot of the interview questions focused on the projects I worked on for Agfa.”

It’s a testament to Dev’s determination that he didn’t give up under the intense financial pressures on MBAs to secure jobs immediately after graduation — that pressure is often more intense for international students, he says. Fortunately, Dev was able to sidestep India’s exorbitant interest rates, which range from 14% to 15%, by saving for his MBA before coming to Rotman. However, he still graduated with about C$47,000 in loans from the Royal Bank of Canada. Dev watched some of his peers settle for jobs to pay the bills. “A lot of students come for the dream job, but then it becomes the reverse. They have to take a loan to get an education to get a great job, and then they take whatever they can to repay the loan,” he says.

Although Dev says he wouldn’t want to relive the triple jump, he’s very glad he did it. “Getting what you really want or being close to what you really wanted is what makes a $100,000 MBA worth it. Otherwise, why pay all the money to do the same thing which I was doing before the MBA?”

Melita Cyril

Country jump: Sri Lanka to Canada

Industry jump: Finance to consulting

Function jump: Trading to consulting strategy

For Melita Cyril, 26, the challenge of triple jumping wasn’t moving to Canada, or even trying on a new job title. Rather, it was breaking into the extremely competitive consulting industry.

Born in Sri Lanka, Cyril completed her undergraduate degree at the London School of Economics (LSE) and joined Lehman Brothers after graduating in 2007. She then spent three years as an interest rate swaps trader at Credit Suisse (CS) in London. But when her then-boyfriend, now husband, accepted a job in Canada, she jumped at the chance to “start fresh” and start a career as a consultant.

After unsuccessfully applying for a few jobs in Canada, Cyril decided to get an MBA at Rotman. “I was new. I didn’t know anyone. I didn’t have a network, and I thought this would be a great way for me to get to know more people and build my network in a new country,” she says. Rotman’s two-year program allowed for a summer internship, so she could dip her toes in consulting without making a commitment to the full dive.

Cyril landed an internship with management consulting firm A.T. Kearney. The experience confirmed her new career choice. But breaking in wasn’t an easy victory. Out of some 263 students in her class, Cyril estimates that at least half were interested in consulting initially. Roughly 60 students would apply for one or two consulting spots at each of the big firms. “It’s highly, highly competitive,” she says. “Some students do have a consulting background, and they want to basically switch to a different or bigger firm, which means if you don’t have that background and you have something completely different, it is definitely more challenging.” Cyril thought about turning back several times and prepared herself for careers outside of consulting. “I did have options B and C to go with option A,” she says. “Sometimes it becomes a numbers game, and you’re just unlucky.”

After graduating in May 2013, she accepted an associate consultant offer from A.T. Kearney. Looking back, Cyril has her own recommendations for MBA triple jumpers: “We, in general, have to work harder because there is a lot more to prove,” she says. “So make sure you have a very good story and that it all adds up, so you can really sell yourself and sell someone on why you want to make this big jump.”

Alex Yeo

Country jump: Singapore to Canada

Industry jump: Retail to consulting

Function jump: Operations to management consulting

When Alex Yeo, 36, entered Rotman, he had a clear goal: to do what was best for his husband and their infant son. He was less clear on how to get there. He had several options — he could return to McDonald’s (MCD) China where he’d been the vice president of restaurant solutions, move to another company within the retail industry, or make a leap to management consulting.

Conversations with alumni and industry professionals along with a summer internship in consulting helped him make up his mind. “I could always go back to retail and retail operations and strategy if I wanted to, whereas going to consulting opened up more post-MBA options for me,” he points out.

Yeo visited Rotman’s career center and attended interview and resume prep sessions hosted by the school’s Management Consulting Association to get up to speed. He compares the process of making the three-way switch to training for a triathlon as a causal athlete. “It’s not like you don’t have the skills. You have the base skills, but it’s a different order of competition,” he says.

For Yeo, the gambit worked. After graduation in May 2014, he’ll join McKinsey & Co. as a management consultant in Toronto. “That choice for me was definitely a lot of hard work, but because it’s the right choice, it made the hard work worth it,” he says.

His advice for MBAs attempting a triple jump? “Be clear about what you want in terms of is this really the right fit for you. Be clear about the obstacles and gaps you might need to overcome,” he says. “It’s really a journey…. You don’t have to make all of that jump after your MBA; your MBA gets you there, but it’s really the first step.”

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