Yes, you can change careers after getting an executive MBA—it just won’t be easy

BY Sydney LakeAugust 31, 2021, 2:00 AM
A Seminole Hard Rock Casino department manager (R) conducts an interview with a potential employee during a job fair at the Seminole Hard Rock Casino, as seen in May 2021. (Photo by Octavio Jones—Getty Images)

Business school students undoubtedly have high aspirations—whether it be reaching the C-suite or starting their own company. Just as you’ll have several different options for earning an MBA, there are also a variety of career outcomes after earning your business degree.

The average executive MBA student is about 38 years old with 14 years of work experience, eight of which are in management, according to research by the Executive MBA Council (EMBAC). By comparison, a traditional MBA student usually falls in the 24-to-30-year age range and has just a few years of work experience. 

Right off the bat, there’s a clear distinction between EMBA and MBA candidate demographics. There’s also a chasm in reasons for pursuing either program. Traditional MBA candidates typically enter a program with a goal to earn a promotion or salary increase—or change their career altogether.

EMBA candidates, on the other hand, choose to continue their education for other reasons and are less likely to pursue the degree to make a complete career switch, experts agree. “I wouldn’t say it’s the reason that people go back, but it certainly opens up opportunities for them,” says Michael Desiderio, executive director of EMBAC. While an EMBA can increase the odds that a candidate will be able to change careers, “you’ve got to put in the work to make that happen,” he adds.

In other words, it’s not likely that EMBA candidates intend to make a complete 180-degree switch. Rather, throughout the EMBA program, they’re looking to deepen their knowledge of different industries and functions—which could result in a 45-degree or 90-degree career change, says Joe Stephens, the senior assistant dean and director of the working professionals and executive MBA programs at the University of Texas–Austin (McCombs). By Stephens’ definition, that’s when a candidate makes either an industry or job function change after graduation.

“When we see career switchers, they’re not quite that hard switch like you might see in a full-time program,” he says. “They’re more of a soft switch, where it’s either industry or function.”

EMBA students aren’t necessarily looking for a new postgrad gig

About 90% of EMBA students are fully employed during their program, Desiderio says, whereas full-time MBA students leave the workforce for about two years to complete their degree. This leaves traditional MBA candidates with the task of finding a new job postgrad, while EMBA students typically remain with their current organization. Plus, many EMBA students also get financial support from their employer to attend a program.

“More than half of our [EMBA] students come in comfortable with who they’re working for and the kind of industry and even functional area they’re in,” says Jamie Breen, assistant dean of MBA programs at the University of California at Berkeley’s Haas School of Business. “They just want to deepen their knowledge. They want to move up into more senior leadership ranks, and this is helpful for them.”

Another 30% to 40% of Berkeley Haas EMBA students come to the program with the thought of starting their own business or making a switch—whether it’s an industry (i.e., moving from health care to tech) or job function switch (i.e., moving from marketing to finance). 

“We do tell students switching from one industry to another or one function to another requires some thought and attention, but it’s doable,” Breen adds. Doing what the program refers to as the “double switch”—switching industry and function—”can be really hard.”

Throughout the course of the 20-month program, Haas EMBA students may change their mind about a career switch, but still only about a third will change industry or function after graduation, Breen says.

What EMBA candidates want out of a program

EMBA candidates choose to go back to school to develop leadership skills, increase their income potential, and familiarize themselves with a more diverse or global business environment, according to EMBAC.

Executives who come to UT Austin are, on average, continuing their education to progress within their organization, Stephens says. They’re recognized as being high-potential and know that their company, in most cases, is supportive of their growth. Company leadership likely has a plan for the candidate as they progress through the program, he says.

“They’re already high achievers,” Stephens says of EMBA candidates. “It’s not necessarily that they have anything to prove, but they are very interested in continual growth.”

…but what if I do want to switch careers?

If you are looking to change either your industry or function post-graduation, then the program can equip you for that type of change. If you’re looking to do both, Breen says that Haas tends to counsel students, however, to make changes sequentially and think about which change is more important to them.

Plus, most experienced hiring—which would include EMBA candidates—is more often done on a “just-in-time” basis, as opposed to planned hiring common to traditional, full-time MBA programs. Recruitment processes at traditional full-time MBA programs vary greatly from how an EMBA candidate might job hunt during or after the program. Because EMBA candidates tend to have many more years of work experience, they’re not so attractive to companies looking to make entry-level hires directly from MBA programs.

EMBA candidates are “not who companies come to campus to recruit,” Desiderio says. “They want to be able to shape you.”

Instead of traditional on-campus recruitment efforts, EMBA programs offer more individualized career management services and executive coaching to prepare candidates for the job hunt postgrad. Haas has started providing more career management content about career management in the six months after graduation from the EMBA program. 

“It is a bespoke job search for each individual,” Breen says.

See how the schools you’re considering landed in Fortune’s rankings of the best executive, full-time, and online MBA programs.