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5 Tips for Choosing an M.B.A. Concentration

Your business degree focus can shape your career, so use these tips to help you choose a path.

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We rely on search engines and social networks to guide us in many of life's decisions, from what smart phone to buy to where to get your brakes checked to which restaurant to hit for happy hour. But some decisions call for more than a Google search—and selecting an M.B.A. concentration might be one of them.

While choosing a degree focus is not required in all M.B.A. programs, focusing on finance versus marketing, for example, can shape the trajectory of your career, business school officials say.

[Find out which M.B.A. programs provide the best financial value.]

Combining your degree focus with internships and clubs in the same vein can bolster your résumé, says Mark Friedfeld, assistant director of the M.B.A. career management team at the University of California—Berkeley Haas School of Business.

Since choosing a specialty can be a point of anxiety, business school deans, students, and career advisers offer the following tips for selecting a degree focus:

1. Do your homework: Researching your dream company before you start your M.B.A. can help provide clarity and direction, says Kevin Lieberum, a first-year M.B.A. student at Washington University in St. Louis's Olin Business School.

Lieberum's goal is to work in the automotive industry, he says. Before starting at Olin, he sought out representatives from major car manufacturers at career fairs to discuss his interests and what role he could play within their companies. These conversations helped him decide on a finance concentration, he says.

And once you arrive on campus, take advantage of guest speakers and industry seminars, recommends Joe Fox, associate dean for the M.B.A. program at Olin.

"You really develop a greater appreciation for that general area, some of the specific companies that compete in that area, who the people are, why they got into that area, and what their career's been like," he says.

Listening to speakers talk about their work experience also helps students understand the issues facing the industry, and what day-to-day life can be like in a certain role, Fox says.

2. Look to the past: The majority of business school students have some prior work experience, business school officials say. Analyzing what you liked—and disliked—about your pre-M.B.A. employment can help students hone in on a concentration, says Friedfeld of the Haas School of Business.

Points of pride in previous jobs can often shine a light onto what roles will give you satisfaction in the future, he says.

[Learn which business schools have the highest job placement.]

"A student said, 'I'm really, really proud that all the junior members of my team were up for promotions earlier than the average time.' That can be a light-bulb moment," Friedfeld says. "Obviously, you want to be in a role where development is a big part of your job."

3. Be bold: Students unsure of their direction often hesitate to explore opportunities and pathways, says Fox from Olin Business School.

"They say, 'Oh, I'm not sure what I want to do yet; I can't network with anyone,'" he says. "Well, by not networking with anyone, you almost guarantee you're not going to get the insight that you need."

Instead of shying away from opportunities, students should be aggressive and proactively seek out recruiters, faculty members, and other university resources at their disposal, Fox adds.

4. Embrace change: Nothing is set in stone, Fox notes.

Internships are a great way to test the waters in a new role or industry. If it isn't a good fit, students can still change course without losing much ground, he says. "They work in this field for a summer and say, 'Oh no, that's not for me,'" Fox says. "They still have a full year to redirect themselves."

[Read about on-demand career coaching for M.B.A. students.]

It's even OK to change directions after graduation, says Lieberum, an Olin M.B.A. student.

"Focusing on one thing doesn't mean you're locked into that for the rest of your life," Lieberum says. "There is room to grow both within a concentration, and laterally into other functions as your experience, knowledge, and interests grow."