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An M.B.A. May Be Your Ticket to Change

A business degree can add sophistication and flexibility to a job seeker's toolkit.

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As a ballerina, Courtney Necessary performed grand jetes—great leaps—almost daily for seven years. But she knew she would need help making the huge jump from the Atlanta Ballet to a new career in healthcare consulting. "What I want is such a drastic change, I know I couldn't do it without an M.B.A.," she says.

So Necessary, 27, enrolled in Vanderbilt University's Owen Graduate School of Management in Nashville, which she chose for its interdisciplinary approach to business and healthcare. She graduates in May.

Necessary isn't the only b-school enrollee counting on the degree to be a ticket to a second act. A 2011 survey conducted by Veritas Prep, a provider of GMAT prep services (and author of a U.S. News blog, Medical School Admissions Doctor), found that 70 percent of M.B.A. applicants are aiming to change careers.

Meanwhile, the podcast "Using an M.B.A. to Switch Careers" is the third most downloaded one of 147 on the six-year-old website MBApodcaster.com, a guide to getting into business school. (No. 1 covers classes to take before applying, and No. 2 offers GMAT test-taking tips.)

[Learn more about a midcareer return to school.]

The number of M.B.A. candidates trying to make a switch hasn't grown in the recession, interviews with career center staffers suggest. But they observe that it does seem that more of them are successful. Ironically, that shift may be as much about what preceded the M.B.A. as about the degree itself.

"Over the past three years, many hiring decisions are based on how the person hired can help the company immediately," says Jeff Rice, the executive director of Ohio State University's Fisher College of Business career center. Recruiters are offering jobs "first and foremost to candidates who had proven pre-M.B.A. work experience," he says.

The business degree adds sophistication and flexibility to a job seeker's toolkit, of course. "It's not just basic business skills," says Mark Howorth, who heads global recruiting for Bain & Co. in Los Angeles. You get two years of "cutting-edge thinking in terms of finance, marketing, and strategy and capital markets."

The advantage, not surprisingly, goes to people whose experience is in the field in question. "We look for the best, and the best have both an M.B.A. and industry experience. It's that simple," says Steven Canale, manager of global recruiting for GE Corporate.

[See the part-time M.B.A. program rankings.]

Industry experience can include internships secured during school, but even so, switchers like Necessary contemplating a 180-degree move may have to execute the turn in stages. Business schools encourage students to think in terms of changing geography, industry, or role. "Even in a good economy, it's hard to change all three elements," says Char Bennington, director of career management in the career services office at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business.

A willingness to compromise can advance you toward your goal, if not get you all the way there. When the recession claimed Laura Israel's job as a landscape architect in Southern Pines, N.C., she decided to pursue her dream: design consulting for a company.

She learned that most companies wanted an M.B.A., so she headed to the University of North Carolina's Kenan-Flagler Business School. Even so, "design consulting is such a hard industry to get into that [it] would be a stroke of luck just to have a real interview," says Israel, 28, who graduates in May.

In the meantime, she's going to take her design background into a marketing job—"also a great fit for my passions and skills"—where she can add the exposure to business that she thinks she'll need to potentially get into consulting. She'll be making nearly three times what she made at the landscape architecture gig working at Darden Restaurants, the parent company of Olive Garden and Red Lobster.

[Get tips and advice from b-school admissions officials.]

Experts caution that opting to go for an M.B.A. should be a return-on-investment decision, not one based on net present value. In other words, focus on whether the move will get you where you want to go in the long run.