How Online MBA Graduates Forge New Career Paths

Defying traditional trajectories, online MBA programs now empower students to pivot industries

Working professionals looking to shift their career trajectory have a new option: an online MBA program from a business school.

Traditionally, pursuing an online MBA has been seen as a means to climb the corporate ladder within one’s existing industry or field. However, a shift is underway, as a growing number of online MBA graduates are leveraging their degrees to embark on entirely new career trajectories, thereby broadening the appeal and impact of these programs.

“Many students use their online MBA as a chance to pivot their career direction to another industry or function and employment outcomes measure the progression they achieve,” says Ceri Willmott, director of career consulting and professional development at Imperial College Business School, in London. 

At Imperial in recent years, 76 percent of the online MBA graduates changed roles during or shortly after their program; 21 percent changed sectors; and there was a 20 percent average salary increase.

This comes alongside a significant surge in the popularity of online MBA programs –  fueled by technological advancements, changing attitudes towards online learning, and the demand for flexible education.

Changing motivations and aspirations

At the same time, there’s been a diversification of students’ motivations and aspirations. While in the past, working professionals primarily pursued online MBAs to advance within their current job, function, or industry, today’s students are seizing the opportunity to pivot into an entirely new area – whether transitioning from finance to healthcare, engineering to marketing, or any other combination of fields. 

Warwick Business School, in the UK, asked students in its Global Online MBA to complete a survey last year about their career aims at the start of their program. In 2023, 31 percent of students wanted to move upwards and 43 percent wanted to change industry, company, and role.

To support this shift, Warwick provides all its online MBA students with unlimited careers consultations, which are one-on-one meetings with coaches to explore potential career options, and formulate plans to achieve objectives. 

It’s a similar story at Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business, in the USA. 

“Many choose an online MBA program to gain exposure to new vocations and to learn what different career opportunities can be considered,” says Rebecca Cook, executive director of Kelley Career Services. 

In both academic and extracurricular settings, online MBA students at Kelley have the chance to learn about various industries, disciplines, and leadership skills through studying alongside peers with diverse professional interests and accomplishments, she explains. To facilitate this, Kelley incorporates collaborative experiences into its curriculum, such as “experiential” course formats where online MBA students collaborate in teams to tackle challenging projects effectively.

Supporting career shifts

Around the world, business schools are beefing up the support they offer to online MBA students. Previously, career guidance was more heavily weighted towards full-time MBA candidates, given that more of them have traditionally been pursuing the degree to change jobs. But the career outcomes between full-time and online MBA students are converging, prompting schools to improve access to career services. 

“The reasons for pursuing an online MBA range from wanting to move up in their current company, to exploring opportunities in a different company or even a different sector. And some of them are thinking about starting their own business,” says Yolanda Habets, head of MBA programs at Vlerick Business School, in Belgium. 

When it comes to switching careers, she says the capabilities that online MBA employers are looking for are strong communication skills, flexibility, resilience and the ability to adapt quickly. 

“Technical knowledge is high on the wish-list, next to problem-solving skills,”  Habets says. “This is where graduates can really sell the online MBA format to their advantage, as they have to manage working with digital tools and master digital platforms. At the same time, online MBA graduates have built solid virtual teamwork skills and project management skills from day one.” 

Maximizing opportunities

Her advice is that online MBA participants looking for other opportunities should maximize their participation in extracurricular activities organized by the careers teams, such as webinars and networking events. “Networking remains the key element to initiating a career move, so invest enough time to really connect and leverage this network,” she tells participants. 

The Tepper School of Business at Carnegie Mellon University in the USA also offers coaching to those online MBA students who are interested in a career change. 

Meg Lukus, the school’s director of online MBA programs, says: “Employers continue to expect very specific skills from online MBA graduates, such as strong communication, the ability to work well in teams, the ability to make data-driven decisions, and the ability to lead with emotional intelligence.” 

But it is evident that online MBA programs are no longer confined to serving as vehicles for career acceleration within a predetermined trajectory. Instead, they are now also seen as catalysts for professional reinvention. 

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