Vault's Careers Blog

Career advice and job search strategies for the modern careerist

MBA Specialization vs. General Business Skills: Should You Specialize in Sustainability?

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Recently, Vault’s own Aman Singh asked a really interesting question: “does CSR require generic business skills or an MBA in sustainability?” In other words, is it worth specializing in sustainability as an MBA or are you more likely to get a job in CSR if you really have those managerial skills down pat? Her answer revolved around another question (and so the endless questions begin!), “Well, what do you mean by ‘require’?”

Should you get an MBA in sustainability in business school?

The oddity [in the data] is that sustainability solutions like energy efficiency, LEED and HVAC require specialized knowledge and highly technical skill sets. Executives, however, seem to be placing a premium on more generic business skills such as increased knowledge and awareness of sustainability efforts, the ability to think systemically, the ability to understand complex legislation around sustainability, and financial analytic skills.

Basically, even though you need a very specific skill set in order to do good CSR work, companies esteem generic business skills instead. This contradiction led me to a whole slew of questions, with which I promptly started pestered my colleagues.

First, I went to Aman herself, to figure out what this means for MBA students who hope to find jobs in CSR. She explained it to me from the company’s perspective:

The reality of the current market is that an MBA is good for generic management skills, not specialization, when it comes to sustainability and CSR…. Companies say they don’t necessarily need someone who has done two years in-depth study on CSR guidelines and regulations. They have more value for someone who has managerial skills–someone who can lead departments and work sustainability into their role as an accountant, an analyst, etc. And unfortunately this is where the paradox remains: They like sustainability on the graduates’ resume, but they don’t want it to be the main focus. Even employers who started out looking for candidates with sustainability concentrations aren’t really looking for that as much. They want to talk about it and ensure corporate responsibility, but they don’t expect this dialogue from job candidates.

So, what if you still want to specialize in sustainability? How can you avoid getting pigeon-holed and weakening your job prospects?

Well, I think it depends on how you brand yourself. You can have the specialization, but you can also make sure your resume talks about more generic management skills and say, consulting or financing skills, depending on where you want to go with your MBA. The graduates I spoke to really emphasize all their CSR work on their resumes–they have a blog where they talk about CSR; they’re active on Twitter; they’re volunteering and doing some nonprofit work as well; their internship was focused on sustainability–so in the end, their resume is really a full page of sustainability credentials. And if the company does not want you to focus on that, it could work against you.

Last, but not least, I was curious about her predictions of the future. Do you think, I asked, that as the market rebounds, more of those pure CSR jobs will start to emerge, or do you think that people are going to get accustomed to this integration of CSR with other general business skills?

I think it’s going to be the latter. They’re going to say, “Come in as an analyst and do your job responsibly and remain ethical within the company’s values.” A lot of companies don’t even have CSR-focused departments; they understand that corporate responsibility is a cultural thing and not just the responsibility of one department, but they’re not quite sure how to make that happen.

Craft your resume around your MBA specialization to get the most 

job offersThen, I started in on Carolyn C. Wise, to get a better idea of whether or not it was worthwhile to specialize at all.

When it comes to specializing, it’s very much about what you’re going to do with it afterwards. You hire someone with an MBA rather than someone who got, for instance, an MA in Environmental Studies because you want those general management skills. You want someone who has taken finance classes, who is going to be really good as a manager, an accountant, a brand manager. But if you want them in a sustainability role or to create a sustainability strategic plan, you’ll want the sustainability skills as well.

The other thing I always say when it comes to MBA specializations is that you don’t want to close yourself off. One of the fears is that if you specialize in sports management or marketing or any of the other specialties offered by your business school, that you won’t be able to get other jobs. If you’re totally set on one type of job, then absolutely specialize–particularly if you worked in that industry before. For instance, if you worked in the business development department for an NBA team and your plan is to return to that team after you complete your MBA, then specializing in sports management makes a lot of sense for you. But if you are a career-changer, and you don’t know precisely where you want to go, specializations can sometimes hurt rather than help.

As it turns out, the institution from which you receive your MBA makes also makes a huge difference when it comes time to decide whether or not you want to specialize.

Job prospects and employment opportunities after your MBA very much depend on prestige. If you go to Harvard Business School, you have much more flexibility in the area in which you focus most of your electives. This applies for Columbia, Booth, Wharton, Tuck, Hass, all the top schools. If you’re going to a smaller or less prestigious or regional MBA program, then what electives you take, what grades you get, and how applicable the skills you learned in a specialization are will have much more impact after you graduate.

And finally, a bit of advice:

If you’re considering specializing and you’re a first-year student, you should definitely check out the professional and student clubs associated with that specialization. Talk to those MBA students, particularly the second-years, about what they studied, how they’re applying it, what jobs they’re looking at, and what the recruiting process is like for them. You should check out all the professional clubs of all of the specializations that you’re considering, because that will really give you a sense of what it means to specialize in that arena, and what the experience is going to be like when you’re looking for a job.

–Written by Madison Priest, Admit One</em

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One Response

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  1. Going into the MBA field is a great way to make good money and only spend 4 years in college.

    Careers today

    September 20, 2010 at 12:57 pm


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