Some M.B.A. students beg to differ. In fact, the experiences of graduates with untraditional or non-business backgrounds show that the degree can help mid-career individuals parlay expertise in areas such as science or the military into business leadership. It also can help in the transition from the public to the private sector at any age.
Many M.B.A. programs have sought candidates from different backgrounds in recent years, especially as businesses look to hire a more diverse workforce. Schools have said that waiving their standardized-test requirements, including the GMAT exam, for this year removes a hurdle for untraditional students. Some top programs also have plans to diversify applicant pipelines.
In 2020, the percentage of two-year M.B.A. applicants with six or more years of work experience increased to 32% from 17% in 2019, according to the nonprofit Graduate Management Admission Council. The share of candidates with 10 or more years of experience rose to 19% from 7% a year ago.
Applications to M.B.A. programs, in general, soared this past year as students from a variety of backgrounds sought places to ride out the pandemic-induced recession. Students typically flock to business schools and other graduate programs during economic downturns to sit out a tough job market and gain credentials. M.B.A. program applications had fallen for five straight years because of a hot job market and high tuition costs.
In the past year, many business schools rolled out more-affordable online M.B.A. degree programs, which drew a more diverse pool of candidates, including some without business experience.
Michael Gallant, who is 33 years old, didn’t have an undergraduate degree before getting his M.B.A. At 18, the Israel native was drafted and then volunteered to serve for five years in the country’s special forces unit equivalent to the U.S. Navy Seals. When he got out, he founded a handful of startups that all fizzled, including a diving school and a company that made bicycles of recycled cardboard and plastic bottles, he said.
Mr. Gallant felt he needed an M.B.A. to advance in business and to leverage his military and entrepreneurial experience. He enrolled in a one-year M.B.A. program at Insead in France. He now lives in New York City and is a partner at EM8 Properties, which acquires and manages multi-family real estate in the Midwest, he said. He also began an M.B.A. admissions coaching service, which has a specialty in helping untraditional applicants like himself.
“The M.B.A. is not for everyone, but it can add tremendous value to your life,” he said. “It shifted my life.”
Even without business experience, those with deep knowledge in other fields can use an M.B.A. to make a career change. When Gregory Rummo, 65, of Lake Worth, Fla., was a chemist at the company Dynamit Nobel in the early 1980s, he wanted to leave the laboratory and become a manager. “I had no business knowledge whatsoever. I didn’t know what a balance sheet was,” he said.
Mr. Rummo enrolled in the evening M.B.A. program at Iona College in New Rochelle, N.Y., in 1980. The degree, coupled with his science background, helped him land a managerial position at Harrisons & Crosfield—a British firm now called Elementis—running its pharmaceutical division. He went on to become chief executive of New Chemic (US) Inc., where he worked for three decades until stepping down in 2017 to teach chemistry at Palm Beach Atlantic University in West Palm Beach, Fla. “If you have the passion, the patience and the money, it is never the wrong decision to go back to school and earn a degree,” Mr. Rummo said.
Not every scientist-turned-M.B.A. uses the degree to move into management. John Galvagni, 80, a retired scientist at AVX Corp., studied part time for an M.B.A. from Webster University in Myrtle Beach, S.C., and earned the degree in 1992. At the time, Mr. Galvagni was in his early 50s and wasn’t aiming to become a manager or increase his salary. He pursued the M.B.A. to learn more about AVX’s business side so he could better design products the firm could market to customers. “It doesn’t do any good to put a product to market until you understand the marketing requirements,” said Mr. Galvagni, who lives in Mulberry, Fla. “Even if one is not on the management track, an M.B.A. gives needed perspective.”
Some M.B.A.s don’t believe the ideal candidates are in their 20s or early 30s. Rick Heinick, 55, of Thousand Oaks, Calif., said business schools are wrong to target primarily younger students for M.B.A. programs if they don’t have much career perspective or managerial experience. “One of the key flaws of most M.B.A. programs is that they accept students too young,” he said. M.B.A. programs need to be based on actual management challenges students are facing, so they can learn from the experience, he said.
While working at the management consulting firm Schafer Consulting early in the 2000s, Mr. Heinick decided he needed a degree to become an executive. At 43, he began pursuing a Master’s in Management at McGill University’s Desautels Faculty of Management school in Montreal. He graduated in 2009 and went on to found the pharmaceutical company TearClear. He currently is on the board of six companies, including OnSight Medical and Lentechs.
Kima McCoy, a portfolio specialist at Invesco and a squadron commander for the Illinois National Guard, graduated in 2001 from the U.S. Air Force Academy, where she majored in political science. She was deployed three times to the Middle East before getting her M.B.A. Ms. McCoy said she felt the degree would give her a broad understanding of business that could help her change careers. She graduated from Cornell University’s Johnson Graduate School of Management’s full-time M.B.A. program in 2011.
Moving from the military to an M.B.A. program was difficult, she said, but her experience leading groups was good preparation. “It’s basic leadership in high-stress situations,” she said. “A lot of people stereotype people in the military as rigid and my impression in the military is you have to be ready to pivot at any moment.”