An M.B.A. Who Stayed Home Asks How to Market Herself Now

Published: Mar 10, 2009

Topics: Job Search       

Question: I earned an M.B.A. in 2002 right after college and then stayed home to raise our two kids. My job experience includes entry-level collections for a credit-card company, part-time sales and tax preparation. I would like a position in financial sales, marketing or product development that will use my M.B.A. How do I job hunt with so little experience?

-- Catherine Kaleli, Columbus, Ohio

Catherine: M.B.A. career-center directors say they encounter a lot of alumni with your problem. Their scenarios may not be exactly the same, but usually "it's pretty darn close," says Lucinda Wright, director of the M.B.A. career-services center at Michigan State University's Eli Broad Graduate School of Management.

Look at your job search as though you were painting a room: The more advance preparation you do, the more likely things will turn out the way you want. You have the benefit of wanting to be a marketer. Instead of creating a marketing plan for a company or product, it's time to create one for yourself, including some convincing marketing materials.

I'd start by visiting the career-services office at your b-school and asking for assessment and other help. Most schools offer such assistance to alumni. If your school is too far away to visit, call to find out if the career center has reciprocal relationships with any schools in your area. Take full advantage of the professionals who are available to you.

One thing you'll need to do right away is think through your professional goals. Don't overlook personal issues. Have you analyzed your value system and what type of family-and-work balance is right for you? "You don't want to start something that doesn't fit your work-balance concerns," says Terri Wanger, assistant dean of the Daniels College of Business at the University of Denver.

You also need to determine what interests you most -- sales, marketing or product development. These are three distinctly different paths, so one resume may not fit all. If you think you'd be good in any of these areas and want to see what's available, Ms. Wright suggests creating a separate resume for each objective.

To prepare to write, identify the skills you've used in your most recent jobs that are valuable to the type of roles and employers you're seeking. Don't overlook your accomplishments as the household's chief caregiver and caretaker or assume those two years at home provide no transferable skills, says Ms. Wanger. "With the expectations of employers surrounding using new technology and all the new relationships we have to handle, the issue of multitasking is absolutely critical."

Many M.B.A.s don't test well for their ability to handle ambiguity, says Ms. Wanger, so here's your chance to shine. If you can articulate how you juggled two kids, the household finances, insurance reimbursements and other concerns in business terms, it's likely employers will perceive real worth. Also include other achievements earned as a homemaker, such as your committee work, fund-raisers and the like.

After analyzing your skills and accomplishments, you should be able to say why you're the best candidate and what you offer employers. In M.B.A. terms, these are your "competitive-advantage statement" and your "value proposition."

The career-services center can review your resume and help you to write it. Also circulate it to people you know in your chosen field and ask them for their opinion. "Smart people aren't always able to market themselves and require outside perspective," says Ms. Wright. "Many students undersell themselves and don't give themselves the credit they deserve."

If you aren't ready to commit to a full-time job, working part time is perfectly fine at this stage in your life. Consider signing up with a temporary-services agency. Some services cater to professionals who can work only during school hours. As you meet other employees, you can make networking connections and re-establish ties to professional groups.

Or, if you want full-time work, choose between two different methods of job hunting, or use a blend of both. One is passive, meaning you simply apply for available openings and wait to see who responds. The other is proactive: finding companies that can use your skills and offering yourself as a solution. You'll need to make calls to arrange informational interviews. "Here the challenge is getting a complete stranger to have coffee with you or meet you after work," says Ms. Wanger. "It's getting face time with that person."

If you believe in yourself and are ready to pay some dues, odds are good that you will succeed. But be realistic, say both career advisers. Be willing to go in at a low level, and don't expect to receive the hefty starting salaries of many newly minted M.B.A.s.

Years ago, when I re-entered the job market after being out to raise my children for two years, I took both a big cut in pay and a big step down the career ladder. Given the pressures on me to be the primary caregiver, it was one of the wisest choices I ever made. I needed to be in a lesser job to juggle all my responsibilities at home and please my boss. Looking back now, I don't regret that decision. My career still progressed and my hunch is that yours will, too.

Have a question about job hunting or career management? Send it to Perri Capell. If you don't want your name used in our column, please indicate that. Due to the volume of mail received, we regret that we cannot answer every question.