Non-traditional MBA Skills, a Hidden Asset

During my internship I had the opportunity to attend an all-employee meeting. The CEO spoke for about half an hour, then something unexpected happened. The Chief Scientific Officer stood up to explain something research related and I heard a familiar yet almost foreign language.

Barely anything scientific entered my ears in my one year of business school and during my time as a commercial MBA intern. This is the first time after business school that I truly felt my science background was actually an asset that I could leverage in the future.

The best-kept secret in business schools is how much your pre-MBA background matters in the recruiting process. I did not know this until I was through about half of my interviews for the summer internship. For example, if you were recruiting for a marketing internship, having functional experience in marketing gave you a real edge. 

I mean this all makes sense, but it was unclear to me in my first year. Most students probably just assume that if you got into a good MBA program, recruiters automatically assume you're going to be ready for the transition. This is not the case. In order to get a highly sought after internship in your functional area of choice, you need to demonstrate evidence that you have already begun to make the transition.

Again, as I have mentioned before, functional expertise is just the cost of entry to a good company. Leadership is what gets you further. As you move up in the organization, that's when your non-traditional skills really start to show their value. 

For example, let's say you were in marketing. Very early on, only the marketing skills matter. You better make sure to take a lot of marketing courses in the MBA and get a lot of experience in the function to even get in. But as you move on to a general management position, suddenly you're going to lead a team of sales people. If you had prior experience in sales, this non-traditional MBA asset suddenly becomes valuable. 

Many marketers actually come from sales because marketing and sales are closely connected. But most MBAs do not have sales experience. This is one reason why I am very adamant on getting myself some real sales experience (i.e. potentially carrying the bag). Understanding the customer is important for a company's success, regardless of industry.

Tech companies are another example. There has always been a fierce debate over whether managers need to have a coding background. Software engineers, who these managers lead, are sensitive to whether the manager actually has the ability to understand what it takes to make the product. Again, almost all MBAs do not have a coding background. If you had a background in coding, that will turn into a real advantage later on in your career.

My science background is definitely not as useful for marketing as sales or coding (for tech marketing). However, it opens me up for a variety of different leadership positions later on in the future. I won't be on the bench doing experiments, but I'm confident that the skills I gained at the NIH will allow me to vet technologies in a business development role.

I'm also certain that the scientific network I've built over the years and experience working at the NIH will allow me to recruit the best scientists if I were to consider a role in R&D strategy. Ultimately, at the very senior levels in an organization, having a very diverse set of experiences will open doors and allow for more leadership responsibilities. 

Steve Jobs said it best in his now infamous Stanford commencement speech, which I'm sure everyone has watched. You'll never know where your passions will take you, and when something you learned in the past will suddenly become useful. These things are never linear.

Many MBA students are non-traditional nowadays. That means that the student's pre-MBA industry wasn't corporate, consulting or banking. However, don't let your non-traditional background feel like something you have to cover-up.

I definitely felt pressured to hide my science background when I interviewed for commercial MBA positions. Instead, treat it as an asset. Figure out a way to create a value proposition for why having a non-traditional background will make you a better future leader. 


  1. As a fellow scientist trying to transition into business, I cannot agree more with you :)

  2. Great article.

    I think Indian organizations should learn something - all that matters in India is that one should be an engineer. With an engineering degree, anyone is allowed to switch roles and get a job in whatever field he or she wants. It is impossible to even get a decent job if someone has a degree in hard sciences or arts.