Career Choices: Why an MBA in Sustainability Does Not Lead to a Sustainability Career.

A debate is currently going on about career choices for MBA graduates with a major in sustainability.  Aman Singh Das, the Corporate Responsibility Editor for (@VaultCSR) is currently facilitating a conversation about career opportunities for MBAs that focused their major on sustainability.  In short, her research and interviews have led to very interesting articles that indicate a clash between the expectations of MBA students in terms of their first post-MBA career choices and what employers are offering in terms of career choices for MBA graduates upon graduation.

Indeed, MBAs majoring in sustainability  focus their career search on career choices in sustainability or corporate social responsibility (CSR).  Their hope is to secure a first post-MBA job that include sustainability-based projects for a bigger firm.  This hope largely is based on doing good while achieving the MBA level salaries they hear their peers get when pursuing traditional MBA careers at Fortune 500 companies.  In contrast, data including a recent Deloitte study cited by Das shows that employers are really hiring MBA graduates based on their business skills, and do not really emphasize the value add of the sustainability angle MBA graduates bring to the table.   So what can be done about this disconnect between MBA students' desires and employers' priorities in terms of MBA career choices?

First, let's acknowledge that this disconnect between majors offered at universities and career choices is not new.  Think about other degrees.  For example, think about a liberal arts degree with a major in philosophy.  Offering a liberal arts major in philosophy at a top university does not mean that specific employers will come to recruit more philosophers.  Instead, employers go the top liberal arts universities because they value the marketable skills that students develop as a result of their liberal arts coursework and their extra-curricular activities.  Employers hire students that have a strong liberal arts education with an interest in philosophy for jobs that are unlikely to include a philosophy component.

In a similar fashion, it's not because business schools are offering a sustainability major that employers will come to recruit more sustainability professionals.  Instead, as indicated by the Deloitte study cited by Das, employers will continue hiring MBAs from top business schools because they value the marketable skills that MBA students develop as a result of their core business coursework, and their extra-curricular activities.  Employers from Fortune 500 companies hire MBA students that have a strong business education with a major in sustainability for jobs that will not necessarily include a sustainability component.

In sum, educational offerings and recruiting practices are not always aligned.  This does not mean that MBAs in sustainability are not important. In the contrary, these degrees are key in developing the next generation of responsible professionals.  However, as it is always the case, it is up to the candidates to translate their coursework and work experience into winning statements that will convince the employer that they can do the job that the employer needs to get done.  Once hired in a traditional business, then one can include innovative approaches to get business done better (for examples from the trenches, see stories from Best Buy, eBay, and Sun Microsystems).  For MBA graduates looking for sustainability career choices beyond CSR with big companies, there are a number of exciting career choices for them at social enterprises and nonprofits.  These careers will come with opportunities (e.g. bigger social and environmental impact) and challenges (e.g. lower starting salaries).

The same way that the first job of a liberal arts graduate with a major in philosophy does not determine their whole career trajectory, the first job of MBA graduates with a major in sustainability does not determine their future career choices.

What do you think?  As always, I look forward to your comments and to continuing this discussion!

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