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Deidre Donaldson Meyer walked away from a sales job to earn her MBA at the University of Regina. She is now director of business development for SaskEnergy. (MARK TAYLOR FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL)
Deidre Donaldson Meyer walked away from a sales job to earn her MBA at the University of Regina. She is now director of business development for SaskEnergy. (MARK TAYLOR FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

Business Education

Too old to take on an MBA? Add to ...

In her early 40s and at the same job for 18 years, Deidre Donaldson Meyer did what is still considered a rarity for older career-oriented individuals – she went for her MBA.

Ms. Donaldson Meyer, now 46, said she had “a wonderful ride” with the now-bankrupt telecommunications giant Nortel. However, she wanted to expand her skill set beyond her sales position, so she enrolled in the MBA program at the University of Regina’s Faculty of Business Administration, was accepted at age 42 and graduated in June of 2011.

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Two months after graduation, Ms. Donaldson Meyer started her current position as the director of business development at SaskEnergy.

“I decided I wanted to go back to school just because I was interested, not because I thought it would change my future prospects for a career. I quit the job, took a couple of months off and started doing my MBA full time,” says Ms. Donaldson Meyer. The fact that Nortel was under creditor protection at the time had nothing to do with her decision.

“I’ve always loved learning and I always used to say if I’m independently wealthy, I’ll go back to school. I wasn’t independently wealthy, but I still went back to school. It was a gift for myself,” added the married mother of two teenagers, noting that her studies cost her $30,000.

Of the 23 students in her graduating class she wasn’t the oldest; some were even in their 50s. Even so, delving into the MBA world at 40-plus is far more the exception than the rule.

The average MBA student is around age 29 and looking to get a leg up in the business world. It’s more common for those age 40-plus to go for an executive MBA (EMBA), which is targeted at older, more experienced and career-established individuals.

Older MBA applicants such as Ms. Donaldson Meyer are a product of the idea that “40 is the new 30 in education,” with workers delaying retirement and making career changes later in life, says Ronald Camp, associate dean of graduate programs and research at the Regina school’s Faculty of Business Administration.

“If you’re moving from being a company’s manager to vice-president, for instance, you have to have an MBA to be taken seriously,” says Mr. Camp. “You have to say, ‘I don’t want to look like I’m just resting or coasting; I have to put that effort in to look like I’m hungry to move up.’”

The University of Regina has two MBA programs: one for early-career individuals and one for people who have been working a while and that is designed to be taken on a part-time basis.

One older student wanted to earn an MBA to move from a technical position at the IT firm where he had been many years to a supervisory or managerial job, Mr. Camp says. Ms. Donaldson Meyer says the MBA she earned, which has an international studies designation, was as beneficial for her as it would have been for anyone else in her class.

An MBA “allows you to think differently, but you get to draw upon all that great experience you’ve acquired over all those many years,” she says. “The high-level, strategic leadership principles put forward in the MBA program are the kinds of principles I incorporate in the work I and my team do every day.”

Ian Christie, director of graduate career programs at the University of British Columbia’s Sauder School of Business and a member of its admissions committee, says the school’s average MBA student is 29 years old. However, its oldest graduate was 55 and an entrepreneur in property dealings who took his MBA to get fresh ideas, expand his skill sets and become a role model for his staff.

Sauder’s MBA program has evolved from a traditional model of academic specializations to four cohorts that can attract any age of student: CSM (consulting and strategic management), PSM (product and service management), finance and business innovation, and internal and external innovation and entrepreneurship.

Older students are more likely to be aiming to get to the next level of their careers, Mr. Christie says, moving from vice-president of marketing to president of marketing, for instance. Younger students, in turn, tend to be trying to make their big mark in the business world.

However, he adds, “the later you get along in life, a career change gets harder and harder. A lot of the formal MBA recruitment that takes place out there is geared toward twentysomethings, because banks and many businesses are looking for longevity in their investment.

“For somebody looking for that traditional career change, who wants to abandon what they’ve been doing for the last 20 to 30 years and start fresh, that would have to be a goal that is carefully validated before you go into an [MBA] program. It may be more valuable if you’re looking to enhance [your skills] or take an MBA as a lever to get to the next level in your field or domain of expertise.”

Other issues that older MBA applicants may face include:

- Many can’t afford to leave their jobs to study full time, so they tend to complete the program on a part-time basis, earn their master’s degrees through online institutions or go for an EMBA, which is tailored to professionals with tight schedules.

- They’re more likely to be balancing obligations such as families and mortgage payments while working toward an MBA, compared to the typical twentysomething who enters the program with an average of about five years on the job after getting an undergraduate degree.

- They may feel out of step socially, culturally and even technologically with their younger classmates.

These potential obstacles can be overcome, Mr. Christie says.

“There’s an enormous amount of diversity in MBA programs in terms of age, geography, professional backgrounds … the common denominator is everybody is really smart and hungry to move on with their careers,” he says, adding: “It’s about throwing yourself into it, forgetting about your age [and any other factors] and just enjoying the program and dynamic people you’re learning with.”

Ms. Donaldson Meyer adds that although she was in a class of much younger students, “I appreciated their perspective, even though they’re in a different stage in their lives.”

Application tips

Older MBA applicants may face unique obstacles in trying to impress the admissions committees at business schools. Here’s some advice from career and admissions experts to help you make your case, in application essays and interviews:

- Articulate why now is the best time to go for your MBA, and what you will do with the program – both during and afterward.

- Demonstrate that you understand and “own” your employability. Be specific about how your career experience will support your goals after graduation.

- Demonstrate that you have a solid and realistic assessment of the market and where you fit, given your age, stage and professional background

- Try to demonstrate how you will fit in with a younger cohort and be a net contributor to the class. For example, if you have experience in many industries and roles, use specific examples to demonstrate what has and hasn’t worked in achieving success, and how your unique perspective can be valuable in working with other students.

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