Melissa Benik, 33, is working on a Master of Business Administration/Master of Science dual degree from Marymount University. (Jason Hornick/For Express)

When Melissa Benik decided to change careers from event planning to long-term health care, she knew she wanted more than a health-care degree. So Benik, 33, of Arlington, added on MBA aspirations in the form of a Master of Business Administration/Master of Science dual degree in Health Care Management at Marymount University.

Now halfway through her first semester, Benik, the executive director of the HR Leadership Awards of Greater Washington program, believes the added MBA will help health-care businesses take her seriously as she moves from event planning into a business-expertise/leadership role.

“I want to be marketable and maximize my ability to lead by being knowledgeable about how the business world impacts the health-care world,” says Benik, whose career change decision was inspired by helping her grandparents transition into long-term care, where she saw challenges and a need for strong leadership to make the aging process easier. “I want a diverse skill set that I can [use to] talk to all types of business and health-care leaders.”

She’s among a growing surge of professionals in fields other than business or finance who are turning to adult and continuing education programs to pursue an MBA while still working full time.

Though it’s not a new concept to see working professionals return for a degree later in their career, the economic downturn has made boosting personal marketability a more pressing priority. Having an MBA may not guarantee higher salaries or better jobs, but it gives employees a better chance at those things.

Continuing and adult-education programs typically hold classes in the evenings or on weekends — and many offer classes online that can be completed on the student’s schedule — to accommodate workers who have day jobs but want to move forward in their career. That flexible schedule allows most continuing-education students to graduate in anywhere from two to four and half years, depending on the program and course load. Continuing-education students are typically over age 30, have gained experience in the working world and now want to either make a career change, like Benik, or soar higher in their current line of work. Some employers may even underwrite or offset the cost of their employees’ tuition.

Workers who pursue an MBA hope to use business skills and leadership abilities to advance their careers and boost their earning potential. Up until a couple of decades ago, MBA-ers were mainly number-crunching, economics-driven students, according to Cristina Henley at Strayer University. Today’s MBA students hail from industries as diverse as entertainment, journalism and science.

Students with an MBA in hand have an edge over job seekers without one. With knowledge of another field — such as arts or medicine — they can apply business principles to the real world in new ways. These professionals in other fields — who don’t have an undergraduate business degree — have the most value to gain from an MBA, says Jim Ryerson, dean of Marymount’s School of Business Administration.

MBA skills typical across many programs include developing strategies and overseeing projects from start to finish. Students also learn decision-making skills — the ability to analyze a situation and make the best decision — as well as leadership and the ability to work with a diverse or global group. Such knowledge could apply to any field.

These skills even transfer well to not-for-profit fields, where some students seeking continuing education MBA degrees have established careers but want to polish their abilities, says Dee Clarkin, 56, of Silver Spring, the deputy chief of the public services division at the National Library of Medicine and an MBA student at the University of Maryland University College.

“Sometimes it’s hard for students to imagine how marketing strategy can apply to the Treasury Department, but it does,” says Anna Seferian, associate chairwoman of business and executive programs at University College, which has nearly 1,800 MBA students enrolled.

Universal skills learned from MBA training — leadership, marketing, teamwork and financial analysis — appeal in particular to professionals already in the workforce. And a continuing-education program — whether at a local D.C. area campus or online — makes going back to school much easier for professionals.

The MBA Boost

In the past decade or so, new and emerging groups — such as physicians — have begun enrolling in MBA programs in higher numbers, says Andrea Backman, dean of the Jack Welch Management Institute at Strayer University, where more than 500 students are enrolled in the two-and-a-half-year, $36,000 executive MBA program. These students are realizing that if they want to start their own practice, for instance, they need to know how to run a business, Backman says.

The trend has driven change at Marymount University, where some 80 percent of the MBA students work full time while earning their degree in two to three years. Around 2009, employees from Holy Cross Hospital who’d finished a 12-course graduate program in health-care management said they were ready to start an MBA — and wanted to know if any of those courses would count toward one.

“It made us pause and think,” Ryerson says. “People want that greater degree of understanding in the field they’re working in, but they’re also pairing that with a breadth of understanding from an MBA.”

So Marymount created $51,300 dual-degree programs in three leading fields in the D.C. area: MBA/Master of Science in Health Care Management, MBA/Master of Arts in Human Resource Management, and MBA/Master of Science in Information Technology, in addition to the existing $35,100 MBA degree. So whereas, separately, the health-care graduate program requires

12 courses and the MBA requires 13, the dual-degree program requires only 20 courses.

University College also offers dual-degree MBA programs with secondary degrees in biotechnology, cybersecurity policy and more for students who want to double up on their master’s degree.

Learning in Practice

Many professionals — whether from a Fortune 500 company, a government agency or a specific industry — return for an MBA because as they moved up the career ladder, their responsibilities became broader, Seferian says. So these universities and other schools have designed programs to help workers earn the prestige of an MBA on a schedule that fits their professional life. The programs also give students a chance to test those skills right away.

Steven Scott, 53, of Annapolis, a chief engineer at Goddard Space Flight Center, decided to pursue an executive MBA from Strayer University’s Jack Welch Management Institute. Such programs were designed for mid-career professionals who want to move into leadership positions. Strayer executive MBA students can take classes online or on campus with evening and weekend classes — which don’t interrupt students’ full-time jobs.

Scott finds he can immediately apply what he learns in class. “You learn something today that you can use at work the next day,” he says.

For instance, he’s already applied new business-writing skills to his work memos and emails and has practiced “lateral leadership” — managing colleagues by influence when you’re not in a supervisory role. Scott calls his degree “a technician’s MBA” because by immediately applying what he learns, he gets feedback on how he applied newly learned business principles and what he can do better.

Clarkin says her part-time MBA training at University College has helped her think of situations in a big-picture way by looking for patterns in mistakes and problems, instead of continuing to focus on fixing problems individually. For instance, she had a team look at a large body of emails from customers who were asking why it was taking so long for staff to answer their question. They created templates to allow staff to respond more quickly with a form answer.

Clarkin says other helpful classes have dealt with organizational behavior and HR issues. “There’s a real science behind supervision and leadership,” she says.

An Even Playing Field

After a full day of work, MBA students in continuing-education programs who come to the classroom — or log in to an online classroom — often have extensive backgrounds in diverse fields but varying levels of business experience. Many universities have a plan in place to help business newbies transition into their program and get up to speed.

“I think, psychologically, students [without a formal business background] might think initially that they’re at a disadvantage, but we have a course that brings everyone up to speed on a level playing field, and we help people that do not have those skills,” says Anna Seferian of the University of Maryland University College.

Marymount MBA students who don’t have a background in finance get a 1-credit-hour finance boot camp to bring them up to speed, plus additional help along the way. Strayer offers free coaching for students who need extra help one-on-one via Skype or phone calls with a dedicated coach (who can offer support for students managing school and work priorities while on business travel, for instance). In addition, faculty know students’ bios before classes begin to make sure individuals feel comfortable contributing to classroom discussions.