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Seven Lessons I learned from attending business school during recession

October 21st, 2008 · 5 Comments

We’re experiencing the biggest financial crisis since the Great Depression. The rapid deterioration of banking and housing sectors are trickling down to retail, high tech and other industries. Nobody will be immune from this economic downturn. We’ll see more layoffs, and bankruptcies.

As the job market gets tighter and growing number of people get laid off, more people will take a hard look at their careers, and explore alternative career options. Business school enrollment will increase as many people consider B-school as a good "stepping stone" for making career transitions. Some also believe that B-school is a good place to "hide" during economic recession.

I applied to business schools in Fall, 2001 when the high tech industry was hitting its bottom during the last recession. I started business school in Fall, 2002, and graduated in June, 2004. Although I enjoyed many aspects of business school, I had to say that it was very difficult and stressful for almost everyone I knew. When you put hundreds of smart, ambitious, driven, and competitive individuals into the same environment, and had them compete for very limited number of internships and full-time opportunities during an economic recession, the competition was fierce. Many of my classmates had become disillusioned about their previous careers, and determined to use business school as the opportunity to transition to a completely different career path. Going back to previous careers was not an option. On top of those stresses, there were also long-distance relationship and marriage issues, as well as financial concerns.

In addition to aforementioned stresses, international students had their own unique challenges. Not only they had to quickly adjust to new language, culture, and educational environment, they were hit hard by the limited number of job opportunities available to international students; not every employer sponsored foreign students. Recruiting was not a fair game to international students, and it was worse during an economic recession. Disclaimer: I was not an international students myself, but I knew a large number of international students who had to work much harder than their American counterparts to get jobs.

You might say that I have painted a bleak and depressing picture about attending business school during recession. 🙂 But, it is not my intention to discourage anyone from getting an MBA. I just feel that the marketing machines from HBS, Stanford, Kellogg, Wharton, Chicago and other top schools have painted a very unrealistic pictures about business school experience. And a significant percentage of MBA graduates have a confirmation bias — after you have invested two-year of your life and have spent thousands of dollars on tuition and fees, you don’t want to dilute the brand value of your business school experience by saying bad things about your own school.

Business school education could add tremendous value to your career. But, I think it’s important for everyone to understand what you’re getting ourselves into, and how you can get most out of it. This is especially important under the current economic condition. Below is seven lessons I learned from attending a top-5 business school during the last recession.

#1: Take a long-term view of your career.
During recession, internship/full-time recruiting is going to be very difficult. You probably won’t get your dream job. But, don’t give up — think about indirect ways to reach your goals.

For example, I have a classmate whose goal is to become an equity research analyst. But, he couldn’t pass even the first round of interviews during internship and full-time job recruiting. He was very smart and capable. But, his background was in biochemistry research. It’s very difficult to make career transitions during recession. At time of graduation, he ended up working for large pharmaceutical company. However, he didn’t give up his career goal. He gained valuable domain experience in the big pharmaceutical company. One and half year after graduation, she joined a large investment firm as equity research analyst, covering pharmaceutical sector.

So, keep a long-term view of your career. Take steps to fulfill your career goals.

#2: A "loser" in b-school might be a winner in a few years
During recession, there were fewer jobs. However, it seemed that a few "smart kids" in business school get all of the jobs — e.g. sometime one person got multiple offers from management consulting firms and investment banks, while the "losers" didn’t get any job offers.

Well, a few years after graduation, I compared the "smart kids" with the "losers". Several "losers" who didn’t have job offers at graduation time ended up joining Google right after its IPO. They had made a lot more money than the "smart kids" who had been slaving away at McKinsey, Morgan Stanley, Microsoft, etc. 🙂

Some people are just better suited for playing the business school recruiting game — e.g. they have worked in consulting/banking before, and knew how to perform case interviews. Or they’re just really smooth at networking. However, once you enter the real world, it’s very different. Your future and career success will have very little to do with your business school performance. I would even say there is no relationship whatsoever.

#3: Practice case interview regardless of your career choice
If you’re determined to get a good internship/full-time offer, do your best to practice case interviews. Case Interviews practice help you develop a structured approach to answer interview questions. Even you’re not interested in consulting, you’ll still benefit greatly by becoming a good case interviewer. Plus, most corporate interviewers who come to campus are MBA graduates. They’re also trained to ask case questions. So, by all means, practice case interviews regardless of your career choice.

#4: You must be laser-focused
Some of my classmates interviewed with every possible company/industry in the world because they’re afraid that they won’t get an internship/job during difficult time. On the same day, a classmate of mine interviewed with a Pet company for brand manager position, with a invest bank for associate position, with an industrial company for product manager position, and finally with McKinsey for consulting position. He was afraid that he wouldn’t get any job offers due to the tough economy. So, he wanted to play the numbers game.

You would be surprised by how many people used this strategy — it would NOT work. In a tough economy, instead of casting your net wide, you must be extremely focused. Target one industry, and be relentless in your preparation.

#5: Have a back-up plan, and leverage your strength
This advice contradicts the previous advice — you do need to be laser focused on one industry. But, you also need to have a backup plan, too. What if you just cannot get a job in management consulting and that’s your dream job? Well, take a job at your previous company/industry while continue to look for new opportunities. It’s much easier to make a career transition when you’re employed.

#6: Address your relationship/marriage issues before you start school
Attending business school during recession is very stressful. Don’t underestimate how your relationship/marriage will be affected. I had written a long series on Get an MBA, Get a Divorce. If you’re in a serious relationship/marriage, read my article.

#7: Take your career center counselor’s advice with a grain of salt.

Business School is run like a corporation. School Ranking matters to a lot of schools. And one of the key metrics for ranking is job placement rate. Your school’s career counselors are under a lot of pressure to help every single student to land A job. It doesn’t matter if it’s the ideal/optimal/preferred job for you.

In fact, from my own experience, the career counselors I talked to at my school really didn’t care much about my own goals/aspirations. When I got a job offer but wasn’t not sure about accepting, I called my career counselor for advice. His immediate response was to ask me to update the school database for job placement. And he pushed me to accept the job as hard as he could. I called another career counselor, and I got the same treatment.

Many of my classmates had similar experience. We concluded that you had to take your career center counselor’s advice with a grain of salt. Their incentive is not aligned with students’ interests.

Tags: Beat Recession · Go Back to School · MBA

5 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Seven Lessons I learned from attending business school during recession | World Financial Crisis Blog // Oct 21, 2008 at 11:01 pm

    […] Read the original post: Seven Lessons I learned from attending business school during recession […]

  • 2 Pradeep // Nov 26, 2008 at 12:46 am

    I like your blog. You mentioned how hard it is for international students to get internships and jobs. Is it the same in the top b-schools in US and where there any international job offers for ur classmates in ur time? Right now i am thinking of doing an MBA this fall 2009. It was a personal decision which i made nearly 3 years ago, and now i am wondering whether to do it in UK or USA. any comments on the economic situations in these two countries in 2010?

  • 3 Ting // Feb 24, 2009 at 5:34 pm

    Wow, this is great stuff. I'm about to start an MBA program this Fall myself, thanks for sharing your insight. Most helpful given the times.

  • 4 Latin MBA // Mar 19, 2009 at 12:16 pm

    Great stuff, thanks for the advice. I guess most prospective MBA students are asking themselves a few hard questions and your blog gives an insight into many of them. Thanks!

  • 5 Latin MBA // Mar 19, 2009 at 4:16 pm

    Great stuff, thanks for the advice. I guess most prospective MBA students are asking themselves a few hard questions and your blog gives an insight into many of them. Thanks!

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