Heart of the Matter

Andy Chan's Blog for Parents, Mentors and Teachers

Tips for Students

Thinking about b-school

From a discussion with Rita Winkler, an admissions officer at the Stanford Graduate School of Business (GSB).

Rita: Given the economic downturn, how does this affect the job prospects for applicants considering business school?
Andy: Applicants must make their decision about applying to business school separate from what’s going on in the economy. Why? The economy is unpredictable and the future is uncertain – always. No one knows what the market will be like in two to three years. It could be better or worse (We all hope it will be better!).

Rita: What does the CMC do to help students find jobs when the economy is weak?
Andy: The CMC has developed relationships with many organizations who enjoy hiring Stanford students. However, in times like these, even those organizations may not be hiring. One of our key goals is to teach and guide students to become strategic career managers so that they are equipped to manage their job search while at b-school and throughout their careers when they are alumni. We deliver numerous workshops, job search programming, and 1-on-1 advising to help students successfully find opportunities, especially at smaller organizations. Smaller firms are more likely to be hiring in a down economy. They are also more able to create a job – where one did not exist before – for a great candidate like one of our students. In addition, the CMC helps students tap into the supportive and responsive alumni network. In the last downturn, the CMC asked alumni to create projects and jobs and the alumni responded positively. This is possible at Stanford because so many of our alumni are top executives at their organizations and they really care about the school.

Rita: In what other ways do our alumni help students?
Andy: Alumni are especially valuable in educating students about a wide range of careers and organizations. In addition, they are mentors, business advisors, and networking contacts. Many are angel investors or institutional investors that fund student-developed businesses. Our alumni are even more responsive in regions far from California. If you contact alumni in any location outside the SF Bay Area, they will be very responsive because they love helping Stanford MBAs and hearing what’s happening back at the GSB – one of their favorite places on the planet.

Rita: How does the job search experience vary for first year students?
Andy: Every year, including the post-dot com recession years of 2002-2003, 100% of job-seeking first year students have obtained a summer job. Organizations find it valuable and easy (and less of a commitment) to hire an MBA student for a summer job or project. In addition, students are less selective about their summer job choice. Although it’s easier for first year students, they are always very anxious throughout the process because they’ve never been through it before and the outcomes are uncertain.

Rita: What percent of the graduating class had job offers back in 2002-2003?
Andy: 78-83% of the class graduated with a job offer, which was more than we would have expected given the state of the economy – especially in Silicon Valley. When the job market was hot (’06-’08), 87-92% of the class graduated with a job offer, so it wasn’t dramatically different in the numbers. But it felt very different. In ’02-’03, many students accepted jobs that were not their 1st choice dream job, but it was better than no job at all. On the positive side, many were able to transition to their 1st choice career path within two or three years after graduation. We expect that this year (’09) will be even more difficult than in ’02-’03 because the downturn has negatively impacted almost all sectors this time around.

Rita: Do you help students who do not have jobs after graduation?
Andy: Yes. We have a comprehensive set of resources offered by our Alumni Career Services (ACS) team. We offer executive coaching and workshops all over the world. The online alumni job board has thousands of jobs posted each year. And the ACS website and newsletter has numerous tools, resources and articles to address post-MBA job search and career management issues. Each year, we remain close to each student without a job and provide whatever support s/he needs.

Rita: What would you recommend to applicants who are considering applying to the MBA Program this year with regards to their future job search?

Andy: I would ask them to consider the following three things:
1) Clarify their personal purpose for getting their MBA. What are you hoping to achieve by getting your MBA? Understand if, and how, having an MBA will help you move towards the career you wish to pursue. There are some careers where an MBA is not required (and some where having an MBA is actually not desired).
2) Given the state of the economy, set realistic expectations for what you can achieve in the short term. What’s your expected timeframe for achieving your goals? Envision the ideal vs. realistic vs. worst cases. It’s better to “hope for the best and be prepared for the worst”. With the correct expectations, you won’t be disappointed. And if the market turns positive, then you’ll be very happy.
3) View the MBA as an asset with long term value. I know so many alumni in their 40’s and older who reflect on their careers and remark how valuable and meaningful their MBA has been in influencing the direction of their careers and lives. Your investment will payout in multiple dividends over your lifetime, so get ready for a long, enjoyable ride.

Any advice you’d give to folks considering b-school today?

Take it or leave it

So you have a job offer. And your potential employer has asked for your decision by the end of the month. Should you take it or leave it?

Conventional (and conservative) wisdom in this market says, “Take it. Are you crazy? You’ll really regret it if you pass on this offer and don’t get another one later.”

Romantic (and optimistic) wisdom says, “How can you settle? You deserve so much better. ”

The answer is just not that simple. Consider the following thoughts and questions to help you make the best decision:

  1. How well does this job offer meet your top job criteria – the values and benefits that you want in your next job? Common mistakes made by job seekers: they don’t define these criterion clearly; they have too many criterion; they value each criterion equally when they’re not of equal value; or they don’t assess the values and benefits of the job offer accurately (people seriously underestimate their ability to change jobs and careers in the future).
  2. What is your other option and how likely will you spend the effort and time to pursue it and obtain it? Common mistakes made by job seekers: they haven’t defined another option; they don’t understand what’s required to pursue and obtain the other option (pretty risky thinking [or lack of it] in this ugly job market); they don’t consider a worst case scenario (like “Can I survive without a job until 2010?” or “Will I be OK with dozens upon dozens of employers repeating, ‘We’re not hiring right now.'”?

Given the above, you’re probably thinking “Andy is recommending that I take this job.” Wrong!

About 20% of the students who I have discussed this issue with have chosen to reject their job offers. And I wholeheartedly agreed with their decision. In these cases, the specific reasons included sincerely disliking the work and the career path (clearly visible in her voice, eyes and body language); an undesirable location that would make it difficult to return to the United States; an poor fit between the job and the future career direction (which was clear to him only after I verified that his logic was correct).

With each person, they would rather go without a job for the next 9-12 months and perhaps longer, than take a job that was not right for them. Each person’s situation is very unique and requires time to consider and evaluate.

Talking to your future employer isn’t enough. They have a vested interest in your decision.

Talking to your peers or parents isn’t enough. They don’t have the breadth of knowledge or perspective to provide an objective view (as your friends and family, they are not objective). Also, as hard as people try to give objective advice, most actually give advice that is biased from their own personal experience or values.

Whether you are a student or not, I recommend that you discuss your logic with a career advisor. S/he is an objective party with extensive experience and perspective working with many others who have wrestled with decisions just like yours. S/he won’t give you the answer. After all, it’s your decision.

But you will benefit greatly by receiving important information, being asked critical questions (that you possibly have not thought of), and developing clarity on your logic and decision.

It’s a big decision. Why take a chance with it?

Who is your best source for advice and perspective on your job offers?

And I want a mentor

“I am looking for a challenging job that pays well in a fast-growing company with a great culture… and I want a mentor.”

“You want your manager to be your mentor?”, I clarify.

“Yes. That’s what I want. I really need someone to mentor me – to watch over my career and guide me to be successful.”

Dream on. Sorry to burst the bubble, but it’s hard enough to find a mentor who is not your manager. Today, it’s hard enough to just find a job.

To expect your next manager to be your mentor too is asking way too much. And not just because of the ugly job market. This truth holds in any job market – even a hot one.

Managers have their hands full just managing the people and the business. Honestly, it’s the rare manager who is considered outstanding by his or her employees. And many of those managers are not mentors to their employees. If you have one now or have had one in the past, be thankful. Be very thankful.

In today’s free agent world, embrace career self-reliance where you own your career and professional development. Don’t fool yourself into thinking that you will find a manager or company who will be a willing and capable mentor and closely watch over you.

Rather than dreaming about one mentor who’s also your manager, consider developing a set of advisors who you can turn to for perspective, advice, and honest, direct feedback. Sometimes called a personal advisory board, each person has unique experience and knowledge to help you with specific issue.

You can develop mentor relationships with a variety of people. And they don’t have to work inside your company. In fact, you will benefit greatly if they don’t.

It may turn out that you get a challenging job that pays well in a fast-growing company with a great culture. And your manager turns out to be outstanding… and your mentor. If so, congratulations!

Do you have a mentor? How did you find your mentor? Is it your manager?