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The First Post-MBA Job Conundrum

This post has nothing whatsoever to do with technology or gadgets. You have been warned.

I have been mulling this post over for a long time and finally decided to sit down and write it. Now that I am about a year and half out of business school and have had a chance to chat with peers who are also recent MBA grads, I have come to the conclusion that finding the right employer/employee match for that first post-MBA job is really hard to do, both for the candidate and for the employer.

I decided that I would write this one in essay form and leave comments open (for a change). Some of the observations here reflect my own experiences and others are those of my friends and peers. By and large, these comments do not apply to companies or industries (investment banking, consulting, etc) who hire a consistent crop of MBA students year in and year out. These comments are more for companies who are new to the process or only hire new MBA grads from time to time.

For the recent MBA grad, there are a few things that make finding the “right” job coming out of school really challenging:

1. Your expectations for what the job will deliver are never higher
In trying to rank the issues in some kind of rough order, I’d have to say that the number one problem for new MBA grads looking for jobs is that our expectations for what the job will deliver are really high. It’s not hard to understand why. After 18 months of studying, working, and thinking about what to do next, it’s only natural to expect that the time spent in considering what to do next ought to provide an optimal outcome — if many months of networking, research, and interviewing can’t produce an optimal outcome, what process will? You can build all kinds of models, processes, and logic flows to explain why a certain job will be perfect for you and why you’d be perfect for the job.

Second, after studying cases, working on problem sets, and other various school related work, it’s also natural to feel that you are well-equipped to go out and conquer the world. As a result, it seems logical to me to think that you ought to find a job that will allow you to use all of the things that you learned at school and use them right away from day 1. Sadly, this generally doesn’t happen. With high expectations, even a good job doesn’t quite live up to expectations.

2. Job switchers have a hard time evaluating new jobs
Something that seems to be overlooked, at least from my point of view, is that it’s hard to evaluate what it means to have a different job until you’ve had it. Many MBA students go to business school to change career paths. The problem with changing jobs is that you never really quite know what you are getting into when you change companies or job functions. Sure, internships can help clarify some things, but you can only learn and see so much in 10-12 weeks.

In an environment where so many people will be changing jobs, some (and possibly many) will make mistakes. They will choose job functions that don’t quite fit, companies that aren’t quite right, or both. This is not unique to MBA students — it’s generally true of anyone trying to switch jobs.

3. The “noise” of peer input.
I thought about putting this one first, but there were more deserving candidates. One of the most challenging things about choosing that first post-MBA job is the influence of peers. By your late 20s or early 30s, peer pressure ought not be something new. However, after being back in school and surrounded by an articulate, accomplished peer group, all of whom are also thinking about what they want to do after school, it’s easy to get swayed by the logic of others. There are lots of people around who can provide compelling logic as to why taking a given job or going into a given industry would be the right move for you. With all of this compelling logic floating around, it makes for a very noisy decision-making environment.

4. Two years away from the world of work leads to rust.
Let’s face it, two years away from the world of work can lead to rust. There are a lot of things about the daily work world that one can forget after leading the life of an MBA student. There is a certain amount of rust that needs to be shed before MBA grads readjust to the world of work.

For the company looking to hire recent MBA grads, the situation is also challenging for the following reasons:

1. Hard to evaluate and slot talent
One of the hardest things to do is to slot and evaluate talent coming out of MBA programs. Here is the problem, unlike undergraduate programs, where most candidates are of similar age and experience, level, MBA graduate populations are a much more heterogeneous population. While a standard analyst or similarly-situated entry level job might make sense for undergrads across the board, many MBA programs see a wide disparity of prior work experience and seniority within a class. So for some graduates, the “standard” MBA job offer might be too junior while for others it will be a stretch. The heterogeneous nature of MBA candidates makes it tougher to figure out the right job to slot MBAs into coming out of school.

By the way, slotting matters to a lot of MBA graduates. If the industry norm is that MBA grads in a certain industry generally get titles and responsibility of a certain tier, many grads will use that information when trying to figure out whether they are being offered an appropriate position. Few will complain about being slotted into a position that they feel is too senior (if that’s even possible) and few won’t complain if the title or responsibilities seem to junior.

2. Newly minted MBAs have special needs
As an MBA grad myself, I can say that we aren’t the easiest bunch in the world to manage. While everyone has needs at work, I think that new MBA grads have a handful of needs that can put a lot of pressure on an organization if they aren’t managed appropriately. Speaking in general terms, a lot of recent MBA grads are looking for jobs that offer the following attributes:

-A path to promotion
-Interesting projects
-A sense of ownership
-Title

Not every industry, company, or even department within a company is well-suited to meet these needs. Of equal importance, many (but not all MBA grads) do need some level of managerial interaction early on in a new job. Companies that aren’t sensitive to these needs can end up with disappointed folks on their hands.

3. Most MBA grads interview well
This should go without saying, but MBA students interview well. They have ample opportunity to practice their pitches, practice interviews, refine the way in which they describe themselves and why they would be a good fit for the company in question. The more standard the process, the more likely it is that a focused MBA grad can learn the process and prepare himself or herself for the interview process.

This isn’t necessarily a problem. It’s good to practice and be prepared for an interview. The challenge, however, is for organizations who are not accustomed to interviewing and screening MBAs is to be aware of this and figure out how to get through the preparation and polish to figure out good information about the candidate and his or her fit for the organization.

So, it’s basically hard for MBA grads to make good job choices and it’s equally hard for employers to figure it out. So why bother? Well, in many cases I do think MBA grads can add value to a company and help out. But improperly managed, it’s a recipe for disaster.