"Take the time during the application process, or even after you're admitted, to really research the fields you're interested in."
People warned me that my two years in business school would fly by, but I think I underestimated how fast, exactly, they meant. It's difficult to believe that one semester is already under my belt. It's also incredible to realize how much I learned during my first semester.
I know I'm not the only one to feel this way. During the last week of classes, I participated in a marketing case competition hosted by Stern's Graduate Marketing Assn. As three fellow first-years and I tackled our assignment—developing a strategy to improve the U.S. market share of a global personal care brand—we kept noting how frequently we were directly applying information we had learned in our core marketing class.
I don't think this marveling happened because we somehow didn't appreciate what we were learning while we were learning it. Rather, I think it happened because we were still expecting business school to be somewhat like college, where the facts you learn in the classroom are trumped by the general life skills you acquire. As an undergrad, the facts are just a vehicle for the real learning: how to pick apart an argument, how to put one together, and how to write convincingly and well.
Hard, Practical Knowledge
In business school, by contrast, you certainly put the finishing touches on those big life skills, but you're also learning hard, immediately transferable concepts, facts, and frameworks. This was one of my stated reasons for coming to business school in the first place—to master key marketing concepts in a more formal, structured way than on-the-job learning allows. But I don't think I realized how truly practical a B-school education was until that case competition had me mining my marketing textbook and lecture slides for ways to solve a real-world business challenge.
This discussion of practicality brings me to the topic of the job search. One of our admissions officers said something the other day to a group of prospective students that rang very true to me: "Business school isn't the place to figure it out, it's the place to get it done." In this case, "it" is whatever it is you came to business school to accomplish. The standing joke in business school seems to be that what you identified as your career goal in your application essays may be a far cry from what your summer internship or your full-time job end up actually being. That said, I believe it is very useful to know more or less where you'd like to go in your life after business school before you walk in the door.
That end goal might change during the two years you're at school, but in my experience, and especially so for career-switchers, it's not the best use of your time or tuition to come to school with a fuzzy, trumped-up-just-for-the-admissions-committee career goal. Instead, take the time during the application process, or even after you're admitted, to really research the fields you're interested in.
I say this primarily because of the challenges of time management in business school. Different career goals require very different career search approaches, and, for me, it would have been difficult to balance more than one approach with my coursework, extracurricular activities, and personal life. Because I knew I was interested in marketing, the on-campus recruitment options available at Stern were more than sufficient to fulfill my job search needs. But for my fellow students interested in less traditional fields, such as entertainment and media or sports marketing, a lot more off-campus networking and legwork was necessary.
Business schools will have resources in place to help you with the job search process, and also to help more specifically define your career objectives. The Office of Career Development (OCD—a funny acronym, I know!) at Stern, for example, has several online and pen-and-paper tools that students can use to help identify their core competencies, interests, and values, which are then used to recommend certain industries and functions. One of these tools we all completed during pre-term, while several others are available to us on an optional basis. A caveat is that while some of my fellow students have found those tools very useful, they have not been as helpful to other students, to whom they recommended odd career pursuits that didn't line up with what those individuals had seen themselves doing.
The Office of Career Development is also there to support students whether they are pursuing the on-campus, off-campus, or some combination approach to job search. Students pursuing the off-campus option, however, have found that they've had to do more of their own legwork in terms of identifying contacts for informational interviews (using Stern's online alumni database as well as their own networks) and using OCD resources to research the companies and industries that they're interested in. To help with that process, OCD hosted an on-campus job fair in the fall that featured companies that don't necessarily participate in Stern's formal on-campus recruitment process. Also, I understand that plans are under way for OCD to host career panels this spring for those interested in careers beyond the usual consulting, banking, and CPG or financial services marketing roles.
In terms of time management, both the on-campus and off-campus approaches are time-consuming in their own ways. For on-campus folks, corporate presentations take place during many lunch and early evening hours. We are encouraged, rightly, to attend the corporate presentations of all the companies that even remotely interest us. The presentations are a great way to educate yourself about the universe of job opportunities and, perhaps even more importantly, to help you begin to cross companies or industries off your list. That said, attending every corporate presentation that took place at Stern last semester would have been an act of endurance indeed!
For both on-campus and off-campus folks, informational interviews occupy time slots between classes and on "career Fridays," thank-you notes need to be written within 24 hours of any meeting or phone call, and company receptions, breakfasts, and other events fill many of the remaining windows of time. I know several students who pursued both the on-campus and off-campus approaches, and very successfully, but to make that work you must truly be a master of your own schedule, not to mention phenomenally disciplined in your studying, company research, and extracurricular activities.
In closing, I'd like briefly to mention extracurricular activities, which are an important part of student life at Stern. I'll talk more about the specific student groups I joined in my next entry, but they generally fall into four buckets: 1) professional groups, like the Graduate Marketing Assn. or the Social Enterprise Assn., 2) affinity groups, like Stern Women in Business and the Association of Hispanic & Black Business Students, 3) purely social/interest-based groups, like Stern Wine Cellar, and 4) sports-related groups, like the Stern Softball Club. As you wrap up your applications, definitely take a look at the groups that exist at the schools you're considering, and see whether they align with your personal interests. The online resources and officers of the first two categories of clubs can also be tremendously useful in helping to define your career goals over the summer before you start business school.