Advice on Tackling the Job Market

Jacqueline Wilbur, director of MIT's Career Development Office, says there are still plenty of employment and internship possibilities, you just have to know your targets

Jacqueline A. Wilbur is director of the MBA Career Development Office of the Sloan School of Management at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (No. 4 on BusinessWeek's biennial B-school rankings). She began working at MIT in 2000. Before moving to Cambridge, Mass., she served from 1997 to 1999 as president of the premier organization for career-services directors, the MBA Career Services Council. She was also an assistant dean at Georgetown's McDonough School of Business for six years. In the early 1990s, she led Babson College's MBA Career Services Office.

Wilbur's comments came during a live BusinessWeek Online chat on Aug. 28. She was responding to questions from the audience and BW Online's Jack Dierdorff, Jennifer Gill, and Mica Schneider. Following is an edited transcript of their discussion:

Q: Jackie, should first- and second-year MBAs be concerned about finding internships and jobs this year? What do you anticipate?

A:

We're telling our students that it's going to be an exciting and challenging year, and that the MBA market is much more competitive this year, particularly in the traditional MBA employment markets of consulting and investment banking. We're telling the students to pay attention to where the emerging employment opportunities are going to be, and we've identified several different sectors where we think there are going to be more employment opportunities this year. And we're encouraging our students to be very flexible in terms of geographical location for employment opportunities. And, most important, we're telling our students to view this as an opportunity to do a great deal of self- and career exploration, and then learn where their skills will be most valued in this market.

Q: Which sectors or industries do you expect to offer the best employment opportunities?

A:

[They] include biotechnology, data storage, energy, media, pharmaceuticals, and what I would broadly call "other technology," or emerging technologies.

Q: Have you detected any sign that people are less interested in getting an MBA? The New York Times, for one, reported a trend to law school instead.

A:

At Sloan, we haven't seen a lessening of interest in the MBA at all. The MBA, in my opinion, continues to be the most versatile Master's degree program out there.

Q: Is there any truth to the reports about management consulting firms not recruiting on campuses this fall?

A:

There are two answers to that question. A number of the very large management-consulting firms are not actively recruiting on our campus this fall. However, we're seeing more boutique consulting firms recruiting on campus this fall.

Q: How can this year's MBA graduates find the firms that really want new employees? At some career fairs, companies just pick up resumes and don't reply to job applicants.

A:

I have lots of advice. In [most] MBA programs, [students] have access to the alumni database for that program, and through that alumni database are able to target an industry and a list of companies within that industry. Coupled with the research that I would encourage you to do to understand what's going on both in that industry and within those companies, you'll begin to know who's going to have employment opportunities. Understand what the market potential is for the company, perhaps identify if it's a small- or medium-size firm, if venture-capital funds are flowing to that industry or that company. Understand whether there will be government funding headed to that industry or that company, and get a sense of whether the company has a solid, strategic business plan. The companies that meet those kinds of criteria will be looking to hire good, talented people. To wrap it back to the alums, the best way to find out what's happening within a firm is to connect with the program alumni within that firm. They not only can let you know where the areas of growth are within the firm but can also act as the ambassador with the hiring manager.

Q: How about internships? First-year MBAs are concerned about the sluggish economy affecting them. Any news or advice?

A:

Right now, our internship schedule is what I'm calling "steady state." The majority of the consulting and banking firms are focusing their energy on hiring an extraordinarily strong internship class, so we expect it to be competitive, but there will be opportunity.

Q: Should first-year MBAs who are uncertain in their calling pick one specific area and "attack" to find a good internship, or spread it out more and play it by ear?

A:

I would encourage this [type of] first-year MBA to do a lot of research ahead of any job applications he may submit. And the first piece of research he needs to do is to understand himself much better and understand how his skill set relates to the MBA employment market. We're still encouraging our students here to have a very focused approach to the market.

Q: Are MBAs from outside of the U.S. at a disadvantage this year in the internship or job search?

A:

Not necessarily -- it's going to depend on the firm. I would encourage non-U.S. students to target firms that meet several criteria: They're looking to expand or they already have a strong presence in the home region or the country of the student. And firms that have a history of hiring non-U.S. candidates have processes in place to make that an easier process on both sides. And, in general, target firms that are going to value your whole skill set, including language abilities and cultural experiences.

Q: Is it going to be harder to make a career change in this economy? How would a 34-year-old fare having a marketing background from a Fortune 500 company? Could that person start a new career in investment banking after B-school?

A:

I would encourage any student who wants to change careers in this economy to build a strategy from day one of their MBA and, to build that strategy, they should talk to as many people as possible so they understand what skills they need to make the change. And then follow that plan, and communicate with the people who helped them to build their plan, and network like crazy for the new opportunity. It's absolutely a doable idea, but it is challenging.

Q: On the same note, how does MIT feel about people who want to change their careers to I-banking from computer engineering with an MBA degree?

A:

The answer to that is, we have lots of people at MIT who come to us with technical backgrounds and make a change to investment banking. It's typical for 85% of any entering MBA class to want to change careers, and since almost 30% of our graduating class has traditionally gone to investment banking, I think we have a good success ratio for our graduates having done this successfully.

Q: What do you expect to see with pay packages this year, Jackie? Will we still see lucrative signing bonuses and other goodies?

A:

The general sense I have about pay packages right now is that I'm expecting salaries to stay flat. I think that the use of signing bonuses as an incentive will continue -- I don't have any evidence that tells me that a) they're going to go away, or b) they're going to increase. And for additional compensation, it's too early for us to tell what's going to happen now.

Q: How has the current economic downturn affected placement opportunities at Sloan?

A:

We're seeing a shift in the kinds of companies that are recruiting. We're seeing a reduction in the number of large management-consulting firms and investment banks recruiting second-years, but an increase in opportunities in different industries. We're also expecting that the recruiting process for our second-year students will lengthen this year -- we expect it to go throughout the academic year -- and if the economic forecasts prove to be true, we expect to see more firms recruiting in the spring semester than in previous years.

Q: For those who are graduating, how can they protect themselves from companies that have extended an offer but then delay the start date or rescind the offer completely?

A:

The truthful answer is, I'm not sure there are any safeguards in life. I certainly think that doing a lot of research before you accept your job offer, as to what's going on in the company, will make you more knowledgeable, but I don't think there are any safeguards.

Q: Do you know if 100% of Sloan's 2001 graduating class had offers upon graduation?

A:

I do know the answer, and I've never been aware of 100% of Sloan's graduating class ever having job offers on graduation. We encourage our students to take the time to find the right opportunity, and we don't put an artificial measure on when they get their offer. It's typical for over 90% of those seeking employment at Sloan to have an offer at graduation. This spring it was over 90%.

Q: Almost every B-school application inquires about long/short-term career aspirations. What are some popular "aspirations," and how do they match up with placement areas after B-school?

A:

That's an admissions question, and I don't know the answer to it. I think that's a great question to ask the admission professionals.

[Editor's note: to contact MIT's admissions office, e-mail mbaadmissions@mit.sloan.edu]

Q: How would you go about negotiating with a new post-MBA employer to get them to pay for your MBA loans?

A:

In a negotiation, it can be appropriate to ask them to help pay for your MBA loans, but negotiations are such individual discussions that I don't have a formula to share with you. There's a great book called Getting to Yes, which is all about successful negotiating. I recommend it to any MBA.

Q: Taking a peek into your crystal ball, can you comment on how the job scenario or prospects for prospective students might be?

A:

I am hopeful that Alan Greenspan is right and that the economy will start to turn around sometime next spring.

Q: Jackie, the booming labor market let many people jump from job to job over the past few years. What do recruiters think of resumes with one- or two-year stints at several different companies?

A:

Because it was not unusual for people to jump from job to job over the past few years, recruiters are becoming comfortable with seeing this kind of progression on MBA student resumes. The advice that we give our students is that they be prepared to walk the recruiter through the logic of their career progression over the last couple of years. It's important for any candidate to be ready to discuss the decisionmaking process behind their moves and how it has led them to be an applicant for the position that they're applying for that day.

Q: How common is it to intern the summer before starting the first year of an MBA program?

A:

We have seen people who have held internships the summer before their first year. I still don't think it's all that common. It can, however, be a great strategy for a career-changer to approach their potential target firms and offer their services the summer before they start their MBA.

Q: You've seen career services from a number of different angles -- as head of Babson College's career center, then Georgetown's, and even as president of the MBA Career Services Council from 1997 to 1999. Do MBAs at lesser-known B-schools have a harder time landing a job than those graduating from brand-name institutions?

A:

No, they don't. Each school, whether it's highly ranked or less highly ranked or not ranked, has a niche in the MBA marketplace, and each of those schools has a strong alumni base who want to see the folks coming out behind them succeed. I would encourage anyone applying for an MBA program to fully understand the market that the MBA programs that they're researching serve, and then go to the MBA program that best meets their long-term career objectives. Recruiting organizations tell me over and over again that they can find extraordinary talent at a wide diversity of MBA programs.

Q: What advice can you give to the many 2001 graduates without an offer? One reader says that in Denver the real placement rate was about 15%.

A:

I guess the first response is, keep plugging -- there are jobs out there. You may want to broaden your geographic focus, if possible. You may want to broaden your industry focus. But build on your functional skills. You want to make sure that your marketing package is the best that it can be, that you're really communicating the value that you can bring to a target organization, and keep networking. Talk to as many people as you can. Again, assuming this is an MBA candidate, make sure you've tapped into your alumni network fully, including your undergraduate network as well as your graduate network.

Q: How would you describe the career opportunities available in the pharmaceutical or biotechnology industry? Is MIT a logical choice for this type of career?

A:

Right now, I would actually separate pharmaceuticals from biotechnology as two separate industries. Within the pharmaceutical industry, I expect that they're going to be hiring people for both the finance and marketing functions. With biotechnology, I would add new business development to that list. And I think MIT is one of many terrific schools that can lead someone to careers in pharmaceuticals or biotech. There's an obvious synergy with MIT and the biotech industry -- the first example would be the Human Genome Project and the work that MIT has done in that area. The overall point is to choose a school that is going to give you the opportunity to understand this industry.

Q: Do class rank or grades matter when seeking employment?

A:

Recruiters will use class rank or grades as one of many data points when they evaluate a candidate. In any competitive situation, you always want to be the best candidate for the opportunity for which you're applying. But I'm not aware of a company using class rank or grades as a cutoff to not interview a candidate.

Q: Given the downturn of dot-coms, is there still a strong demand for MBA grads specializing in information systems or information technology?

A:

The philosophy at MIT and MIT's Sloan [School] is that IS and IT are changing the fundamental way that business is being conducted. And candidates who understand how technology can increase the value of the firm, whether it's through improving distribution channels or creating new markets or even streamlining operations, are going to be valued candidates.

Q: What is your advice to people applying to B-school this year? Should they hold off their MBA plans for couple more years?

A:

No. I think it's a great time to get an MBA. It's a very exciting time to get an MBA. There's so much going on in business right now, so many challenges, so many changes. It's a great time to step back and study what's going on in business.

Q: To top it off, can you sum up some suggestions you'll give to Sloan MBAs this year -- job-hunting tips, interview suggestions, research advice?

A:

You bet! We are encouraging our students to have a Plan A and Plan B. [They should] make sure that they really do know themselves well -- we're strongly emphasizing self-assessment at Sloan this year. They should hook into the alumni network early and often. They should create an extraordinary marketing package. And, while understanding that it's a competitive market, they should know it's a market that still has lots of exciting opportunities -- and they should be excited. My other piece of advice: Make sure to read the business periodicals regularly.

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