"How solid is an offer from a company when the check they send you for your signing bonus bounces?"

Judging from the surprised look on the face of the staff member of the Career Development Center to whom this question was asked, I don't think he had heard it before. In fact, I would go so far as to say that this is the first time it has been necessary to ask this question within the halls of the country's leading business schools. I haven't heard about this type of thing happening often, but I believe it's indicative of the current job market and the broader economy. That is not to say that the job market has dried up, but it has become…dynamic.

An Offer You Can't Count On

At Darden, there is still plenty of activity on the recruiting front: company representatives meeting students, presentations, and sponsored cocktail hours. The difference is, companies that hired five people last year may only be looking for one this year. Other firms it seems, don't quite know who they will need but want to have people lined up in case the economy makes a quick turnaround.

Then there are those who are holding on to offer letters from firms that have suddenly found themselves on less-than-stable footing. From what I can tell, the faltering companies that have extended these offers have been very proactive and helpful in working with my classmates to whom offers were extended. Unfortunately, there is only so much they can do. As a classmate of mine mentioned, it's tough to expect them to be looking out for us too much when they are heading to work every day wondering if they are going to have a job when they leave for the night.

The bottom line is that no one is on completely secure footing. This has caused fellow students to be a little more careful about the companies they are talking to and to cast a wider net in their job search. To their credit, our Career Development Center has worked both with students and with companies to navigate the mess that is out there. This has included personal advice and workshops on how to expand the job search as well as ideas on some different ways to get a foot in the door of a student's company or industry of choice.

For those out there that are in the process of applying and deciding on a business school, this is a huge factor to consider. In a bull market it's relatively easy for an MBA to get a great job. It's in a market like the one we are currently in where the Career Development Centers really earn their keep. With fewer companies recruiting and fewer people hired by those that do, it is more likely that students are going to have to head "off-grounds" to find a position. The assistance of the Career Center in this search is critical, and you want to make sure that whatever school you are considering has the resources and the staff to be able to help you.

A Unique Learning Opportunity

All of this has been somewhat scary, watching as jobs and opportunities (and whole companies) disappear into thin air. On the other hand, it has also been interesting to watch the events of the current economic crisis unfold from the halls of an academic institution. It has afforded myself and other students the ability to learn about the crisis in ways that might not otherwise be possible.

For instance, two months ago, Darden bought together its top economics, finance, and ethics professors for a panel discussion on the cause of the crisis and its potential repercussions. Then about a month ago, a number of Darden alumni who lead companies in some of the industries most affected by the crisis came back to talk to students about what they are seeing and where they see the world going from here. To have the opportunity to learn about the crisis not only from leaders in academia but those in business was a huge learning opportunity, and it gave us more insight into what exactly is going on and where the opportunities may be.

Outside of recruiting, our class has settled in to the second-year experience. I don't think the visions we all had of afternoons on the golf course and ample time for pleasure reading necessarily came true, but things are slightly less hectic than the first year. That isn't because the workload is necessarily lighter, but as seasoned second years, we now at least know what to expect. In addition, we have become experts at cracking cases and the construction of spreadsheets and models that are necessary to make our case to our classmates during the case discussion.

Extracurricular Competition

Despite the busy schedule there is still time for sports and recreation. Last week, some classmates and I beat an undergrad team 24-10 in our fall flag football league—chalk up a victory for the old guys! A few weeks before that, several of us ran the Charlottesville 10-mile road race.

In addition to these activities, we are in the middle of the always heated "Darden Cup" competition. This is a series of events, both athletic and otherwise, in which each of the five class sections compete against each other. Points are awarded for each event and whichever section has the most at the end of the year takes home the Cup. So far we have competed in flag football, soccer, softball, and trivia. Still to come are basketball, dodge ball, and a competition to see which section can raise the most money for "Building Goodness in April," one of the charities that Darden students are involved with.

While the individual events of the cup fall under the category of "friendly competition," given that we all live in the competitive environment of business school, I would say that more emphasis should be put on the "competition" as opposed to the "friendly." Either way, it is a great program—unique to Darden—that allows all of the students to get to know each other and blow off steam. People here love sports and the outdoors, which I think enhances the sense of community at the school.

Looking for More than a Job

The realization has begun to hit everyone that our business school experience is reaching its final phase. With second-quarter exams approaching, I will soon be 75% of the way there. My goals have changed significantly since first enrolling, so I plan to use the last 25% of my time here pursuing those new interests. In the third and fourth quarters I will be enrolled in the Darden Business Project program that offers students class credit to develop a business plan. It will give me firsthand experience doing something like that and will help me decide if a more entrepreneurial career path is the right fit for me.

My grandfather always tells the story about how, early in his career, he walked into a potential employer's office and the man behind the desk remarked, "So, you're looking for a job." To this my grandfather replied, "No, I'm not looking for a job, I'm looking for opportunity." I think that sums up what I am trying to do between now and graduation. I have moved away from the goal of just finding a job with a paycheck and a title. Instead, I'm looking for something with which I can get involved that gets me excited to get out of bed in the morning. Holding an MBA from Darden opens up tons of doors, even in a historically down market. The key is making sure I walk through the right one.

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