Looking for Love at B-School

When it comes to the business-school social scene, "supply and demand" isn't merely academic

As a director of student services at the University of Wisconsin Business School, Mark Matosian didn't think it was on his job description to officiate at a wedding. But a few days prior to graduation in May, 2006, an MBA couple (who had met and dated at school) asked him to do just that. Matosian got ordained online, and drove to Cincinnati for the wedding. "There's a lot of opportunity to date among the class," says Matosian of the 224 full-time MBA students. "In my nine years with the school, I've been invited to about five weddings." So far, he's officiated at only one.

Even though only a small percentage of those who date fellow B-school classmates end up in wedded bliss—there's plenty of dating throughout the program (BusinessWeek.com, 2/13/07). However, because MBA programs are often regarded as professional settings, involve heavy workloads, and usually have far fewer women than men, finding someone to date can be tricky.

So what are your chances of finding love (or a Valentine's Day date) while you're in business school? For the most part, experts say they're pretty good.

Competitive Spirit

When it comes to B-school relationships, many students treat them as another marker of success, similar to finding a good job or acing a project, and this attitude can translate into students acting as competitively as they do in the business world, says Rebecca Plante, an Ithaca College sociologist and author of The Rough Guide to Dating, to be published next year. For most graduate students, including those in B-school, "stakes are fairly high for being successful, and that approach towards one's professional life carries over to the approach that they take towards dating," explains Plante.

Ron Raychaudhuri, a second-year MBA student at the University of Chicago agrees. "I have not seen anything that people in school don't compete over—even when we go go-carting," says Raychaudhuri, who adds that since his program is 35% women, competition is usually worse for guys. Nonetheless, he says, he's managed to have an active dating life.

Indeed, experts like Batia Weisenfeld, an associate professor of management and organizations at New York University's Stern School of Business who also has sociology degree, say the business-school environment helps create a bond among students, which leads to plenty of dating throughout the programs. "Schools realize that one of the assets that we provide is a network, which is still a big part of how business gets done," explains Weisenfeld. "But they create multiple types of social networks, including personal and romantic networks."

The Perils of Coupling

But Weisenfeld, who works closely with students, warns that even when student relationships bloom it can have a negative impact on those around them, especially in business programs where some amount of group work is mandatory. "If you have a relationship that's [going well] and that pair forms a coalition, ironically that can have implications for people who have to work with the couple," says Weisenfeld. She adds that she's seen couples become less group-oriented after pairing off.

That said, school psychologists warn those who do choose to date others within a close-knit program not to move too quickly, because of the impression they make on fellow classmates as well as for more personal reasons. Stacy Pearson, the associate director at the University of Michigan Psychological & Counseling Services says one of the most common mistakes students make is assuming they know a person after a shorter-than-usual period because of the time they spent together in classes, going on trips, and attending business school-related social functions. "One person believes the relationship is moving to one that's long-term, and the other person is moving to a framework of 'friends with benefits,'" she says.

Pearson explains that this is especially true in business school where students usually have their own building and are more isolated than students in other graduate programs. She counsels students to "set parameters to know what's appropriate." She also adds that maintaining a relationship after business school requires an extra commitment from both sides, especially considering the possible complications of geographic separation after graduation from the program.

Balancing Work and Romance

So what's the difference between business-school dating and office romances? Katie Leonberger, a second-year student at the Columbia Business School, says that there's much less time to devote to formally pursuing a relationship since B-school students sometimes do school work and attend social gatherings around the clock. "It's basically getting to know each other through social events instead of formal dating," says Leonberger who first clicked with her boyfriend after they both had to work the door for a student council-sponsored bar event. For the most part, she adds, students concentrate on their studies and that especially during the first year of an MBA program, dating takes a backseat. "I don't think anyone went to B-school to get married."

Then there's the gender disparity not found in most office settings. Women, who are statistically in demand, have to think carefully about dating. Often, this can come as a surprise after the dating scene during undergraduate studies. Jenna Ochstein, who'll graduate this year from the Thunderbird School of Global Management, uses terms like "supply," "competition," and "demand" to explain what dating is like at her program, which is 32% female. "Compared to undergrad at Indiana University, the competition against 18-year-old cheerleaders has become nonexistent," Ochstein wrote in an e-mail. "However, as I have become older, the importance of studies and finding a job has taken priority."

On the other hand, for men who attend B-school, the math suggests they look outside the program to find dates. Dating within the larger university is especially important at programs outside big cities, such as Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth (which has 500 full-time students), says Charles Schilling, the social chair of his 2008 MBA class. Schilling, who's also an editor at the Tuck Times, says MBAs "date other students, so that makes the community of eligible single people a bit bigger." Schilling adds that events like Tuck's annual Winter Carnival, a weekend of skiing which starts on Feb. 23 and includes 21 business schools, is another way to meet people.

Dating Challenges for Minority Groups

Looking outside the B-school when it comes to dating is also important for gay students, who are likely to be a minority in an already small program. Mayuresh Tapale, a co-president of Fuqua Pride, the MBA gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered (GLBT) club on Duke University's campus, says those looking to date someone of the same sex need to begin with the GLBT student clubs at their B-schools (BusinessWeek.com, 8/9/06). Even though Fuqua's numbers are relatively small—Tapale says there are only about seven openly gay students within the full-time program of 826 students—he adds that there are more opportunities in Durham and nearby Chapel Hill, "We often have socials to meet other GLBT students." In a yearly Valentine's Day tradition, Fuqua Pride passes out free cupcakes to MBA students, an act that not only promotes the 30-person club but encourages new members to join.

With the time constraints of a full-time MBA program—especially during finals or recruiting—looking outside the B-school program for dates can be difficult. Earlier this year, Raychaudhuri, who moved to the U.S. from England to get his MBA, recalls asking his first date, a student from the Divinity School, to sit in on a group project meeting for his Financial Instruments course before catching a movie. "If someone doesn't understand anything about finance, this would be super-duper boring," Raychaudhuri recalls. She listened in and made it through a second date, but Raychaudhuri is still looking.

Check out the BusinessWeek.com slide show for more about the dating scene at specific business schools.

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