Facing a Murky Job Market

Every B-school student hopes an MBA will open the door to a great career, but it's difficult not to worry about the ailing economy

A few weeks ago I attended Day at Kellogg or, as it's known at Northwestern, "DAK." This weekend, which is organized by Kellogg students exclusively for admitted applicants, was an outstanding way to immerse myself in the school and meet my fellow admits.

During the three-day visit we had several chances to interact with professors, administrators, and alumni. We even had the honor of speaking with Dipak Jain, Kellogg's dean. While our student hosts organized these meetings and presentations to address a broad range of topics, during every Q&A session an obvious theme ran through many of our questions: the job market.

Every aspiring business school student hopes an MBA will open the door to a great career, but it's difficult not to worry about the ailing economy. You don't need to work at the Federal Reserve to see the convergence of a plummeting real estate market, a credit crisis, ever-climbing energy prices, and a pall descending over consumer confidence. Even if a recession never materializes, MBA hiring is likely to dip below the past three frothy years as businesses shake off their hangover. While demand for new B-school grads is supposedly still strong, current and admitted students all over the country seem nervous.

Beggars Can't Be Choosers

Like so many of my peers, it wouldn't be my first time shopping for work in a tough market. My post-college job search began in late 2002 and carried through mid-2003. Anyone who graduated in those years knows how quickly employers can disappear during a downturn. Where three or four years earlier the average degree holder could anticipate six or seven job offers, I was thrilled just to get a screening interview. Even my yearlong internship bore no fruit. While my manager wrote me a glowing letter of recommendation, the company simply didn't have enough business to hire me.

Frantic to avoid unemployment, I took the first job I could find. Even though not enamored of the work, I was thankful for the paycheck. The tail end of that recession bulldozed countless students into unemployment. While my university has never released official numbers, I'd bet that one in five of us was employed at graduation.

Today, fueled by a deluge of media attention, another recession feels inevitable and, eerily, I'm facing a familiar worry. As difficult as it is to admit, my dream job might not be waiting for me when I graduate, even though I was accepted at all three B-schools to which I applied. In addition to my Kellogg admission, Michigan and Duke have offered me a place in the class of 2010. I was elated with one admission letter and now, with three, I'm honored beyond words. But has the bearish economy doused my excitement or changed my plans?

Vanishing Recruiters

Studying economics may not have guaranteed me a smooth entry into the working world, but it did teach me that business cycles correct what would otherwise cause bigger problems later. Of course, spending six figures on an education could make the most iron-stomached economist feel squeamish about evaporating jobs and vanishing recruiters.

Nevertheless, recessions are inevitable and, more important, unpredictable. I could spend the next 10 years waiting for the right economic cadence and still risk facing a soft job market. Trying to time a B-school graduation to coincide with employment-friendly trends would be futile and endlessly frustrating. Not only would I have to forecast the job market accurately years in advance, but I'd have to apply successfully to the right programs at exactly the right moment. With that kind of clairvoyance, why not forget about business school and start day-trading? Besides, the value of a graduate degree should transcend market fluctuations. An MBA is valuable for decades, long enough to weather more than a few recessions.

While I fervently believe in the lasting value of attending business school, I won't ignore the trends that might shape the years following graduation. Looking for a job in 2003 was simply too painful. This time around, I'll be better prepared to face a recession, if it materializes. What's different? I have something I didn't during my undergraduate career: a solid post-graduation goal, strategy consulting.

Where You're Aiming

Knowing exactly where you want a degree to take you has enormous advantages. For one, it helps you pick a school that excels at placing students in your target industry. When an economy slows down, companies don't stop hiring entirely. Instead, employers often trim their incoming numbers by consolidating the pools from which they recruit. In a hot market, a company might hire from wide range of schools, but during a slowdown these firms tend to pull graduates from a few "core" schools. Thus, programs (such as Kellogg) that consistently send large numbers of graduates to, say, strategy consultancies should have less volatility in their recruiter traffic relative to other schools.

In addition, having clear post-graduation plans should inform the decisions you make while you're in school. That includes choosing relevant courses, joining the right clubs, watching for early interview opportunities, and pursuing the best internships. Assuming I don't want to suddenly change directions, these tactics should increase my chances of securing the position I want, no matter how ugly the economy becomes.

If getting an MBA is really about developing as a leader, a person, and a professional, then there's one more aspect of the potential recession that merits consideration. In my experience, those who fight through resistance and rejection become more durable, humble, driven people. Sumner Redstone, CEO of Viacom (VIA), seems to agree. At Kellogg's 2002 commencement, he addressed a graduating class feeling the brunt of the dot-com collapse. "Your good fortune," he said, "may well be your lack of good fortune compared with previous years. You've had to strike forth and discover your own destinies in a difficult and hazardous world, and, in so doing, you have stepped outside yourselves into a bigger and tougher but more rewarding world."

In 2010 the economy might indeed be difficult and hazardous. But after attending DAK, I'm more excited than ever to begin my MBA journey. Kellogg's professors and administrators exuded world-class competence. My fellow admits and current students were fun, talented, and sharp. No matter how hard my job search might be, there's no way I'd let economic forecasts scare me away from this incredible opportunity.

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