Salvaging an MBA Internship Gone Bad

Most MBA students have high expectations that their summer internships will result in business bliss, replete with likable colleagues, satisfying work, and a full-time job offer in the end. "When you get a summer job, the default thinking is that the full-time offer is yours to lose," says Rob Weiler, interim director of the Parker Career Management Center at the UCLA Anderson School of Management (Anderson Full-Time MBA Profile).

Work, much like the rest of life, however, doesn't always turn out as planned. An economic bump in the road, poor performance, a personality clash with a boss, or an industry-specific reason—private equity interns, for example, know not to expect an offer at summer's end because the industry doesn't have that tradition—every year result in some MBA students returning to school in the fall without the hoped-for offer.

The economic crisis of the past two years, anecdotally at least, seems to have left more MBAs in this predicament, say career placement directors at top business schools. "The number of offers at the end of the summer is shrinking, because companies don't know their hiring needs, and so they're very conservative," says Roxanne Hori, assistant dean and director of career management at the Northwestern Kellogg School of Management (Kellogg Full-Time MBA Profile).

Ask for Analysis

If you are among those without a job offer in hand by August, don't lose hope. By pumping up your job search efforts, it may be possible to persuade an internship employer to give you a second look. Failing that, a reinvigorated job search could lead to a job offer from another employer before graduation.

About halfway through the summer internship, or even sooner, it's a good idea to schedule a meeting with your supervisor to ask for a critical analysis of your performance, career services directors say. "Don't wait too long, so you can take corrective action," says Weiler. In industries that traditionally offer full-time jobs to interns, such as investment banking and consulting, letting performance issues get to the point where an offer is not forthcoming is a big mistake, but it happens.

When you realize the job offer probably isn't coming, experts advise taking immediate action. First step: Reflect on what went wrong. This is a chance to take a hard look at yourself and your goals, determine what could have been done better, and how to improve, says Maryellen Reilly Lamb, senior associate director of MBA career management at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School (Wharton Full-Time MBA Profile).

"A Learning Experience"

The next step, career services directors say, is determining how to explain what happened to potential employers, perhaps including your internship supervisor. "Look at it as a learning experience, which you can take with you when you interview with other companies in the future," says Jacqueline Murray, regional head of graduate resourcing at Deutsche Bank (DB) in New York, who adds that the summer program at her organization grew in 2010.

Practice how you will discuss the lack of a job offer in an interview, says Char Bennington, senior associate director of career management at the University of Chicago's Booth School of Business (Booth Full-Time MBA Profile). She suggests role playing with classmates as though they are potential employers and getting feedback from them.

For those who want to recapture the heart of their internship employer, the time to make the mea culpa is in the exit interview. Tell your supervisors that you agree with the critical feedback, says Hori, and apologize if you've disappointed anyone. Display your maturity by being self-aware and explaining how you plan to move forward, says Lamb. If there's another group within the company, where you think you'd shine, tell them and ask if anyone would support you in moving there.

Keep Meeting People

No matter what happens, end on a positive note. If there's work left to be done, do it, and make it your best, says Bennington. "Be professional and upbeat in your final interactions," she adds. "Leave with grace."

Exiting with dignity will come in handy as you build your network. Even if you end up without an offer, you should continue to meet new people within the company while you still have an internal e-mail address, says Andrew Schulman, a 2008 graduate of the USC Marshall School of Business (Marshall Full-Time MBA Profile), who also suggests asking your supervisor whom you would benefit from knowing. Schulman, who interned with Disney (DIS) in its anti-piracy division in 2007, received no full-time offer, which is customary for studio jobs.

When there were no openings for him at Disney by the spring, Schulman sought opportunities elsewhere. Having kept Marshall's career management office aware of his job hunt, he was invited to participate in a project for the Tribune Company's Los Angeles Times. The Times was looking for people to help turn around its business but had not finalized its hiring plans.

Don't Hesitate To Lend a Hand

He and three other Marshall students presented ideas to the newspaper's general manager and his supervisor. They offered Schulman a full-time job, which he had until November 2009, when he started his own firm, AMS Consulting, in Santa Monica, Calif. "The project was the best interview possible because they saw my work firsthand," says Schulman, who suggests students without jobs consider taking on short-term work to gain experience and make contacts.

In fact, when you want to make an impression either with a company that has uncertain hiring plans or with an internship employer who is on the fence, offer to lend a hand during the fall, says Weiler. Some schools even dole out academic credit for semester-long internships. Throughout the summer, you should be maintaining contact with any other businesses that showed interest in you when you interviewed for internships in the first place and circle back to see if they still need help, he says.

Don't be afraid to consider all your options. If you need a job because you won't be able to eat without one, and you're still unemployed by the middle of your second year, consider all the alternatives, says Deirdre O'Donnell, associate director of the Career Services Department at Dartmouth College's Tuck School of Business (Tuck Full-Time MBA Profile). Whatever you do, don't lose faith in yourself, says Weiler: "If you're good, eventually others will figure it out."

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