Headed to B-School? Don't Pack the Career Blinders

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A guest post from Matt Symonds, chief editor of MBA50.com, a website dedicated to the world’s outstanding business schools. He is also director of Fortuna Admissions and co-author of ABC of Getting the MBA Admissions Edge.

Matt Symonds
When it comes to career planning, I spent most of my early teenage years hoping to score the winning goal in a cup final for Manchester United, or turn the game around for England on the cricket field. When I finally accepted the reality that neither of these was likely to happen, I tried a pre-college internship at a law firm, but was clearly not cut out for that either. Starting my own business came later, but there was no business plan or exit strategy—I don’t think I even had any numbers scribbled on the back of an envelope.

So I’ve always seen business school and the MBA, in particular, as a great opportunity to discover your real professional calling. I know that business schools expect you to be specific about your post-MBA career goals at the point of applying, not when you graduate. However, the idea of sharing a year or two with individuals from all walks of professional life, cultural background, and personal ambition seems tailor-made for exploring ideas and devising a career path for the next 10 years or so. Added to that, business schools lay on a royal spread of assessment and coaching to help you define your professional road map.

I was struck recently by a conversation with an associate dean of one of Europe’s top schools, HEC Paris, Bernard Garrette, and his description of students who he sees falling into two distinct career categories—”hunters” and “explorers.”

The hunters have things fully mapped before they arrive on campus, single-mindedly pursuing a career in investment banking or strategy consulting. They are quick to network in their chosen field, arrange interviews with target firms for their internships or field work, and use the MBA to build the knowledge and competence that will serve them straight out of school.

The explorers on the other hand have enough self-awareness to recognize their talents and potential, but are using the business school experience to consider various career paths, imagine entrepreneurial pursuits, and try their hand at a wide range of classes and activities.

With a 16-month program, Garrette estimates that HEC Paris has more explorers than hunters, and gives the example of Minneapolis-based graduate Katherine Ainsworth, who prior to her MBA in Paris was working in ad sales at the Hollywood Reporter. Tired of the corporate ladder, and keen to embrace a different culture, Ainsworth used her studies to develop a jewelry business that now, two years after she finished school, attracts a global client base. Along the way she picked up a financial toolbox, used input from fellow students to develop new communication channels, and got the inside story on luxury brand management direct from the chief executive officer of Givenchy.

Ainsworth has come away from the MBA experience doing the job she dreamed might be possible, though perhaps not the job she expected to do. A poster child for the explorers.

So my message this week goes out to the hunters. Business school has the power to completely transform the career expectations of individuals, even those who thought they knew exactly what they wanted to do. Hunting for a job at McKinsey, Morgan Stanley, or Google is an understandable goal, but the MBA is a golden opportunity to explore other options, and to learn if your calling lies elsewhere. And, in increasingly unpredictable job markets, even if you are set on a particular discipline or sector, having a Plan B is a good idea.

Perhaps one of the best things you can take with you to business school is an open mind.

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