Friday, March 11, 2011

New Consortium Class: A Well-Thought-Out Detour

In a matter of days, around the country, over 300 Consortium applicants will have received good news. They will have been invited to become Consortium members and will prepare to enter top-tier business schools. Many will be awarded full-tuition fellowships.  Of course, they will be invited to the annual Orientation Program (this year in Minneapolis), where they'll meet fellow Consortium students from 17 schools. They will join more than 6,000 other Consortium alumni and students.

They'll be relieved, knowing the painstaking effort to apply, write detailed essays about their business aspirations, solicit recommendations, and present themselves in neat, powerful packages will have been worth it.  

This year's class, more than a conventional class, endured much to reach the point of returning to school. A typical applicant probably finished college in the mid-2000s and joined a prominent institution in an entry-level program. When applicants started out, it would have been bustling years; markets soared and there was little hint that a collapse was approaching.  But just as they began to make full impressions in their work worlds, rugs were pulled from them.

Hence, this new crop of Consortium students endured and survived the worst of the financial crisis and recession. They had to bear lay-offs, uncertainty, changes in jobs, and re-locations; they had to reflect candidly about what they wanted to do in the long run. Their reflections likely led them to consider business school as the best option to rekindle their careers, transition into something they enjoy or prefer, or steer themselves onto a better long-term track.

This new crop, too, was well-schooled on how to take next steps, make switches, or present themselves in attractive ways. One outcome of the recent times has been a flood of career advice offered to young MBAs or pre-MBAs--a cottage industry of executive and business coaching.  Before they set off to business school, many in this class reached out to mentors, managers, and career counselors. They will have had chances to get their resumes' reviewed, polished, and reformatted, their elevator pitches perfected, and--thanks to Facebook and Linkedin--their networks expanded and nurtured. 

In the midst of turmoil, transitions, and coaching, applicants decided the next step would be business school.

Applicants and new students are not necessarily abandoning old, favorite career paths, but they don't appear to fall into conventional or prestige traps.  Recall the days when students marched into business school wanting investment banking or consulting, but weren't sure why or aware what it entailed--beyond the fact that this is what students at top schools do, so they heard.

Or remember way back when business-school graduates fled to dot-com start-ups, not because they had an idea or a plan, but because that was the target path for a period. Some applicants and students this year (and in recent classes) still want investment banking or consulting and some want to work for Internet companies on the West Coast, but they know why and understand why. 

Applicants and new students today also are willing to explore, change their minds, and pursue something they had not thought of initially. Thus, students start out with mergers and acquisitions in mind and decide (with emphasis and determination) they prefer private banking. Some say they want to be derivatives traders, but learn about green technology, microfinance, media management and take detours into that direction.

Some, while in school, discover pharmaceutical or energy sectors or international business and all of a sudden focus on new interests.  Others start in real estate and switch into investment management. Others, too, become turned on to industry groups and decide to accept corporate-finance offers in industrial or consumer-product companies. Or they learn they can do mergers, acquisitions, consulting or business strategy at companies outside of Wall Street or Park Avenue.

Today's Consortium applicants and students appear comfortable switching into something else without regret or without missing the career that might have been if they stayed on a conventional path. Business schools have stepped up to explain and present a variety of career options--from entrepreneurship to non-profit management to innovative business models--and to show the advantages of working abroad.

Gone are the days when applicants, after they are admitted to a top school, checked off they wanted to do consulting at McKinsey and spend 5-10 years there before deciding what's next.  Applicants and students, nowadays, don't necessarily know what they want to do, and they are comfortable with that. They do know, more than ever, they must seize control and chart pathways for themselves.

First, however, comes the thrilling anticipation of an overwhelming, memorable two-year experience in school.  There will be core courses, case studies and mind-boggling amounts of work. But there will also be eye-opening sessions with professors who are doing new things, spring-break jaunts to foreign companies, important projects that reach into the community or across the country, taps into elaborate alumni and student networks, and perhaps a semester in South America, China or Europe. An exciting detour before they resume a career path better thought out.

Tracy Williams

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