Wednesday, February 15, 2012

MBA Job-Hunting: No Need to Panic Yet

On campus, the hiring process is not quite over.
For some MBA students, including those in Consortium schools, whether in their first year or about to graduate, February's arrival could cause panic:  Do I have significant job offers on the table?  Will I spend the summer at my first choice--proving myself in a formal internship program that will lead to a full-time offer in August?  Or must I resort to the only choice I have? Must I return to an old job I wanted to leave in the first place?  If graduation looms, do I settle for the first offer available, or do I wait for my dream post?

When February comes, some students beam and boast of offers from top-tier financial institutions, consulting firms, or big corporations. Some have already accepted offers. Others, without the offers or opportunities they covet, grow worried and try to figure out what to do with composure and a new strategy in mind. 

There's no need to panic just yet.  Buckle down. This is the time many gripe about campus career and placement services. These departments try to provide pathways from the classroom to corporate cubicles and conference rooms. They suffer, however, much criticism at schools everywhere. 

They operate under pressure to be all things to all students.  Deans watch them and push them to show the highest percentages possible of graduates finding jobs that pay the highest salaries possible.  In February, when they wish they could provide candid, thoughtful guidance on next steps for overworked, pressured students, they get mired in hiring statistics.  Take the first job offered at the highest compensation, they might advise unwittingly and without much thought.

For students still planning a summer or a first year beyond school, buckle down, and work with networks and alumni ties.  Reach out to alumni, professor and/or social contacts--at all levels. Most top firms, funds, banks and companies, where MBAs want to work, have already concluded the hiring cycle for 2012.  Students learn it is probably too late to seek employment at those places.  

But don't give up just yet.  Alumni and network contacts can alert you to what the real story is.  The hiring cycle has just ended, but there could be alternative ways to find an entrance through the backdoor.  

At the notable financial institutions, MBAs are hired for formal programs. But sometimes specific business groups with the larger company have sudden, special business needs. Human Resources may have under-counted the number of interns or first-year associates needed in the coming year. They misinterpreted the incremental work for new presentations, deals, clients, and finance models.  Business units will not want to wait for the next hiring cycle a year later; they seek to fill hiring gaps as soon as possible. 

In such scenarios, the institution will encourage the business unit to hire from within or look for someone willing to transfer into the unit.  Sometimes, however, the unit will head to campus to seek help or tap the MBA student who persevered and came through the backdoor. 

In the meantime, if the ideal offer hasn't come yet, now might be one more chance to review, refine and polish the story you are presenting to prospective employees. Make sure you convey a unique or intriguing story that shows how the finance MBA and past accomplishments translate smoothly into what you want to do, how a polished resume' will lead to immediate contributions in an entry position. 

The story you told before might indeed have been near perfect in your view; prospective employees might even agree.  But it may not have been for what they needed for the moment. Sometimes revising or re-engineering the story is an effective way of proving not just competence, but fit.

Reach out to alumni at the places on your wish list, especially alumni who were in the same programs or management tracks you are pursuing. Touch bases even with first- or second-year alumni,  those who have recently gone through the process. They won't be involved in hiring strategies and decisions, but they are the ones who can share intelligence of hiring trends, hiring practices and strategies. They know which units are hiring, cutting back, or expanding abroad. Having been through the process, many don't mind sharing details of how they got through it or how they slipped through back, if that was necessary. 

Now is also the time to peek at Plan B and realize that Plan B may not be as bad as you initially thought.  Approach Plan B as if it were a stepping stone back to Plan A. You might find, in the process, that Plan A was wrapped in the wrong reasons to pursue a position (prestige, incentive compensation, amenities, e.g.).  Plan B might actually encompass the rational reasons (experience, exposure, skills refinement, immediate contributions, e.g.).

Explore carefully opportunities you might have dismissed early in the process. They may be at smaller companies, boutiques, or funds.  They could be in regions outside of the usual finance centers. They may be in industries (manufacturing, technology, communications, or energy) you hadn't discovered before, but where roles in finance, strategy, capital markets and M&A are still critical. 

If you pursue opportunities off the beaten path and are successful, negotiate an experience or role that will emphasize financial analysis, corporate finance, modeling, finance strategy, and/or markets. A profound summer experience at a global company or a first assignment in strategy, treasury or markets can still become gems on a resume' down the road. 

Everywhere in recent weeks, we detect hints, signs and trends that the environment has improved. The known banks and institutions are tip-toeing through this hopeful, but fragile scenario--still hesitant to hire in large numbers, still not sure what they should do for the long-term. Yet in pockets or office corners in scattered places, an alumnus contact might let you know that in her group, they desperately need a smart MBA intern from, say, Cornell, Virginia, Rochester, or Emory to help on a current deal, portfolio review, or strategy presentation.

Tracy Williams

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