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Managing your MBA job search in a down market

Phillip McMullen
Associate Director, Career Education and Planning
Massachusetts Institute of Technology Sloan School of Management

Ron Peracchio
Associate Director, MBA Career Services
Harvard Business School

This past year has been considered by many to be the worst job market for MBAs in recent history. The industries to which MBAs have traditionally flocked have been especially hard hit. Professional Services organizations including consulting firms and investment banks have seen a tremendous downturn in business and have significantly reduced their head count. Many MBA graduates from the Class of 2002 who accepted jobs with consulting firms had their start dates delayed by several months to over a year. Many of the 2002 graduates fortunate enough to capture a highly coveted investment banking position, found themselves out of a job only two or three months after starting. Opportunities at high technology start-ups have all but disappeared and larger more established technology firms have cut management ranks in droves.

So what should an MBA job seeker do? First, it is critical to be focused. Although MBA job seekers need to be strategic and flexible, it is increasingly important to not attempt a “shot gun” style job search. Through self-assessment and introspection, evaluate what you really want to do and your marketability for a particular type of position. If it seems attainable, create a strategy to get there. In this competitive environment, it is often critical to create a tiered approach to your job search by simultaneously pursuing several career tracks. For example, a job seeker interested in finding an opportunity in private equity might have the following strategy:

Plan A - a position at a private equity firm

Plan B - an investment banking positing at a bulge bracket firm or niche/regional bank

Plan C - a position in corporate finance at an operating company which provides deal experience

Although a job seeker needs to focus, they also need to stay flexible as they gather new information about a particular track and their marketability within it. It is important to have a realistic view of one’s marketability in the current environment. For career changers, which includes the majority of MBA students, it is especially important to be realistic about your marketability. It is also critical to manage the amount of change that you introduce to your career search. For example, in this competitive market, it is very difficult to change both industry and function in a single career move. For first-year MBA students, a summer internship can provide the perfect opportunity to change either industry or function and gain the necessary experience to facilitate the second part of the transition after graduation. For others, taking a job for a few years while maintaining a long-term goal of making a second move to get into your chosen position is often necessary. International students who are looking to work in the United States should be especially considerate of managing change as work eligibility adds a third dimension, which needs to be managed along with industry and function

Finally look for work off the beaten path. Don’t rely only on Web job boards or your business school’s job postings. The competition for these opportunities can be fierce. Networking to uncover the hidden job market will typically yield better results. Alumni from graduate and undergraduate schools, fellow students, personal contacts, and professional associations are great networking resources. Also, target regional and niche firms that other job seekers may be overlooking.

Are there any bright spots? The biotechnology and pharmaceutical industries have weathered the recent economic storm better then most. Fortune 500 companies and operating companies are also hiring in limited numbers. This has caused many MBAs to seek challenging management opportunities in these areas. Although the job market is competitive, there are still challenging and fulfilling jobs available. It just takes a little more focus, determination and patience to uncover them.