Eight Questions Every MBA Should Ask Business students are facing the worst recruiting season in recent memory. Suzanne Koudsi does a case study at UCLA's Anderson School to find out what MBA grads can do to improve their chances of landing a job.
By Suzanne Koudsi

(FORTUNE Magazine) – Alysa Polkes guaranteed a room full of second-year MBA students a hundred grand. As head of the Career Management Center at the John E. Anderson Graduate School of Management at UCLA, she was trying to assure the group they would find good jobs. Then she pulled out a red-plastic-wrapped 100 Grand chocolate bar.

They weren't amused.

MBA candidates are facing a harsh new reality. When the Class of 2002 applied for B-school in late 1999, the economy was booming and a business degree seemed an easy ticket to a fat paycheck, a lofty title, and a boatload of options. As they arrived on campus to start their first year, fantasies of dot-com wealth were fading, but consulting firms and investment banks were rushing to fill the void. Now, with consulting firms struggling to find work for people already employed, investment banks grappling with layoffs, and the country engaged in a war, MBAs aren't even sure they'll graduate with a job at all.

After talking to students, career counselors, and recruiters at the Anderson School, FORTUNE came up with eight important questions students should ask themselves to navigate this nasty market.

Where do I see myself in five (or even ten) years?

Students need to think about their long-term goals and the different paths they can take to achieve them. Take, for example, one second-year student who eventually wants a senior-level position at a tech firm. The 28-year-old, who asked to remain anonymous, planned to spend a few years gaining experience at a bulge-bracket investment bank like Goldman Sachs or Morgan Stanley. Problem is, he already has a time-sensitive offer from a lesser bank, and he's not sure anything better is going to come around. Mary Albright-Smith, associate director of the career center, suggests that he think about whether this job might be a good first step toward his long-term goal. After all, accepting the offer may be his best bet. In fact, it may be his only one.

Do I have a backup plan? And a backup backup plan?

"You may find that you don't get exactly what you're looking for," explains Polkes. When second-year student Christopher Fleischner applied to Anderson, he wrote his essay about how he hoped to graduate with a job in consulting. And last winter he accepted a summer internship at a strategy consulting firm, but the internship was canceled days before he was supposed to start. A few weeks later he found another job working with a professor in educational entrepreneurship. Even though he didn't work at the consulting firm of his dreams, Fleischner enjoyed his internship and may have actually discovered a new career path. He isn't sure what he'll do when he graduates, but at least he knows that if consulting doesn't work out, he has other options.

Can I tell my story with passion and enthusiasm?

Every MBA needs to sell himself or herself to potential employers. In the days when companies scrambled to fill jobs, it seemed as if all a student had to do to get hired was show up for interviews. "When hiring needs go down," says David Golden, a co-director of investment banking at J.P. Morgan, "it's only natural to raise the bar." If today's students want to even be considered, they need to demonstrate their passion and dedication to a certain field. "Don't waste your time if you're not sincere," says Polkes. "It doesn't take someone with 30 years of interview experience to figure it out."

What can I tolerate emotionally and financially?

"Just do the math," says Elaine Hagan, associate director of the Harold Price Center for Entrepreneurial Studies and an Anderson alum. "It sounds really crude, but maybe you won't be able to take a job in L.A Maybe you'll need to move." Students have to evaluate what they can afford, because most of them won't be bringing in the bloated salaries they once expected. Plus, if the anxiety of holding out for a better job is overwhelming, it may be better to just take what's offered--at least for now.

If I can't find a job through the business school's career center, where else can I look?

Most of today's MBA grads can expect to look for jobs outside of their career centers. Polkes and her team offer some basic tips: Crank up networking, find companies that don't usually recruit on campus, join industry associations, and make the most of counseling resources. "Take a moment and really think about what you want to do," one second-year was heard advising a group of first-years. "Because it's going to be a long, painful process."

What if a company that I'm really interested in isn't hiring?

"Don't cave in," warns Polkes, who worries that some students will adopt a defeatist attitude. She tells students to remember that even if companies aren't hiring for certain divisions, they may be hiring in other parts of the firm. Also, if there's a position an MBA really wants, there are creative ways to get a company's attention. Students can offer to intern, work as consultants on certain projects, or even help the company find new business. One caveat: Don't cross the line between enthusiastic and annoying.

How can I make sure a company sees all I have to offer?

Treat the job-hunting process like a marketing project. Polkes says MBA candidates should act as if they are the CEOs of their own companies: Me Inc. "Recruiting is almost going to be an added course," warns second-year Bhuvy Abrol, who had an internship at a consulting firm and came back to campus without an offer. Job hunters should spend time perfecting resumes but also focus on other tools--interviews, research, and networking--to highlight their talents and skills.

Do I really want to be an investment banker or a consultant?

MBAs often end up falling victim to the herd mentality. Many take traditional jobs in banking and consulting because that's what they think they're supposed to do. "We've gotten so locked in because they've been high paying and high status," says Bill Broesamle, senior associate dean of the Anderson School. "I'd like to get people to avoid turning themselves into pretzels to get a job in investment banking." Broesamle thinks that more MBAs will have to explore careers that don't fit the mold. In some cases, that might mean sacrificing a fat paycheck. But if Broesamle is right and this is the beginning of a trend that will result in fewer MBAs landing on Wall Street or at McKinsey & Co., it's probably better to get used to it sooner rather than later.

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