Here’s what they don’t tell you about the first week of business school:
You need to decide right then what you want to do for the rest of your life, forever and ever, amen.
At least, that’s what it feels like.
The career service’s office puts the pressure on to narrow your focus, figure it out, do the research and start hunting for that internship. They bring in high-powered speakers from each type of job (i-banking, private wealth, general management — the list goes on) to tell you what it’s like to live their lives. They dole out more personality quizzes than Cosmo (Myers-Briggs, anyone?) and force a ton of introspection (What makes you really happy? What are you really good at?).
It suddenly dawns on you that you are not just here for two years of education, enlightenment and world-broadening. You are here to get a job. As someone once told me, b-school is a two-year job search.
To be fair to b-schools around the world, they’re under a lot of pressure. Those fancy b-school rankings in Business Week and others rely heavily on statistics on how many graduates have a job and how much that job pays. Also, it’s a bad economy and competitive market, so we need to be prepared. And there is so much to do at my MBA program that if the career office didn’t force us to pay attention, narrow it down and focus on our job search, it would be very, very easy to shove it on the back burner.
But that pressure cooker of the first week is intense. And it was as I listened to all these experts telling me about their jobs and the reason that being an i-banker/consultant/marketer/trader that I started to think I should be a consultant.
All the logic is there. Consulting is exciting, ever-changing and full of smart people (kind of like the world of journalism I just left). A couple years of consulting can act like a post-MBA business fellowship, teaching you about lots of business, industries and problems and helping you refine your skills and narrow down what it is you want to do. It’s also a high-respect job that makes getting another job much easier. Employers see “consultant for McKinsey” on your resume and think, “Super smart. Let’s hire her!”
And consultants make a whoooole lotta money.
The downsides? You have no life. I don’t care what consultants say, as I define life, you have none. You travel and are away from home for four days a week. You work really, really long hours. One guy we heard talk, a guy who’s been a consultant for 16 years, said he missed his wife’s birthdays/anniversaries regularly – but he was always home for the parent-teacher conferences.
During that first week I seriously pondered that trade off. I started having sobering conversations with my parents about how I could put in two or three years of having no life in return for all the benefits of consulting: the experience, the excitement, the money. All three were like catnip for someone like me who came from a nontraditional, low-paying background. Here was a chance to make up some of that deficit. Consulting seemed like the right thing to do, the right sacrifice to make.
You can do this, I told myself. It’s only two years. It’s worth it.
Then, at the end of the week, I went to church with a group of students. There was nothing particularly inspiring about the service or the sermon. I think it was just the first time in a couple weeks that I was forced to sit still and reflect. The pressure of b-school receded a bit.
I let myself ask the question I had been avoiding: What’s going to make me happy?
The answer was surprisingly easy – not consulting. Six years earlier I had lived a life that was horribly out of whack. Way too much work, almost no personal life; lots of professional success and lots of personal emptiness. It was the worst time of my life and I promised I’d never, ever go back. And yet here I was, turning to my Dark Side after just a week in b-school.
I felt like Luke Skywalker refusing Darth Vader. I didn’t have to make this sacrifice. Sure, life was going to be a little harder now. I’d have to give up the glory of joining the Empire and riding in the Death Star to hang out with ewoks and watch Harrison Ford make out with my sister, but I would still have fulfilling work saving the galaxy and being happy.
As cheesy as it sounds, I realized life was too short to give up so much, even for just a few years. This isn’t to say that some of the 7,000 b-school students pursuing consulting jobs this year are wrong. This is my Dark Side, not theirs. It simply wasn’t right for me.
But I think a lot of b-school students are struggling with their own Dark Sides right now. Do I do the thing that makes me happy or the thing that makes me money/prestige/success? It’s a tough call when they aren’t one and the same.
I had a guy say to me last night that he thinks only the truly lucky get to do what they love. I politely disagreed. I think the truly brave do.