Sunday, March 8, 2015

The Unbearable Lightness of Being an MBA Aspirant (or How to stop freaking out about your choices?)

This is the time of the year when thousands of young people across the country are on the tenterhooks, waiting for this B school interview call and that shortlist, and then waiting some more - for the final results, hoping that they can make the cut at one of the top business schools in the country. Their anxiety is understandable and yet somewhat misplaced. This piece is an attempt to alleviate some of that anxiety and share some of the experiences that inform my opinions on these issues. 

So what are the most common dilemmas that plague aspirants -
WhenShould I quit my job and go for an MBA? Should I work for a couple of years and then go to B school or join as a fresher? 
WhereGiven my percentile and my calls, which college should I pick? How important is the choice of an MBA stream? Can you switch from one stream to another after graduating? What is the value of a college brand in the corporate world? 
WhyIs there something specific that I intend to elicit from my MBA experience or is it a stepping stone to greater, yet uncertain and undecided things in my career? Am I joining it for the learning experience or for the benefits of being in the system? 

I believe aspirants spend most of their time fretting on the first two questions and forget that the answer to the third clarifies matters significantly. People come to a business school for all kinds of valid reasons - good placements, career shifts, for the college experience, business education before launching an entrepreneurial venture etc. and keeping that purpose front and center helps resolve the many doubts that might creep in as you go along. This clarity is not easy to achieve. For instance, I joined School of Management, IIT Bombay after a very eclectic two years post graduation. I graduated from IIT Madras in 2012 and joined Teach for India. I wrote and failed to clear the Civil Services Mains Exam in 2014, worked briefly as a contributor at an online newspaper and then decided that I needed to make long-term career choices sooner rather than later. I had always looked at a business degree with a healthy dose of skepticism regarding the value-addition that they provide. However, the last eight months or so have forced me to revise that assessment and I can assert that an MBA degree from a good institution is worth the time and money and opportunity cost without being disingenuous. So if one wants to answer the "Why MBA" question, one need not look further than learning opportunity and personal growth. An MBA ideally equips you to handle the professional business environment and is an easy route into the industry. If you do well, your rise can be meteoric. Once you have answered your why question, you can figure out the choices for when and where pretty easily. I wanted to be financially independent as soon as possible and hence I needed to stop experimenting with my career trajectory, put my foot down and make a definite choice. So my time was last year. For some others, pursuing their interests, discovering some hidden talents might have a higher priority and they can take the MBA plunge later.

A simple rule of thumb for those who have recently graduated could be -- if you are not getting into your dream college this year, then it's better to work for a few years and then try again. I know plenty of my engineering peers who didn't make it into their desired B schools in their first attempt but made it through later even though they had lower percentiles, on the back of their work-experience. Also, a penny today is better than a penny (and loan payments) tomorrow! A few good years working in a professional setting also gives you an edge in the interviews because you are considerably wiser than the green fresher. The choice is more difficult for those who are not satisfied with their current job profiles and intend to make a career switch via the MBA route. The competition is stiff and they need to get the scores and build their profiles in order to make it. 

Which B school to pick once you have a few choices is another googly that stumps most of the aspirants. There is no right way to answer this question, hence the profusion of professional advice on the subject. B School Rankings can be an indicator but their reliability is often in question. A college can be judged on a long list of parameters and there is a lot of subjectivity in the process. Some of the key factors I would ask aspirants to consider when picking their college are -- placement reports, batch sizes, student-faculty ratio, infrastructure, reputation among peers and industry, location etc. The best way to answer these questions is to do some research, talk to that friend of a friend in a particular college, go beyond the official story and get a sense of the ground reality. I believe most of the colleges fall into certain segments, some colleges have a rich history and pedigree and the pecking order is clear, but there are more similarities than differences in the rest of the schools. It is hard to separate two colleges without accounting for personal choices. Any interested aspirant can probably find out these tiers of B schools and make his own call depending on which parameter he values the most. The stream you pick is absolutely essential for your career since it is hard to switch once you get into the industry. General Management degrees have the advantage of giving you the ability to defer your choice and make a decision later when you have more information. The skills needed for finance are very different from those needed for marketing and if candidates are not clear on what their strengths are, they need to do a lot of soul-searching before they chose their MBA stream. You could go about this process by interacting with students in B schools, reading up on their experiences in online forums like this website and finding out what the job actually entails and if you are up for it. Consultants have to travel constantly, finance guys work on excel sheets, operations people will have to sweat it out in manufacturing plants and so on. This groundwork is essential before you make your decision. Hence, the wiser choice would be to go for a General Management Degree if you are unsure. 
All I have said so far must be fairly self-evident for any serious aspirant. So what was the point of this piece? I want to convince people that the incredible levels of stress that people have regarding MBA choices is unreasonable. Eventually, if you work hard, you will get into a good B school (and there is not much to separate the many schools from each other) and you will land a good job. Aspirants often work under the perception that getting into a good school will mean that everything else takes care of itself. But the battle lines have only been drawn once you are in a good school. All of this is training and the real test lies ahead. There is no point in stressing before the D-day arrives and burning out. Your first job post MBA will influence your career direction much more than any choice you make at this stage. If we want to get everything out of our MBA degrees, we must look at the longer-term objectives, realize that your B school choice will be relevant only in the first few years of your first job and ultimately it's how good you are at your skills and what attitudes you have developed towards business thinking and problem-solving over the years, that matter in the workplace. Let's not mistake the starting blocks for the finish line.

Oscar Wilde once said that "A cynic is someone who knows the price of everything but the value of nothing."  For too long have aspirants taken the cynical approach to making life choices -- calculating returns on investment, scouring through summer and final placement reports for the compensation details etc., it's time they look at the value they are seeking from this experience, clearly specify their long-term aspirations and then take an informed call. I believe that such an approach would reduce the stress and anxiety levels and considerably increase their confidence levels when they face the next interview panel. 

This is not a sprint which is decided once the admission results are out. This is a marathon. You must hunker down for the long haul, rid yourself of myopic reasoning and prepare for life.  So Cheer up!

Good Luck. 

Ashish Kashyap is a First Year student at Shailesh J. Mehta School of Management, IIT Bombay (2014-16)


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