Business schools expect students to prepare for the working world. But how much help do they provide? Nic Paton reports

From running covert counter-terrorism operations to being a management consultant may seem like a huge career leap but in fact, says Scott Gebicke, there are surprising similarities between the two.

From running covert counter-terrorism operations to being a management consultant may seem like a huge career leap but in fact, says Scott Gebicke, there are surprising similarities between the two.

"You are basically using a skill or knowledge that you have, in my case skills from the US military, and taking it to a set of people or a country. It's just in a different setting," he explains.

Gebicke, a former counter terrorism officer with the US Navy, has for the past year been working as a consultant with McKinsey, and this summer will graduate from London Business School's executive MBA programme.

Doing an MBA was a key part of making the switch from military to civilian life. But without the support and direction of the school's careers service it is likely it would have been a much tougher transition, he believes.

"Right at the beginning LBS spends a week understanding who you are as an individual, what your propensities and core skills are," Gebicke explains.

As MBAs become more common, and competition for the best graduates ever more intense, UK businesses schools have been working hard to improve their careers services.

And it is just as well. Along with rising competition, many business schools report ever rising expectations among graduates - that the thousands of pounds they are shelling out for an MBA are going to change their life, career direction or promotion prospects (or all three).

The MBA may be less of a guarantee of automatic entry to the fast-track than it once was, but it does still hold sway with employers when it comes to job-hunting. According to the MBA Match 2002/03 careers survey, 22 per cent of MBA graduates change jobs within the first three months of graduating.

A survey by Saïd Business School, looking at where its 2004 graduates moved on to, found 41 per cent switched countries. Networking and campus recruiting accounted for 40 per cent of job offers.

Whatever business school you choose, it is more than likely that there will be a gamut of career services and advice available.

There may be variations or a particular focus but, by and large, you will have access to services such as individual coaching, self-assessment and psychological advice, workshops and role-play, CV and interviewing skills, a database and library of organisations, a milk round and so on.

In Gebicke's case, the extensive individual coaching and mentoring on offer was extremely valuable.

"They observe you in a group setting, as well as individually, look at your abilities, then suggest what might be a good direction for you," he says

Practical help on his CV and interviewing technique was also welcome. "You need to take full advantage of what they offer to fully understand your strengths and weaknesses," he says.

"You also want to make sure you are dealing with people who will be honest in their responses, who will tell you the truth about your potential. But the other half, of course, is being prepared to listen to what they are saying."

Some students have a clear understanding of where they want to go post-MBA; others see their qualification as a step change and are less sure what should be next.

Either way, planning needs to start from day one. Said, for instance, runs a careers orientation and advice week in what is called "week minus-one", before the course proper has even started.

Some schools try to get as realistic as possible, offering services such as a boardroom simulation, which allows students to act as shadow board directors.

Among European schools, the emphasis will often be more on using alumni, suggests Kathleen Dolan, director of MBA career services at IESE Business School in Barcelona.

"We bring in 200 alumni a year, to provide students with the knowledge to develop and frame their lifelong career, not just their post-MBA job," she explains.

London Business School is in the process of appointing an associate director to promote the whole issue of lifelong career support, says Graham Hastie, director of career services.

"People need to engage with career services early," he says. "There is a lot on offer and it is important to understand it."

Career services are at their best when they are helping you to reflect, filter and make practical choices. But however good they may be, the final leap is still up to you. In other words, don't assume they can hand-hold you into that dream job, argues Jeanette Purcell, chief executive of the Association of MBAs.

"They can provide a link with employers, have good resources and provide advice and training. But careers services cannot guarantee the job that most students expect of them."

'My Harvard MBA helped me to frame my ambition'

Harvard MBA graduate Dan Edwards was "blown away" by the intensity and importance the US business school attached to its careers advice, coaching and management.

A former project manager with Rolls-Royce, Edwards, 30, graduated from the two-year programme last summer and is now working as a senior consultant at Cambridge technology firm The Generics Group ­ a role he did not land through the school but which he might not have been led to without it.

"If you have come from a very specific background, the options open to you grow exponentially, which is wonderful, but then how do you choose what you really want to do?" he says.

The Harvard Business School careers team offers a wide range of services including individual coaching, mock interviews and access to a huge database of organisations.

"They will tell you if there is a gap between what you aspire to and what you have got.

"What they helped me do was to frame my ambition. They taught me not to be apologetic and British about it. Where I am working now, there is a real overlap between having a creative buzz and a depth of understanding about technology. And because it is a not a huge company you really feel you can make a contribution," he says.