The Independent MBA: Where next for MBA graduates?

With fewer jobs on the market, it's important to choose a school with a good careers service
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The Independent Online

In the old days, hard career choices meant deciding which lucrative job offer to go for at the end of your MBA course. Enquiries about career services were confined to a brief look down the list of visiting recruiters or checking how many alumni ended up in consultancy and banking. Needless to say, times have changed. A global economic slowdown, and the dip in confidence after 11 September, have combined to make 2002 one of the toughest yet for MBA graduates.

In the old days, hard career choices meant deciding which lucrative job offer to go for at the end of your MBA course. Enquiries about career services were confined to a brief look down the list of visiting recruiters or checking how many alumni ended up in consultancy and banking. Needless to say, times have changed. A global economic slowdown, and the dip in confidence after 11 September, have combined to make 2002 one of the toughest yet for MBA graduates.

"Around 60 per cent of our MBA students are looking for a drastic change in career, but only half of these are likely to achieve this," says Simon Tankard, who heads up the career service at the Said Business School at Oxford University. "Three quarters of our students who graduated last September accepted a job within three months, and there are opportunities around. But recruiters are trying not to raise expectations by visiting campus if they don't have jobs to offer people."

So, how can prospective students judge whether a school will work hard to help them find a job? "One of the best ways is to contact a former student," says Wendy Hall of Cranfield School of Management. "They'll give you the negatives as well as the positives." Cranfield encourages MBA participants to follow a personal development plan. It has also signed up to an on-line careers service, Global Workplace, which puts recruiters in touch with students from 24 business schools around the world.

While internationally renowned schools may have well-established careers services, this may not be the case lower down the pecking order. Some schools that are part of a larger university structure have relied on facilities designed for undergraduates. This may have gone unnoticed in the past, but MBA students are now more demanding. Foreign students on full-time courses can face particular difficulties, even with getting project placements. The good news is that most schools are realising they have to respond. The Vlerick Leuven Gent Management School in Belgium has just appointed a full-time careers professional, and Leicester Business School has set up a website to advertise its students' skills.

The ability to put students in touch with influential alumni is another factor which can make a difference to career services. Bath University's School of Management, which has a dedicated careers service for MBA students, has increased the number of alumni functions it holds around the world. Its careers manager, Clare Stott, says the aim is to make the most of a global network: "We are piggy-backing on some events with the British Council in countries where we have alumni, and organising talks from former students here in Bath."

Insead, based in Fontainebleau, boasts an MBA alumni base of more than 12,000 people and regularly organises networking events. It recently emailed its alumni, requesting help with company placements or recruitment. Insead's marketing manager, Nick Barniville, says the careers service has responded to the economic downturn by re-organising, giving staff responsibility for specific industry sectors. The school is also widening its contacts outside the banking and consulting industries.

Unless your heart is set on finance or consulting it could be time to look at schools with a history of broad-based recruitment. At Manchester Business School, Barbara Beeby says MBA students are encouraged not to rush for the first job available. "I would say that a careers service that offers help from the start – even if it is a two-year programme – is a huge advantage." At London Business School, which attracts many hopeful investment bankers, a task force has been set up to help with job searches. The school has also organised three student trips to Dubai, Shanghai and continental Europe. And, along with many other schools, it is extending its career services to students who have graduated.

Open days and interviews are good opportunities for applicants to see whether the reality of the careers services matches up to the promises on paper. Does the head of careers have an obvious presence in the school, and are there facilities for students to do their own job searches or be interviewed? Edinburgh University's school of management is turning part of the graduate centre into a careers centre and MBA students are being offered a mentoring service from alumni. The architects who designed the Said Business School in Oxford responded to student feedback by including recruitment interview suites and a dedicated career management centre within the complex. "It sends a signal," says Simon Tankard, "that we understand the importance of the service".

The downturn in recruitment may have provided a reality check for people who hoped an MBA would be a passport to the career of their dreams. But business school staff who have taught through previous recessions argue that current graduates will be in a good position to take advantage of future recovery. However good the career service is, there may be no substitute for individual research. At Cranfield, Wendy Hall advises candidates to talk to employers before they begin studying. "Think about the kind of firms you might like to approach on graduation, then ask them for their views on the business schools they are considering. What do they think of their graduates? Would they recruit from that school? That's what you need to know."

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