Business schools and their students are slightly holding their breath amid the flurry of activity that marks the end of classes. So far, despite the financial turmoil in Europe, job prospects for this year's MBA graduates appear to be at least as good as they were last year, when a host of encouraging economic data boosted confidence. And businesses are also just as eager as they were last year to recruit, schools report.
"In a downturn, we see more thoughtfulness among students," says Fiona Sandford, director of career services at London Business School.
"[There has been] less of a herd instinct to apply to the likes of Goldman Sachs and McKinsey."
Instead, business graduates might look at their entrepreneurial options or choose to cut their teeth in industry. "A certain amount of realism kicks in; they have a realistic plan B to put themselves in a good place so, when the market comes back, they can be employable in their dream job," Sandford says.
Job prospects for business graduates in Asia and Latin America are healthy, and London is faring better than elsewhere in Europe, according to several business schools. Opportunities in asset management, fast moving consumer goods and pharmaceuticals are all steady at last year's level, while telecoms and technology are healthy and there are more job openings among top tier consultancy firms.
Results from the latest global management education graduate survey show that, worldwide, the number of job offers have risen among graduates of MBAs and other management education – 79 per cent of companies said that they planned to hire recent MBA graduates, compared with 72 per cent in 2011.
Small businesses account for the largest proportional increase in demand for graduate management hires, the Graduate Management Admission Council (GMAC) found. "We're not seeing the disaster scenario of 2008 to 2009 when major recruiters withdrew," says Sandford. "Later they realised they cut too hard and too fast and were scrabbling around for talent."
Throughout the year, business schools urge participants to build their networks intelligently – hone their profile and establish hundreds of relevant contacts on LinkedIn, follow business leaders on social media and read the kind of articles that CEOs read and write. Students are also urged to refer back to their own values and personalities they examined at the start of their Masters.
Technical and financial tools are important, says Sandford, "but perhaps most important is the self knowledge you gain through an MBA – it has a fantastic impact. An MBA should be a trans-formative experience."
We asked four participants on the home run of their MBA to take stock of their business education – and their subsequent job prospects. Here's what they said.
Funeral services: 'Our cohort is a tight bunch'
Elizabeth Meyer, 27, is completing a full-time MBA at Cass Business School in London. She worked as a manager in the funeral industry and will return to the business in a different capacity. She received a partial academic scholarship of £16,000. First degree: Propaganda and its effects on international public policy (New York University)
"You might not think an MBA is applicable to the funeral industry – but it's a business like any other. I was concerned about taking a year out of work and pulling myself away from my connections. Although I'm sure of myself academically, I thought I'd be at a disadvantage not having taken classes in business or finance. Cass did a great job of letting me know they had confidence in me and they place strong emphasis on soft skills, which are my strength.
Preconceived notions that business degrees are solely based in finance are wrong. I knew I'd never go into banking, but I can now hold my own in a conversation about finance. My tutors were very supportive.
Nobody comes to business school with all the knowledge, so my fears were soothed.
Our cohort is an unbelievably tight bunch – working with them has been the best and worst part of an MBA, but fights have brought us all closer. It's been painful, but even more rewarding.
When we're working on group projects we're in school together from 9am to 9pm. We went to Poland on a six-day consultancy project – it was great to immerse yourself and use what you'd learnt. We worked with non-profit organisations – getting out of London as a group was an intense experience. We've also done varied longer projects.
Was it worth it? Unequivocally, yes. Putting yourself in a situation where you are vulnerable and learning that questioning yourself is OK – it all makes you stronger. I learned to ask questions that I didn't know existed. I have a whole new lens to look through, a different vocabulary – I can assess situations better and I can argue my worth. My longer term career prospects have grown enormously."
Journalism: 'An MBA is certainly worth it'
Mark Partridge, 28, who holds joint UK and US nationality, worked as a journalist in Seattle before studying an MBA at Foster School of Business at the University of Washington. First degree: Modern history (UCL)
"An MBA wasn't really a difficult decision – I knew I wanted to go back to school. I was looking for practical skills that would help me do interesting things and an MBA did just that. Full-time was an easy decision. I felt that taking out loans to pay for school was worthwhile so I could focus exclusively on school - especially since I was looking to change careers.
On the one hand, I did get the hard-nosed finance and accounting that you expect from business school. But there's also a lot more psychology than you might expect. You learn that your ability to work with, read and persuade other people is one of the key parts of the MBA – I think these softer skills are some of the more valuable lessons.
I'm still learning about what I really want to do after graduation and get excited about new opportunities. Speaking to other people and alumni is really interesting, because they do so many different things and you get great advice – they are great at helping you figure out where you want to end up and help whenever they can. You can get wrapped up in the day-to-day of assignments and the internship hunt. I've certainly changed during the year – how I look at the world is very different now. I can understand some of the seemingly illogical moves companies and leaders are making. I have a much better grasp about the market. I am also making different decisions in my life because of things I learned in organisation behaviour class.
Eventually, I would like to work in venture capital or early stage private equity, identifying growth investments and helping to build them.
An MBA is certainly worth it if you get a job you enjoy and are able to pay it back, but it's not cheap. At this point I think it's worth it given the new skills I've learned and jobs I expect to get – but we'll see."
Public services: 'I'm not your typical student'
Rebecca Walters, 35, worked in the public sector and was involved in sports development with young people. She received a partial scholarship to take a one-year full-time MBA at Durham Business School.
First degree: Physical education and applied social sciences (University College of Ripon and York St John)
"I'm not your typical MBA student. I saw the Government cutbacks coming, so I took a risk to upskill and cement those I'd already learnt. I thought it was better to take the jump than wait for the inevitable. Returning to essay writing and theses wasn't an exciting prospect, but I really wanted to learn again and understand how things fit together – the depth of insight has been brilliant and I feel I understand the world a little better now.
Before I started the MBA I had fingers in a lot of pies, and the core academic framework has given me a more in-depth understanding. I wasn't fearful beforehand, maybe just a bit nervous. I'm the only woman from the UK in a class of 46 – we come from 26 countries and such a mix of backgrounds. There's a representative from the United Nations, a head teacher from Japan, military personnel from Sierra Leone. It's an absolute joy, our skill sets are so broad and you see things from 20-odd different perspectives – it does challenge your level of understanding – it's one of the big things I'll take away.
I was never coming into an MBA for massive financial gains. With my background with young people and sport, I wanted to put myself in a position where I could influence and create change for a better future. When I look at the cohort, it's given me an insight into how that would happen. Choosing elective modules was easy – I knew where I wanted to go.
Has it been worth it? One hundred per cent yes. I'm so excited about the future – not that I wasn't before. I've had to beg, borrow and steal to support myself and when I finish my thesis I'll have to get a job quickly – I haven't yet begun looking in earnest. I'm now in a better position to work successfully in something I'm passionate about.
It's almost been a full stop, then my life starting with a new sentence but written with a better pen. I can't wait to see where it goes."
Advertising: 'I have absolutely no regrets'
Tom Jones, 45, has taken an executive (part-time) MBA at Lancaster University Management School (LUMS). He has recently changed jobs from a regional business development role at EEF, the manufacturers' organisation, to become managing director designate of Elonex Sport, which sells advertising at sports stadiums.
First degree: Combined Studies (University of Newcastle upon Tyne)
"I've always had a personal interest in ongoing professional development. I've undertaken professional management training and also delivered it in the past. Although there are far more providers now, an MBA is still the pinnacle of business education and very well respected, so it ticks two boxes.
I had two main concerns – that I'd meet the academic standards and whether I could fit it around work and family – I'm in full-time management, which takes me around the country, and when I began the course my sons were three and five. I've made much better use of my time – using train journeys to study, switching off Sky Sports and working weekends and evenings. My learning style is more pragmatic than theoretical, and a strong emphasis on theories and frameworks has been challenging.
I chose LUMS because of the consultancy elective, which has been rewarding and I've been slightly disappointed that finance hasn't been more about management accounting. On the executive course, we haven't had as many speakers as I'd have liked but we've had plenty of opportunities to gel with the cohort, which has been one of the strongest benefits.
It's reinforced a lot of personal and business values. I have absolutely no regrets about taking the course – it's invaluable, though I would have liked more focus on the practical side. If I start churning out management theories, people will ask 'what the bloody hell does that mean?'
I have more questions now about what I will do than I did at the start of the course, but that's a good thing. I didn't plan to change jobs but questions I put to myself made me take that decision. It's also got me thinking about self-employment."
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