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Marketing 101: To M.B.A. Candidates, The Top Course Today Is to Land a Good Job

December 5, 1995

During his first week at the University of Chicago’s graduate business school, Gordon Eichhorst admits, ``I didn’t do much studying.″ Instead, he spent 20 hours revamping his resume for a school publication that is sent to hundreds of recruiters and 15 more hours at various companies’ presentations and receptions.

``It’s pretty much the first thing you need to focus on,″ he says.

With students ever more obsessed over their futures in a rapidly changing economy, the job hunt has become the top course on campus. And frequently the first course: While a decade ago on-campus recruiting typically began just months before graduation, it now sometimes starts during first-year orientation week.

Although the task of landing choice jobs has always helped define an M.B.A. program’s success, its importance has grown as tuition has increased and as the average student has become older and more mature. And it has further gained priority since major magazines, starting with a 1988 Business Week survey, began rating business schools. Business Week tallies letter grades that M.B.A. graduates and corporate recruiters give the schools and lists new grads’ average starting pay, the average number of job offers and the percentage of grads without offers.

These ratings have become the Consumer Reports of business education. Because the ratings are so crucial to attracting top students, deans are under growing pressure to elevate, or at least maintain, their schools’ rankings. So they push their staffs to view students and recruiters alike as ``customers″ who must be served.

``Business schools have become much more customer-focused,″ says John Rau, dean of Indiana University’s business school. ``We practice what we teach.″ This fall, the school even began tying teachers’ salary raises, in part, to how well they help students land jobs.

``We’re not exactly an employment agency, but it comes pretty close,″ says Randolph Westerfield, dean of the University of Southern California’s business school.

To some observers, the schools are ceding too much academic ground to recruiters and students. And some educators themselves worry that they are striving too hard to boost school ratings. ``The rankings have forced us to graduate everyone, which can be a serious problem over the long run,″ says William Pierskalla, dean of the graduate business school at the University of California at Los Angeles.

Many faculty members resent the change, ``but there’s not much we can do about it anymore,″ says Prof. Leonard Greenhalgh at Dartmouth’s Amos Tuck School of Business. For the first time in its history, Tuck allowed recruiters on campus during the fall semester this year. ``Almost every other leading school has expanded recruiting into the fall,″ Prof. Greenhalgh says. ``We were at a competitive disadvantage.″

And because students formally evaluate their professors as often as twice a semester, professors feel pressed to play down theory in favor of more ``real world″ context. They worry as formerly optional career classes become integral to M.B.A. curriculums. For instance, Duke University’s required ``Individual Effectiveness″ course is partly devoted to interviewing skills, job-offer negotiation, telephone etiquette and other preparations for the job hunt. A required ``Career Management″ seminar series at New York University’s graduate business school includes one called ``How to Work a Room.″

And some administrators have felt the impact. At 17 of 20 leading schools, placement directors have either resigned or been dismissed since 1990 _ sometimes at the urging of dissatisfied students.

Meanwhile, students have become ``like kids cut loose in a candy store,″ says Roger Muller, former placement director at Northwestern University’s Kellogg graduate business school. Students now can spend up to 20 hours a week searching for the sweetest job offer at an endless round of corporate presentations, wine-bar receptions and fly-in/fly-out interviews.

``The temptation to get swept up in the job-hunting frenzy is enormous,″ says Philip Anderson, a Tuck School professor.

He partly blames recruiters, whose autumn presentations and lavish dinners encourage first-year students to apply for summer internships. Once mainly a source of cheap labor for employers and a resume builder for students, internships now are so important in the recruiting process that students have ``this wacky notion that the summer job is the magic bullet,″ Mr. Anderson says. ``If you don’t show up and nibble canapes and drink white wine, you’re out of the horse race.″

But students can start the race without even leaving their rooms; many have an electronic-mail address. ``Recruiting and job hunting has become part of daily life because the career hunt is now piped right into their rooms,″ says Maury Hanigan of Hanigan Consulting Group, which helps companies recruit M.B.A. graduates.

Students agree that the process may be undermining education. During her first weeks at the UCLA graduate business school, Lisa Nibauer tried to concentrate on schoolwork. But with classmates stampeding to dozens of corporate presentations, career-club meetings, resume-writing seminars and recruiter-sponsored parties, she felt she had to go along.

``I thought I’d have this breather period where I’d be doing class work,″ Ms. Nibauer says. ``But everyone’s walking around in interview suits.″

On-campus interviewing has doubled at UCLA. Last year, about 6,000 individual interviews were conducted on campus _ about 20 per student. And at Indiana University, Placement Director Randy Powell says the average M.B.A. now interviews with about 30 companies, far more than in the past. ``It’s become excessive,″ he says. ``Never again in their life will they interview with that many companies.″

Once internships are behind them, many students spend much of their final year crisscrossing the country for interviews. ``It was nonstop flying,″ says Al Petrone, a 1995 Duke M.B.A. who made about 20 company visits before ending up at ITT Sheraton Corp.

Final-year students sometimes are pressured to accept ``exploding″ offers, which are rescinded after a limited time. Some schools discourage such offers, but recruiters argue they merely reflect free-market principles.

``There’s tremendous competition for the best students right now, and we’re doing our best to make sure they come to work for us,″ says David Reed, recruiting director of Andersen Consulting, which plans to hire 600 M.B.A.s this season.


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