Wai Chan, FT Closed MBA Jobs clinic

Welcome to the Financial Times MBA Jobs Clinic for July 2014. Are you an MBA student or graduate looking for careers advice or a job. Perhaps, you wish to change careers? Or are you a recruiter wanting to learn more about the MBA job market?

Our panel of experts answered readers’ questions on Thursday, 10th of July 2014. The panel included:

Kate Newton - recruitment director for Accenture in the UK and Ireland

Stephen Pidgeon – associate director in the career development office at the Tuck School of Business, Dartmouth in the US

Becky Eisen – associate product manager at McCormick & Company, the food company in the US

Greg Papp - partner and managing director of The Boston Consulting Group in the US

Wai Kwen: Hello, welcome to the MBA Jobs Clinic Q&A – July 2014. Here’s the first question.

Q1: I’m currently halfway through an EMBA and want advice on how to change careers following graduation. I want to go into consulting. Do I enter the job market as a graduate or an experienced hire? ~ Glenn, UK

Kate: Searching for a new career has become an increasingly social experience, with building professional and personal connections being vital to getting the job you want. The ability to successfully network and continuously develop your skills to stay relevant and ahead of the competition is key. We encourage our recruiters to participate in and evaluate individuals contributing to the ongoing discussions in industry groups or forums on a particular area of expertise, such as the Strategy Professionals Network Group. Companies look for talent with a genuine curiosity about how the world runs and works and how to translate those insights to tangible and innovative solutions.

Without knowing your background it is difficult to guide on entry level. Most organisations take any relevant and/or transferable previous experience into account when reviewing your application. Here at Accenture it is the combination of previous experience and aptitude for consulting that is of interest to us.

Stephen: The answer to this will probably vary by company, so your first step is to find out the answer from each company you’re interested in, and also find out if and how you would plug into their recruiting process.

If you have significant expertise in a particular industry and you’d like to continue working in that area as a consultant, it’s likely that many firms would have practice areas or divisions that may value that experience. Regardless of the “label”, I think your most significant task ahead is going to be networking and getting into the recruiting track, and then succeeding in the interview.

Greg: The exact nature of your work experience will be critical to making that decision. Certain work experience, such as corporate strategy, offer great preparation for consulting. Best advice is to identify the firms you are interested in and then seek out the recruiting contacts at those firms. They can help guide you based on your exact work experience. Alumni who have worked at the firms can also be great resources.

Wai Kwen: Here’s question 2.

Q2: I am a part-time MBA student in the US and I plan to graduate in June 2015. I have been working in the financial services industry focusing on investment management operations for the last 12 years.

I would like to make a career change into a general management role in another industry, but the long number of years (in work) compared to a typical MBA graduate has been a roadblock in switching careers. What advice do you have for career changers who have worked in a certain field for a long time? ~ Lee, US

Stephen: The large majority of MBA students I work with are in a similar situation – career switchers. First of all I’d say that I don’t feel your length of work experience is a downside (I had a similar length when I did an MBA and switched to consulting – if anything, having a few grey hairs and some life experience added to my ability to connect with clients).

Regardless of length of experience, the key is to start to build evidence that you are doing your best to learn about and work in your new industry – perhaps via student clubs, internships, any kind of project work you can get, and of course also a significant amount of networking, during which you can do your best to learn about your target industry so that you can start to talk like an expert in an interview.

Becky: I also used my MBA to switch careers and industries. Here are the steps I took to make this change: In your resume and cover letter, focus on your transferable skills and describe your experiences to date using the language of your new chosen industry.

Secondly, you need to have a very tight story around why you are making a transition to a new field. Make sure you share that story up front so the question is not left lingering in the mind of your interviewer.

Wai Kwen: Here’s question 3.

Q3: I am halfway through my two-year MBA programme and am currently doing an internship with a leading multinational, which I am thoroughly enjoying. My summer employers are delighted with me and have offered me a full-time job. In contrast, I have found my MBA to be lacklustre, uninspiring and expensive. Should I give up my programme and take the job or finish the MBA?

Stephen: This sounds like a difficult decision. Some of the things I’d think about as I weighed it up are:

In future when you are changing jobs, and people ask about why you gave up the MBA, are you happy with the story that you’d give and what it says about you?

Is there a significant value to being a member of the alumni network of your school, and would dropping out invalidate access or membership to that network?

If you didn’t find the first year valuable, is there reason to believe the second year might be different (for instance more electives, smaller classes and better access to professors)?

Is there a future salary premium in your target company or others that you’d move onto associated with having an MBA? Not an easy one, and I know that for some people the argument to take the job is compelling.

Greg: Congratulations on the full-time job offer! My advice would be to finish the MBA. However, it does sound like you would do well to explore more broadly what opportunities you can take advantage of in your second year to get more value and enjoyment out of the programme.

In my experience, getting to know my classmates and learn from their diverse backgrounds was one of the things I valued most. Many programmes offer a very diverse set of experiences you can take advantage of, such as teaching assistant roles, term-time work experiences with other companies, cross-registration with programmes at other departments/ schools, etc. Cast the net broadly and I’m confident you can have a very rewarding second year.

Becky: The time I spent getting an MBA proved to be an incredibly valuable experience for me, because of the new function-specific knowledge I gained, the people I met and still keep in touch with, and the opportunities for personal growth.

However, it’s clear from your question that this has not been your experience. While having the letters “MBA” on your resume can be valuable for getting recruiters to take a second glance at your resume, there are many companies, McCormick & Co included, where having an MBA is not essential to getting ahead.

So, if you are inspired by your new opportunity, I say go for it! If you find that not having a completed MBA becomes a glass ceiling, you may be able to finish your MBA later in a part-time or executive programme. And at that point in time, you may get more out of the programme that you are getting from your current MBA experience.

Wai Kwen: Here’s question 4.

Q4: Do strategy consultant aspirants need to have functional experience? My prior experience was in services and I am looking for strategy consulting roles. ~ Kiran

Stephen: From what I see at Tuck, consulting companies recruiting MBA students are looking almost entirely at the competencies of the candidate (e.g., intellectually curious, hard-working, personable etc), rather than their specific work experience, and their interview processes reflect this – hence the case interview is largely an opportunity to test your skills on a hypothetical case that is not connected to any experience you bring into the room.

Once you join the company you will start to develop a functional and/ or industry expertise and/ or build on what you already have.

Greg: It depends on the role and the firm. For entry-level generalist roles, typically no specific functional expertise is required. Firms will be looking for a demonstrated track record of achievement, strong problem-solving and communication skills and someone who will be a good cultural fit with the firm.

Kate: Experience is not a prerequisite. But capability and aptitude are essential. We expect our strategy consultants to be able to analyse business problems and create solutions. We’ll be looking at this through all stages of the application and interview.

We see many candidates looking to make this type of career move post MBA. It’s important that you recognise the gaps in your experience and demonstrate to the organisation how the MBA has helped to bridge that.

Wai Kwen: Question 5 coming up.

Q5: I am an MBA student in Hong Kong. What are your views on hiring MBAs in banking and financial services in Asia – by Asian as well as global companies in Asia? Is it getting more structured? ~ Keval, Hong Kong

Stephen: Keval, to date most if not all of the Hong Kong MBA hiring of our MBA students has been by global companies – mostly financial services and consulting.

In some other countries (e.g., S. Korea, Japan) I do see locally headquartered global companies hiring, but have not yet seen this come through from China, although I’m sure it’s only a matter of time. Presumably a b-school based in Hong Kong would have a slightly different answer, and is I’m sure more on the cutting edge of developing those local relationships.

Wai Kwen: Question 6 coming up.

Q6: I did an MBA three years ago and it’s been challenging to get a job. I wish to work in South Africa and employers are saying that I am over-qualified for general and project management positions. What can I do, seeing as I don’t have vast experience and would like to start working again?

Kate: My advice would be to connect. The most successful employees are great networkers. They build and maintain meaningful relationships with clients, colleagues and industry contacts. This is an essential part of the success of an organisation. For example, we would encourage anyone who is interested in a career with Accenture to make contact through a variety of channels such as LinkedIn.

And be persistent. We like to see a high level of persistency and engagement in our candidates. Be proactive, be well prepared, and be genuine. If it doesn’t work out, stay connected and keep at it. Just as we continue to offer new and innovative ideas to our clients, continue to bring the best version of you to your career search.

The nature of technology and business is such that it moves continuously, and it’s fair to say that the one constant is change. So if you don’t see the role you want today – stay tuned in the marketplace, and keep us posted on your growing skillset and experience.

Greg: Your career services department at your business school could also be a helpful resource to get a read on this question. Another tactic that will be critical is conveying your sincere interest in the organisations you are speaking with and your flexibility to consider other roles if they feel you are over-qualified for the specific roles you are discussing.

Becky: Generally when an employer is concerned about a candidate being over-qualified, it is because they worry that this person will not be happy in the job, or will use it as a stepping stone to quickly get to the next level. I have interviewed potential MBA interns who seemed more interested in how the internship would launch their career at the company as a director or vice president, than in the internship experience itself, and that was a major turn off.

To overcome these concerns, make sure you demonstrate why you are thrilled about the opportunities this particular role has to offer. You don’t need to dumb down your past experience. Instead, tell a story about how you see yourself rounding out your existing skills by assuming this new job.

Finally, consider applying for higher level positions than a project management position. Perhaps you are qualified for these roles, and you are doing yourself a disservice by not applying for a stretch role.

Wai Kwen: Looks like we have time for another question.

Q7: What are your top job interview tips? How can I sell my MBA skills?

Stephen: Top interview tips is a broad question. I’d start by doing research on your target company and finding out what skills, competencies and cultural fit they are seeking. Then think through your life (personal life as well as work experience) to plan what stories you can tell that best showcase where you fit with what they are looking for.

Practice telling these stories but don’t turn into a robot – it’s better to come across as someone who is being thoughtful in the interview than someone who is reading a script.

In the interview you should have two primary goals – make the interviewer like you, and convince the interviewer that you truly want a job at their company. They will decide for themselves whether you have the skills they’re looking for, but too many people underestimate the power of the two elements I mentioned.

Greg: Be as specific as you can be with examples that illustrate how your past experience (MBA and other) prepares you to excel at the job. Listen to the questions asked and be certain you are answering the questions. If you are interviewing for consulting positions, spend some time with your classmates practicing case interviews. Good luck!

Kate: At an interview, ensure you are knowledgeable about the company, what it does for its clients and how your skills and interests will fit in. Once you’re in the company, enlist a mentor and/ or sponsor who will help you develop and nurture your skills and advise you how to navigate your career. Create opportunities for yourself and don’t be afraid to take risks.

Bring the skills and experiences you have learnt from your MBA to life with examples or even suggestions as to how this could benefit the organisation – it helps the employer to picture you in the role.

Becky: If the interview is the first time you have spoken with someone from the company, than you have already failed. Tap your networks and your network’s networks to do as many informational interviews as possible prior to the job interview. This will give you valuable information on company culture, politics, and skillsets that they are looking for which may not be spelled out in the job description.

The courses you take as an MBA are table stakes. Every other MBA has also taken those courses, and has a diploma that says “MBA” on it. So don’t focus on the MBA itself as a reason for why you should be hired. Instead, focus on how you have applied the skills or lessons you learned in the MBA to jobs, internships, extracurricular activities, etc, and why this makes you the strongest candidate for the job.

Wai Kwen: This month’s MBA Jobs Clinic has now come to an end. Many thanks to our panel for their time and help today.

If you are an MBA student or graduate seeking careers advice or a job, please go to our MBA Careers hub.