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Conducting a Career Self-Assessment – for New Admits and Current MBAs (Part 3 of 3)

hand-with-reflecting-sphere-mc-escher-1935At one point a few years ago, during the height of MBA recruiting season, a senior manager visiting campus for a corporate presentation bemoaned the amount of self-imposed stress that students experience in choosing a full-time employer: “students will spend two years (during business school) agonizing over a job they’re going to keep for less than two years,” he said, and his assessment was not far off.

In its 2013 Alumni Perspectives Survey of MBA graduates from 2000 through 2012, the Graduate Management Admissions Council (GMAC) found that “63% of the members of the class of 2010 are still working for the same organization” – or, phrased differently, that 37% had left their first post-MBA job within two years of graduation (and in the midst of a very tough job market). My own anecdotal evidence suggests that at some point roughly 4 to 5 years after graduation, finding yourself employed by the same company you joined coming out of business school becomes the exception rather than the norm.

And while there are many variables that influence and reflect MBA employee retention and turnover – GMAC finds, for example, that “switching organizations has a positive impact on salary levels but a negative impact on career momentum” – the simple reality that you should keep in mind as a current or rising MBA is that your next job is almost certainly not your last job, and that part of your task in the MBA career search process is not only to choose an internship and a full-time, post-MBA job, but to begin to plan for and scope out the job after that, and perhaps even beyond.

As part of your MBA career self-assessment process (detailed in the prior two columns of this series), you will have conducted a comprehensive audit of your past experiences and the present circumstances and opportunities that enter into the equation of choosing a career path. It’s important to spend an equal proportion of time thinking about the future, and where you would like to be in 5-10 years’ time, and even beyond.

For some, there are clear and pressing questions. Choosing to attend an MBA program in Europe vs. North America, for example, has clear implications for whether or not your intended future permanent residence will be in the midst, or at the periphery, of the bulk of your fellow MBA alumni. (Interestingly enough, living in a city where there are not hundreds and hundreds of alumni who share the same alma mater can actually make those fewer alumni connections that much stronger.) Deciding where you will want to “end up,” geographically, can thus help inform the decision of which MBA program to attend, as well as what career path to take.

The most straightforward exercise to conduct in planning for the future is to highlight all of the ideal outcomes and desirable features of your future work environment and work content, and then figure out the steps you need to take to get there. (Do you envision yourself in a high-rise in the middle of a big city? Is it your ambition to take your dog to work? What clothes will you wear when working? Will you travel often or rarely? Will you interact with an ever-changing cast of customers, clients, and colleagues, or with a small, stable group of collaborators?) Knowing what “point B” of your journey looks like certainly helps you to decide what path to take when starting out from “point A.”

However you conduct a future career and life visioning exercise – writing your own eulogy or obituary, for example, can be a great way to spur thinking about what truly matters to you and how you want to look back on your life – my one recommendation about that process is that you also add a realistic estimate for the amount of time it might take to achieve those goals. Getting from point A to point B can take quite a while, and involve numerous, necessary points or even unexpected setbacks in between (and that assumes you’ve already narrowed down the options for point B).

An example: if you know that you’ll be in your 30s when you finish business school, and if you plan to be a parent at some point during that decade, calculating the amount of time it would take for you to finish your degree, take on a 2-4 year stint in a professional services firm in banking or consulting, for example, then transition to a role in industry and spend an added 1-3 years to establish your credibility there and perhaps be promoted before potentially taking time away from work to raise a family, means that you’ll likely be past age 35 when the process of family-building begins. And while that in and of itself may not seem insurmountable, doing the math and adding up the years and crucial points between “A” and “B” in this way can highlight just how little wiggle room there is if you have multiple, ambitious professional and life goals.

Which brings us back to the original quandary of fretting and spending so much time and effort during business school to get the “right” job at graduation, only to realize how transitory and unpredictable your path might be, even given the most well-laid plans. The 2013 GMAC alumni survey found that “31 percent of the class of 2012 was employed in an industry that differed from the industry they intended when they started business school.” So, roughly a third of MBAs wind up in a different line of work than the one they had intended upon entering school, and the likelihood of divergence only increases from there.

The best advice that I can offer is to set a long-term plan and narrow down a few overarching facets that you would like to comprise your work life in the long-run. But beyond that, your goal in constructing the future portion of your MBA career assessment should not be to come up with a rigid master plan or to figure out the meaning of life. Instead, simply find the right job for the next phase of your life and career (roughly 2-5 years), be open to change and try to make sure that your next step takes you in the right general direction towards where you’d like to be further along in your career. It’s unlikely to be a linear path, but that does not mean you can’t make a good effort to steer in the right direction.

Ivan Kerbel – bio:

Ivan Kerbel is the CEO of Practice LLC, an educational services firm that conducts an intensive, annual pre-orientation program for newly-admitted MBAs, The Practice MBA Summer Forum.

Ivan served previously as Director of the Career Development Office at The Yale School of Management and as a Sr. Associate Director at Wharton’s MBA Career Management office. He is a Wharton MBA alumnus and a former management consultant at Katzenbach Partners, a New York City strategy consulting boutique. Ivan can be reached via LinkedIn.