What can we learn about the job market from previous downturns?

With an expected increase in applicants to the top MBA programs coupled with a far tighter job market, the next few years for MBAs is going to be tough. It’ll be harder to get in, and it’ll be harder to get the jobs that they want.

However, this isn’t the first time it’s ever happened. And it certainly won’t be the last. Every time the current crop of folks will say “this time, it’s different” — those who’ve been through multiple cycles know otherwise. The circumstances may change, but it’s been that way since the dawn of time — there will be good times, and there will be bad times, and neither last forever.

So here is some food for thought.

Be pragmatic. You may not get the dream job you want. Frankly, even during boom times, it’s hard to get your dream job, especially if you’re career switching and need to convince a company that “even though I don’t have direct relevant experience, I ….” It’s just hard to get a good job, period.

Know what and what not to settle for. This will vary by individual. Some of my classmates in the aftermath of the dot-com bust in 2001 and post 9/11 took whatever job they could get (just anything) because they couldn’t bear not being employed and needed the money badly. And they turned out all right. Others were more willing to hold out — some as long as a year and a half to get the job they wanted (and they turned out all right). The most important thing is to know that everyone has a different threshhold — and to AVOID getting sucked into whatever peer pressure you may be facing (i.e. “all my friends are holding out, so I should do the same” or “all my friends are settling, so I should do the same”). It’s your life, your money, your obligations, your priorities. From a practical standpoint, it comes down to how much risk you’re willing to take to hold out, vs settling for whatever it is you have.

How long are you prepared (mentally and financially) to survive without a job post-MBA to get the job you want?

There are many paths to the same goal. For example, if you really really want to work in some specific sector in finance, you don’t need to necessarily start there right after b-school (although the direct path is usually the preferred route). In a bad job market, you may have to be prepared to reach your goal EVENTUALLY rather than IMMEDIATELY. And if it’s really what you want to do, it really shouldn’t matter in the grand scheme of things whether you get there now, or get there later through some circuitous route.

There is no template or formula. It seems like so many MBAs are too keen to search for some template or formula to follow whatever it is they want, rather than THINKING FOR THEMSELVES. MBA students (and applicants) seem to be so prone to herd mentality, like they need constant reaffirmation for the choices they make by constantly benchmarking the actions and choices of others. When many of your fellow MBAs act like sheep, it’s easy to just fall in line if you’re not aware that they’re just being sheep and looking to you to figure out what to do. Be aware of the convention, but don’t feel bound by it. Forge your own path.

It’s not that fragile. As alluded to in (2), most if not all the MBAs I knew from various schools who graduated in ’01 turned out all right. Likewise, the 2009, 2010 and 2011 grads will turn out all right – the first few years post-MBA may be a tumultuous and stressful time for many, but in the end it’ll be fine – short of armageddon (but then, it wouldn’t really matter for any of us if that were the case, now would it?). The direction of your whole life doesn’t hinge on whether you get the interview with a particular firm, or whether you make $X or anything else that may seem to cause an MBA to get an unnecessary ulcer. Yes, it can be stressful if you have loans to pay back, and being unemployed sucks, but adding phantom stakes of how this will impact your life long-term only makes it worse. You are getting an MBA (or just graduated with one) to work a desk job at a company — nothing of real consequence is going to happen to you if it doesn’t quite work out. And if it’s a matter of survival, no one is going to laugh at you if you have to live with your parents (it’s been done by quite a few grads from top schools in the last crash of ’01). You’re not shut out of some uber-prestigious job because you’ve had to take your old pre-MBA job to make ends meet, or to work part-time at Starbucks. Yes, it can be trying, it can be tough — but you’ll come out such times a stronger and more wiser person — wiser about who you are and what you *really* want. And when you’ve finally been able to strip away the mystique or prestige or whatever it is you’ve ascribed to whatever career path you so coveted, you’ll see that WORK IS WORK. Most people (even those who may have seemed to reach their childhood dreams) aren’t exactly thrilled about having to work – but they do the best they can.

Some of you may know that careers aren’t linear. Life isn’t linear. Things happen to you that will change your world forever, causing you to start over. Or you will make that choice. You will more likely go from one career path to another completely unrelated career path — and do that a couple of times for the rest of your life. This isn’t your parent’s generation where you work up the ranks as the “company man” or there’s clear “exit strategy” for job XYZ which then leads to job ABC and so forth. Lawyers go back to med school. Equity research analysts quit and join a rock band. Many walk away from corporate life to start a mom ‘n pop business, with some only to come back to corporate life. Others become full-time parents. A life’s work these days is becoming a random series of careers – and in the workplace, a revolving door of newcomers coming in and veterans leaving.

That’s why there isn’t some 10-step plan for getting a job in a tough job market (or any job market), other than keeping your expectations realistic.

And most importantly, like many things — NOT getting what you want can lead to other more wonderful things you never would’ve even discovered otherwise — if you’re willing to see it that way.

As vague as it may sound, you want to be as focused as you can, but open to other things along the way as well – it’s a difficult but worthwhile balance to strive for as you enter b-school this fall (or if you’re applying to b-school, a good way to get a head start on this before half the MBAs start jumping off the cliff in panic and fear).

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