What is the next hot sector that MBA graduates are coveting?

Every decade or so, one “hot” sector captures the imagination of MBAs looking to be the Masters of the Universe – that big payday or that job that would be the envy of their classmates and peers. It’s this glory seeking, trophy hunting and status-seeking mentality that drives the herd mentality within the MBA jet-set.

In the 60s, it was advertising. In the 70s, it was conglomerates. In the 80s, it was bond trading. In the 90s, it was dot-coms and venture capital. And in this decade, it’s private equity/hedge funds.
It wasn’t long ago when people were arguing that dot-coms were going to be hot for a long time. Even b-schools introduced ecommerce majors, as if business fundamentals were somehow different in a virtual world (well, they are when you are in a stock market bubble). Before that, quite a few assumed that bond trading would continue to be the darling of MBAs, and Silicon Valley was scoffed at as just a bunch of geeks in a garage. If history is a decent guide, you can probably fill in the blanks. Things change, but human nature never changes.

While some of the interest certainly is genuine, most of it is, like any market bubble, driven by greed and fear. Like any asset market, greed makes you buy when you should be selling, and fear makes you sell when you should be buying. The smart money got in before the sector got hot.

You probably know that the private equity market is overheated right now. Same with hedge funds. Too much cheap money chasing too few deals. Bad times never last forever, but good times never do either.
If you’re looking for a career in the “hot” sector, by all means go for it. But if you’re looking for glory, you’re too late to the game. By the time you have a shot at glory, the party’s over. All that talk of billion dollar bonuses at hedge funds and private equity shops are about 10 – 30 years removed from where most MBAs (and aspiring MBAs alike) are at today. Working as an underling *for* a big swinging d*ck isn’t the same as *being* the big swinging d*ck. The former is like being a chambermaid for royalty – just because you help make someone’s bed, doesn’t make you part of the family, nor does it mean you have anywhere near the same benefits and perks either.

Like celebrities in People Magazine (and MBA herd mentality is like People Magazine), all hot sectors “jump the shark” before it’s replaced by something new.

And private equity has jumped the shark. What used to be the playground for burnt-out investment bankers in the past has now become the dreams of IT engineers – just as the market has peaked. It’s like schoolteachers talking about the latest penny stock.

Like advertising, conglomerates, bond trading and dot-coms — private equity won’t disappear. But it sure won’t garner the attention or glory in the future that it does now. And it may even institutionalize even further, making the “big swinging d*ck” in private equity as obsolete as it is in investment banking. The nature of the job is gatekeeping. You are a gatekeeper of money. The folks who made it big didn’t make it big because they were good gatekeepers. They made it big because they got in early before others caught wind.

Again, if you’re banking on glory, status or even just a huge financial windfall, don’t count on it if you’re this late in the game. By the time you make partner, People Magazine would’ve moved onto something else much sexier, trendier and more lucrative – you’ll be yesterday’s news by the time you’ve made it. All the press, accolades, and money that showered the partners today will be on some other industry by the time you’ve climbed the ladder.

The folks who generate the enormous windfall have one thing in common — they get in early. Whether it’s real estate, stocks, art collections, or even careers – they managed to stay ahead of the uninformed masses.

It’s not about being smart, educated, pedigreed, or rich – it’s about being early. Most of the personal wealth amassed by Google staff isn’t concentrated in the Stanford MBA alums – most of it goes to those who were there in Google’s early stages – from the CEO all the way down to the customer service rep. In most cases, the early birds have the largest piece of the pie in any venture.

Buy low, sell high. MBAs who are part of the herd mentality unfortunately tend to buy high and sell low.

So what is The Next Big Thing? It could be healthcare. International porn. Or it could be all about Eastern Europe, China and India (note to international students, and particularly the Indians who seem to be the most adverse to repatriating compared to other internationals — if you believed this, is there any reason why you need to be an H1B indentured servant post-MBA, rather than being the early bird entrepreneur back home — as an aside, the few folks who are going back now will likely reap greater rewards long-term than any H1B employee ever will who believes “someday I’ll go back”; mark my word on this).

Personally, I have no idea what the Next Big Thing is nor do I really care. And you probably don’t. That’s the point. You’re chasing your own tail if you do. It’s not about trying to time the market or to play market contrarian with your career. It’s simply about being brutally honest with yourself about what it is you enjoy doing, and sticking to it. Because everything will have it’s day in the sun if you enjoy the job enough to stick through the tough times. Who knows, maybe even insurance or accounting may be The Next Big Thing… stranger things have happened. And if you’re too risk averse that you have to stick with what appears to be safe, then don’t expect much – greater returns come with greater risk.