Desk Dispatch

Nine months after business school and here we are – members of the Class of 2002 – living life post HBS. We sit at our first jobs out of business school (second jobs for some of us), trying not to contemplate the state of the world, but our chosen vocations and waiting to see what happens in this encouraging and fungible job market. It is hard not to ask the obvious questions of our selves. Is this what we wanted to be doing after HBS? Is this what we expected to be doing after HBS? Did HBS do for us the things we thought it would? Nine months, we agree, is a short amount of time after which to be judging our lot. It is barely enough time to assess a job or function since Internet time came to pass. The companies we went in to, find themselves in situations that are significantly different even from when we began working, much less when we were hired. The economy is, well, the way it is, and we’ve trooped off to war under a no less than HBS-trained Commander in Chief.

We went to business school at what is now, in 20/20 hindsight, the peak, the beginning of the proverbial burst – when friends and colleagues alike thought us crazy to be stepping away from the plethora of opportunity.

To HBS we went – many of us unsure of what we wanted to do next, and in cases in which we knew where we were headed, HBS was a necessary career-resetting step to getting there. We ended up in varied situations post HBS: some landed their dream jobs, others cast wide nets and chose from their catch, and still others were still looking for the right job when they left school. But there was a single characteristic common to all: expectations we had going in to business school were dramatically different coming out of school. Sure, economic conditions got progressively worse over our two years. It was hard, coming out of school to really believe the crŠme de la crŠme (to be at HBS) mantra we all heard our first year. The irony was that HBS, just like any other institution, was as affected as any other in its ability to place students.

We were protected from it while we were still at school – it’s hard to really grasp you’re in the midst of a recession when you see all those able-bodied gardeners laying down fresh grass in the dead of winter.

But it was clear that the Office of Career Services, not for any lack of intention, couldn’t really do much when X investment bank rescinded a full time offer made to a summer intern or Y consulting firm pushed forward your start date by six months. Business schools held all the cards when banks and consulting firms couldn’t find enough warm bodies to staff up, and the tables have indeed turned.

But the news isn’t all bad – in fact, it’s quite good. Most people did get jobs even though they went through greater uncertainty getting them.

Most people got a job they wanted, even if they were choosing from a significantly reduced set of job offers. Most people are even enjoying their jobs. Without a doubt, there is a great deal of nuance masked by the preceding statements. Doubtless, more people went back to their pre-business school employers than in preceding years. Effecting a career switch (particularly between unrelated industries) was definitely more challenging than in prior years. Many had to come up with more creative job-hunting strategies relying on professional and personal connections, rather than organized recruiting. People are getting paid less than they believe they deserve given the hours they work, but that’s always been true for large numbers of people.

Bankers, consultants, advertisers and professional services more broadly, are still being compensated highly relative to the rest of the market although the gap has narrowed significantly. With much publicity of the excess capacity in these industries, many are working hours that have always been (and will likely continue to be) long. Morale is better at smaller or more specialized firms simply because they have fewer people but the overall work environment remains one of relatively smart, motivated people (albeit not a particularly diverse one) and challenging assignments. Few of these folks feel they have enough spare time, but that’s been a perennial complaint in those professions. All report enjoying steep learning curves in their chosen jobs from exposure to a broad set of companies and situations.

While companies in industry are not necessarily faring well, individual experiences are much more variable. In media, I can report that the pace of activity has pretty much ground to a halt despite much continuing motion and bluster. Managers are very much in wait and see mode and corporate strategy projects that had become the preserve of post-MBAs have mostly died. Not because there aren’t enough deals – because few media companies are in acquiring states. But it is true across industries that people in fulfilling roles are in operating jobs. It’s a much tougher environment in which to be a generalist without a clear set of operating responsibilities. Experiences vary so much across companies because some companies are quite stable – they were labeled conservative during the 90s and are now viewed as prudent. Others are more focused on managing through this downturn than on anything else.

Despite markedly different experiences, it is clear that the Class of 2002 has undergone a profound change with regard to their career perspectives. This is the first time our generation has really participated (some may say buffeted) in a recession. This is the first time in our working lives that jobs are not aplenty and lucrative entrepreneurial ventures not easily accessible. Further, we were at HBS during the two years that marked the inflection point of euphoria turning to destructive volatility. Correspondingly, most members of 2002 feel that a combination of business school allowing them to take a step back, the work environment overall and the state of the world is making them think harder about work-life balance and longer term career goals.

Perspectives on career advance and compensation have undergone a marked change. Most view their current jobs as intermediate experience from which they are likely to move on over the medium term. Does that mean people are likely to stay in their first post-HBS job longer than used to be the case? Possibly. Hopping opportunistically from one job to another is much harder now. Then again, job security is significantly lower now implying that some proportion will switch jobs sooner than they would like.

So what’s cause and what’s effect? Does the Class of 2002 view its situation positively (on aggregate) because they’ve accepted the status quo for the time being, or are they faring well despite the challenging conditions? Even the optimists among us acknowledge that the halcyon days of newly minted MBA’s “running” departments or companies, or starting their own companies are gone for the next while (old economy enthusiasts like me would argue that it was a dubious aberration to begin with). This is a Class that went in to business school amidst unbounded optimism, ambition and opportunity and came out to a dire economic condition rife with tales of corporate malfeasance and investor manipulation, ironically, mostly perpetrated by MBAs.