Last week my classmates and I returned from spring break to begin the fourth quarter of our second year. Or, to put it another way, as I am writing this, we only have six weeks left until graduation. Six weeks. It seems unbelievable to stare at those words on my computer screen. How can it be just a month and a half before I leave this place? I remember when I went through my frequent and long deliberations about heading to business school and how I debated whether I was willing to give up two years of my career to get an MBA. It seemed like such a long time at that point, and now it's almost gone. Ironically, while the time has flown by, looking back, it seems like ages ago that I was writing my essays and trying to convince a school to offer me a spot in its class.
When I was filling out my applications to business school in November 2006, the Dow was crossing 12,000 on its way to topping out at just over 14,000 almost a year later. I currently have Bloomberg TV on in the background, and there are smiles all around because the market is rallying more than 300 points—to get back above 7,500. Things can change quickly.
When I arrived at business school, I went to presentations by Lehman Brothers, AIG, and Bear Stearns. They talked about the long, storied histories of their firms and the huge opportunities they saw in the marketplace to gain market share and increase revenue over the next several years. We were told about the career opportunities available to us as graduates from a top MBA school in one of the firm's various divisions. Those firms have now either vanished into thin air, have been absorbed into other firms for cents on the dollar, or are in the process of becoming nationalized institutions. Things can change quickly.
When I arrived in business school, I had a clear plan for what I wanted to accomplish in two years and where I wanted to go when the program ended. I knew what I wanted to be doing and where I wanted to be. Figuring out that plan was what finally ended my deliberations and caused me to apply in the first place—go heavy on finance classes, work in private equity over the summer between years one and two, and then go work for a real estate private equity company after graduation. After this summer, I realized that wasn't what I wanted (and given current market conditions, may not have been an option anyway). I've dropped classes with such titles as "Derivatives" and "Investment Strategy and Arbitrage" for those with titles such as "Starting New Ventures" and "Acquisition of Closely Held Enterprises." I've suspended my traditional job search, and I am instead focusing on finding an opportunity that I can pursue on my own, whether that be starting a new business or acquiring one that has been beat up over the past 18 months during this recession. Things can change quickly.
Taking Your Time
Given all of these changes, the answer to the question, "What are your plans after graduation?" is still very much up in the air, although I am not nearly as stressed out about it as I was three months ago. I've talked to friends who graduated from business school the year after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks to get their advice on how to approach the next step after school. Universally, their advice was to spend more time thinking about exactly what I wanted and then pursue that rather than settling for something just to get a job. I spoke to three friends, and it took each four to six months to find the job they were looking for, but seven years later they are each with the same company and, from what I can tell, seem genuinely happy. I truly believe there is still a wealth of long-term opportunity out there—it's just going to take more time than is typical to find it.
On the school side of things, fourth quarter has been as much about filling out any gaps in classes I have wanted to take but haven't yet as it has been about hanging out with friends and enjoying the time we have left. There seems to be a lot more time for nonacademic pursuits with the end of our two-year journey now plainly in sight. Part of this comes from a slight winding down of the hectic schedules we have all kept over the past two years, part comes from just being very efficient in getting through the course loads that we are all given, and part, to be honest, is pure "senioritis."
All of sudden, the argument of "In five years, are you really going to remember spending another hour on that case tonight, or are you going to remember coming out and grabbing a beer with a bunch of friends?" is much tougher to fight. I think that is a good thing, because it is probably true. As much as I have learned at Darden, what I will take with me in my career and life going forward are the people and friendships I have made. To know that I have a network of people who are without exception the smartest I have ever been around will be a huge resource regardless of what happens after walking out of Darden for the last time as a student. I'm not sure what I may need from what will soon be my fellow alums, but I know that I will have a need to call on them. If nothing else, I have learned over the past two years that it is a fruitless endeavor to set in stone a plan for your life. Things can change quickly.
Clemente is as member of the the University of Virginia's MBA Class of 2009.