Losing focus is one of the most common phenomenons observed among MBA students. We spread ourselves too thin as we try to take advantage of all academic, extracurricular, and career opportunities. To avoid a potential negative outcome and the resulting frustration of being overwhelmed, the most critical element is to stay true to yourself in your actions at business school. Having a focus is really important, especially when you are constantly offered more opportunities than you can take. I learned this lesson personally, through finding my job “focus” during the recruiting process.
Consulting is the most popular industry for MBAs, specifically at Fuqua. Obviously, this means high competition (albeit a healthy one!) and subsequently the frustration of getting rejected. In my personal experience, the biggest reason for this situation has been the lack of focus and self-reflection.
Before coming to Fuqua, I spent 8 years working in the public sector as a traffic/transportation engineer in India, Afghanistan, and the U.S. I came to business school to make a career change, and during my first year, I put all my effort into finding an internship in consulting. After my initial research, I found consulting to be pretty attractive, mostly because I could not find a better alternative. During my search, there were signs that told me consulting might not be the best fit for me. However, I pushed myself and convinced myself that I could manage all the challenges, once I got a consulting job. This is where I started veering away from my true self. The result, as you can probably guess, was not getting a consulting internship, in spite of going through a number of interviews. That was in February 2012, and frustration and disappointment hit pretty hard.
It was too late to apply to major general management firms, and I did not know what to do. As the only option, I started my off-campus search; but even then, I failed to focus on the right strategy based on who I really am. I felt desperate and started applying to everything — jobs in IT, health care, non-profit, retail, you name it. The excel spreadsheet where I tracked my search showed more than 75 postings that I applied to! It was ridiculous — demanded a lot of my time, and frequently stressed me out. After Spring Break, I sat down with one of my classmates, who served as a great mentor and guide, and he helped me understand the situation and optimize the process. He showed me how a lack of focus affected the quality of my applications — my cover letters and resumes did not reflect passion and commitment, because I applied to companies without thinking. It was no surprise that I did not get a single interview! However, with a more thoughtful and focused approach, I received an internship offer in a corporate strategy position at a global water technology firm.
The reason I have two parts to my story is that one lesson was not enough for me. After I started my summer internship in New York, I had a good conversation with my wife regarding my career. I talked about the factors that worried me all along about consulting, and we decided that I would no longer pursue consulting jobs. But then something happened — I got a note from a Fuqua alumnus at McKinsey, who wanted to chat with me and encouraged me to apply for a full-time consulting position. This created a dilemma. On one hand, I knew why consulting was not a good fit; but on the other hand, a consultant from McKinsey showed interest in me — that was too much to ignore! After thinking for a little while, I fell into the trap again.
As a good friend and partner, my wife supported me in my second consulting search. I decided to be more focused in the process and more selective about the firms (I ended up applying to 6, including the top 3). But once again, it took up a big chunk of my time. To make a long story short, I did not get into a consulting job. I received a few interview invitations (not McKinsey, by the way!), and actually felt good about my performance. But one big difference was that I was not shocked or heartbroken by the rejections. I accepted the misfit, and immediately shifted focus to the other companies and positions where I found better alignment. Before Winter Break, I was very happy with the options I had, and then accepted an offer to join the Corporate Development Program at Liberty Mutual.
Here is the moral of the story — no matter how clichéd it sounds, “knowing yourself” is really key to your success in business school (and in life in general). Unless you stay true and honest about who you are, you will be lost in a sea of options, unable to figure out what is really good for you. Talk your decisions through with your close friends and families, especially when you are in a dilemma as I was. During the internship or full-time job search, identify the pros and cons for each position and weigh them against your own, personal priorities and preferences. Finally, know that knowing yourself will not only help you stay focused, but will also enable you to identify a symbiotic match with suitable firms, effectively creating a great positive synergy in the long term.