Last updated: May 23, 2012 2:19 pm

Ask the Expert: MBA Jobs Clinic 2012

Peter Whitehead Q&A

Welcome to the Financial Times Ask the Experts Jobs Clinic 2012. Are you an MBA graduate still looking for a job? Or are you a corporate recruiter, hoping to recruit MBAs this year?

Our panel of experts will be available to answer your questions on Wednesday, 23rd May 2012, between 14.00 and 15.00 BST. Post your questions now to ask@ft.com and they will be answered on the day.

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IN Ask the Expert

On the panel are:

Julie Morton, associate dean of career services and corporate relations at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business in the US. In this role, she oversees all career services activities for students in the full-time, evening, weekend, and executive MBA programmes, as well as for alumni. This includes career management programming and corporate recruiting relationships with companies which seek to source talent from Chicago Booth.

Peter Whitehead, launch editor of the weekly Financial Times Executive Appointments section. Peter writes and commissions features about job moves and career management topics. He is also the editor of the FT’s Non-Executive Directors’ Club website, responsible for its coverage of boardroom issues aimed at both those already in a non-executive role and those aspiring to join a board.

Yvonne Li, MBA Director of admissions and career services at Ceibs Business School in China. Ms Li joined Ceibs in 2005. In 2010, the Ceibs career development centre was merged with the MBA programme as part of an initiative to ensure that students achieve a balance between the academic skills needed for the workforce and their own career goals.

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I recently graduated with an MBA in finance. I have more than six years of IT experience and am now looking for jobs which involve both finance and technology. The job roles I’ve been applying for include: business analyst, data analyst and systems analyst, which I have found on boards such as CareerBuilder, Monster and DICE. I also have my profile setup on websites like LinkedIn.

I am having a hard time looking for jobs, especially since I moved to Sycamore, Illinois. Is there any strategy to follow when applying for jobs?

Sushil Morker

Julie: It’s great that you’re finding jobs online in which you are interested and for which you would be a strong candidate, but applying for jobs via these online resources should be just one (relatively small!) part of your job search strategy.

Most of the time, people are successful in their job search when they do a lot of networking and proactive outreach. So, for example, as you apply to these jobs, you should also check to see if there are alumni at these firms to whom you could reach out and are there alums at other firms who might be good leads?

If you are new to the area, are there local organisations you could join which would plug you into the local business community? This approach, combined with applying to jobs you find online, will likely result in your application materials “rising to the top.”

Peter: I guess the first question I would ask in return is - how many jobs are there in your chosen category and level in and around Sycamore, Illinois? And second, how prepared are you to travel?

In tomorrow’s FT Executive Appointments section (you can read it in the US here) we list 10 tips to help people such as yourself get through this tough process. I think the most important pointers are to remain positive and work on ways to demonstrate the return on their investment in you that your prospective employer can expect to receive. It’s a hard sell - and networking becomes vital, too - both online and in person. For all the “digital age” hype and supposed sophistication around selecting job candidates, it can often boil down to personal chemistry and knowing the right people. I wish you the very best of luck.

Yvonne: In recent years, many MBA grads with an IT background have switched to the finance sector or finance related industries. This is a fiercely competitive area and successful job seekers are those who have found a way to stand out from the competition and impress recruiters.

Factors you may need to consider: Is your CV impressive enough? Have you had internship experience related to the positions for which you are applying? Apart from posting CVs in different channels, have you tried leveraging personal connections and referrals by alumni, faculty or previous colleagues? Personal recommendations and referrals from tapping into your networks can be extremely effective.

What do you think is the best way to increase the number of women on company boards? For those women interested in joining the board of their business school, what tips would you give for the interview process? And how do you think corporate recruiters should target their search?

Julie: As more women rise in the ranks of companies, there are bound to be more women on boards. Many search firms have specific practices oriented toward board searches, but of course those firms work for their clients, not the specific candidates.

In terms of joining business school boards, those “boards” are sometimes more advisory in nature and less about school governance per se. Schools often select candidates for these boards who have been involved alumni, so being a visible and engaged alumna is key. Bringing strong corporate connections to the school is often valued.

With regard to the interview itself, keep in mind this is often less about the actual formal interview and more about the longer-term interaction you have had with the school or company. They want folks who will contribute good ideas, constructive advice, solid community and /or corporate engagement – and that can be determined over a long period of interaction.

Peter: A great topic. I wrote recently in my FT Executive Appointments Diary column that I was at a presentation which included Helena Morrissey on the panel. She founded the 30% Club, which campaigns for a target (not a quota) of 30 per cent women in the boardroom. I went in pretty much opposed to female quotas on boards, for all the usual reasons - every board member should be there on merit, and that the experience in Norway (where they have a 40 per cent female quota) was that a handful of qualified women had been dragooned on to lots of boards to make up the number and that some companies had even de-listed to avoid the quota. But I ended up that afternoon believing quotas are essential if anything is to change significantly within the next half century or more, and that Norway might have got it right - in 10 years it might have cracked the problem.

The reasons against quotas are that “the pipeline of talent” needs to be set up first. I think that is happening but so slowly that we’re talking generations. But what if we prime that pipeline by demanding that companies find women with the skills and experience they need - and therefore have to do something to create the supply? I think Norway will find its pipeline is bursting with ideal women in a few years, while we’ll still be saying “be patient, things are changing”. And it is a problem - more women would provide the balance that businesses desperately need.

Joining a business school board is probably - like so many appointments - still influenced by networking. So get to know the right people (either via social media or in person, where practical) and sell yourself by letting them know what you can do for them. Reciprocation should then be automatic.

As for corporate recruiters, many are now committed to providing a shortlist containing women - but they also avoid “tokenism”. Clearly, they are tasked with providing the best candidates to their clients, but I believe they should be advising clients to consider hiring more women in senior executive and non-executive positions. Failure to do so might well spark legislation or regulation anyway.

I’m Russian, I speak Russian, French and English and I’ve graduated with an MBA in International Management in France. Before receiving my MBA, I studied for a degree in sociology and worked as a marketing analyst for two years. Afterwards, I decided to study business. During my MBA studies, I had an internship as a strategic consultant at Renault and then I returned to Russia.

Now, I’m facing problems with finding appropriate work as I’m a young specialist with only two years work experience and I want to work in project management between foreign companies. What could you recommend to me? I would like to advance with my international career too.

Natalia Petrashkova

Julie: It sounds like you have some great experience – just not enough of it! I encourage you to think of your career progression as a series of stepping stones. It’s great that you have a goal – cross-border project management. It might behoove you to pursue local project management roles right now – roles which would allow you to leverage your MBA and your analysis skills and really develop an expertise in project management. Then, a little further down the line, you could pursue roles which are more international in nature.

If you focus your initial project management search on companies which are global, there could well be opportunities to demonstrate your interest in the international realm, even before a new role was a possibility. That would also allow you to perhaps move to a more global role within the same company – that kind of switch is often easier, since you would be a “tried and true” employee – the company would already be aware of your aptitudes and you’d have an internal track record.

Peter: Hi Natalia - with your qualifications and background, I am surprised you are finding it difficult to secure a great job. Could it be because you are aiming a little too high at this stage of your career? It might be a case of taking the second-best option for the time being and showing a business what you can offer them.

An alternative might be to consider interim management. This is a flexible way of working in the UK and is based around managing projects, turnarounds, etc for a set period. I’m not sure whether Russia has the same developed market for interims as the UK but an online search for interim managers might give you some ideas.

Yvonne: You are multilingual, with international exposure and good (though brief) work and internship experience. All these are good attributes. But look at the path you’ve taken and the goals you have for the future. The impression is that you are not focused in what you’ve done and not consistent in what you plan for the future: sociology, marketing, MBA, strategic consultant, project management.

For career switchers, the biggest challenge is to switch to totally unfamiliar areas, both industry and function. Recruiters usually prefer related experience, unless they know you well enough to run the risk.

Thinking globally, with an eye on an international career, is a good move and your language skills will certainly help in that regard. It’s also good that you have a specific goal in mind. The focus now should be on getting as much experience as you can in your chosen field. You can supplement your on-the-job experience with volunteer activities related to your field. This is also an excellent way to expand your network. Overall, be patient and focused. It takes time to successfully build a career.

I have had problems finding a job since I graduated in 2008. I graduated with a third class honours in accountancy but went on to do a masters in corporate finance, to improve my prospects, and graduated with a merit. I also enrolled for a professional accountancy qualification with ACCA but up till now I have not been able to secure even an interview.

I live in the UK but I am a Nigerian national. I am eligible to work in the UK so I don’t know whether or not being a UK citizen is affecting my chance of being employed. I will appreciate your effort in considering my question.

Abubakar I. H. Sule

Peter: Hi Abubakar, sorry to hear you’re struggling to secure a post. There are many many reasons for not being selected and anything is possible. All I can suggest is that you go through your whole presentation - including your CV, covering letters, social media profiles, networking strategy and interview presentation and techniques.

You need to eliminate any factors that could give a prospective employer a reason to exclude you because that is what they are looking for now that supply and demand are so mismatched. You might also find that a professional adviser in a specialised recruitment firm or other specialist firm might be able to work through things with you and get you onto a few final shortlists. I wish you luck.

Julie: It sounds like you’ve had a tough time, to be sure. The market has been difficult during the time you’ve been searching so that could certainly account for some of the challenge. If you are eligible to work in the UK, I would focus first on making sure you’re doing all you can on the job search tactics front. First, do you have a clear idea of how your skills and interest align with the marketplace? What is it that you wish to pursue – and why are you a strong candidate for that area?

At Chicago Booth, we spend a good deal of time with students on the self-assessment and then the market assessment processes – make sure you’re not glossing over those two pieces, especially when folks search for a job for a longer time, it’s tempting to go with the “anything and everything” approach – and companies are not usually interested in hiring “anyone and everyone.”

Companies seek candidates who are passionate about working for them – that firm, that industry, in a specific function. Really think through where your own skills lie – where do you excel? And then how do those skills align with the marketplace – in which functions/industries are those skills especially valued. At that point, you are ready to develop a resume that highlights those specific skills, and from there, you can move on to honing your networking and interviewing skills to readily articulate those skills. Networking – talking to folks in the fields and firms you are targetting – will be key, but before you do so, you need to be sure your message is well-crafted.

I am an MBA graduate looking for jobs in an emerging economy; China, Africa or Brazil, for example, as I would like to broaden my experience. However, I am based in the UK so I’m not sure how best to look for jobs and apply. Please could you give me your advice?

Peter: Working in the so-called Bric countries and parts of Africa is becoming more difficult for western expatriates as these countries develop their own talent. In fact, a recent FT special report, Working in Africa, said companies in Africa are looking more to lure home their nationals from abroad than hire western nationals. The same is certainly true in Brazil. And while English is still business’s lingua franca, it is becoming increasingly important to be able to speak the local language, wherever you are.

It’s not clear what level of job you are after, but if it is an entry level post you seek, my advice would be to travel first. Find out where you like to be and then seek work, rather than committing to a job from afar and then struggling when you get there.

Julie: There are certainly a lot of career opportunities in emerging economies these days, but remember that it is always more difficult to find work in a country where you don’t have automatic work authorisation (ie, where you need a visa) and firms don’t hire you because you want to broaden your experience, they hire you because of the value you can add to their firm.

So consider the industry/function in which you’re now employed – is that a field which is growing in China, Africa, or Brazil? Could you leverage your experience in the UK and bring that experience to the emerging market? Do you have skills that are transferable to the new markets? Finally, if your current employer has activities in a new market, that might be a good way to transition.

Yvonne: Executives with international experience will have an added advantage over their peers so it’s good that you recognise the importance of working outside your home country. It is true that there are more job/business opportunities in emerging economies and China is one of them. It is an increasingly attractive option for many international job seekers. This is understandable, with its growing economy at a time when many other countries are still battling the economic crisis.

However, when considering a career in another country, you need also to think about the following: Are there language barriers? Is your past related experience a valuable asset in companies in this new market/location?

At Ceibs, we have many international students who want to stay in China after graduation and explore a new career. There are always two major challenges: language and package.

With no previous exposure to the country and culture, I would recommend that you apply for a position in a multi-national corporation with operations in the emerging economy of your choice. Try to get an opportunity to be relocated there after you have demonstrated your value. Direct hires might need local experience, local language proficiency and a local package.

I am wondering whether to study for an MBA or specialised masters degree in finance. Given the cut-backs in recruitment in banking, which would you recommend?

Julie: I think it really depends on what you want to do with your degree. The MBA is a broader degree and can take you in a range of different career directions. At Chicago Booth, our MBAs go into investment banking to be sure – but also into consulting, general management, marketing, private equity, to cite just a few – the list is long!

The MBA opens up a wide range of options and here, students often end up pursuing career paths that weren’t even on their radar when they entered the programme. Part of what we do is help students expand their career horizons. But if you are very sure of your career path and have the experience which supports that specificity, it could be that a specialised masters is the right answer for you.

Peter: Well, this has to come down to a personal choice. All I can advise is that you should decide what you really WANT to do - which might not necessarily mean just making loads of money - and follow that path, confident in what you can achieve. Even then, things might not turn out as you expect - something even better might come along. That’s the beauty of it all.

Yvonne: Each choice has its advantages. The job market never stays the same, it’s influenced by changes in the economy. So this should not be the major factor in choosing a programme or career. The key is in identifying your goal.

That being said, an MBA programme provides a more comprehensive knowledge of the business world, covering everything from finance, strategy, HR, marketing, operations, etc and, at Ceibs, responsible leadership. Our focus on entrepreneurship, for example, prepares our students with the skills needed to launch and successfully run their own startups. Even if they later decide to join an already established company, this helps them become better employees. So my advice: if you want to have a wider range of options and opportunities available, do an MBA.

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