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June 27, 2011 12:12 am

Take off those rose-tinted glasses

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Irshad daftar

Irshad Daftari: 'Prospective employers wanted hands-on experience'

I consider myself to be one of the early harbingers of a recession. There’s an uncanny correlation to recessionary cycles and my own academic pursuits.

Over the past decade, my advanced studies have culminated in two graduations, both in economic downturns and inevitably, in tears. The tears may be metaphorical but the recession is very, very real. I graduated with a master's degree in economics in 2003 with the world economy struggling in the post-9/11 phase. In April 2009, I graduated with an MBA from the Indian School of Business in Hyderabad in the middle of lay-offs, job cuts, hiring freezes and general gloom and doom.

Now, two years later, the rose-tinted glasses have come off. In fact, they came off pretty early and a grim reality took over. Time, coupled with copious quantities of alcohol, ensures that several memories from school are just hazy recollections, captured in photos somewhere or other. I don’t particularly recall the nervous, nail-biting wait between graduation and employment but it may also be that I subconsciously choose not to.

Now, three years after I first decided to study at ISB, my mind is made up: business school cannot change or transform your life. There, I have said it and it feels like a weight off my mind. Is that statement difficult to believe?

Business school students typically are smart, young professionals who have done well both academically and at work and would in all probability have become successful professionals. Business school forces them to work long hours with professors who encourage them to think differently and to challenge the status quo. At the end, there is a better-informed, better-educated, better-equipped, highly charged and motivated individual able to make smart business decisions, in theory anyway. That is the real difference.

Students approach business school with different philosophies but it all adds up to wanting to take a big step up in their career. I went to business school for exactly that reason, defining my need as getting a greater understanding of marketing, with subjects I considered to be cornerstones of successful business management – accounting, finance and organisational behaviour. In that sense, studying at ISB was a resounding success. I’ve learnt a lot and I believe I’m well equipped to handle a business.

Unfortunately, despite all the hard yards I put in at school to ensure I cut the mustard as a marketing professional, prospective employers wanted hands-on experience. Never mind that for five years working as a business journalist, I interacted and learnt from some of the best minds in the business. Employer after employer decided that it wasn’t worth their while hiring me in a downturn – a “risky hire”.

As a prospective employer told me: “You can either do exactly what you did earlier or you can give it all up and start afresh. Your skills are mutually exclusive.” Not quite music to my ears.

My current role, in consumer insights for a leading TV network in India, requires me to use more journalism-style analysis rather than the hard data crunching that I grew accustomed to at ISB. I’m also acutely aware that had I continued in journalism, I’d be better off professionally with a more empowered role today. And, I would not be worse off financially since I would not have incurred debt the size of a small island nation’s gross domestic product.

I am fortunate enough to have made a switch and I do have a perspective for the long haul. Several of my peers are working in similar jobs to those they were in before business school. Entrepreneurship plans have been put on hold because not many can service two loans at a time.

“Rather than unleashing enterprise, graduating from ISB has somehow made us more risk-averse,” says a friend and classmate with whom I have had several philosophical discussions about what business school has meant for us. This friend talks from experience. He is working in a similar sector to the one he was in before his MBA because he was unable to break into investment banking after graduating. Another friend has put his entrepreneurial venture for providing rural healthcare on hold and currently does not want to reactivate it.

Of course, this is not the case for everyone. About 15-20 graduates from my 440-strong class have started their own ventures with various degrees of success, and several others are embarking on careers as management consultants with leading consulting firms. But I am concerned that home truths and sobering realities have still not filtered down to today’s business school students.

Conversations with recent graduates, ISB included, reveal that there is an unfounded sense of entitlement. This is in spite of some very sensible comments from the schools and the deans on keeping expectations in check.

Perhaps much of this has a historical background. Business schools in India have tended to be looked on as elaborate recruitment grounds and some students go to business school with the sole objective of being recruited on campus.

This is not entirely true at ISB but it will take a few more years for MBA students to realise that the business school experience is more than a job on graduation. And that the power to transform their lives is as much up to them as it is to business school.

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