Just because a career track is popular, doesn’t mean it’s right—either in general or specifically for you.
There is no universal rule that, if you are a student at or recent graduate from a top business school, you must go into consulting or banking. No God of MBA Careers somewhere has deemed that you are a failure unless you do finance, private equity, strategy consulting or join the latest tech startup.
That is not to disparage any of the traditional MBA career paths. It is simply to say that you should not be distracted by what is popular or unduly influenced by what your peers are up to. The pressure to pursue traditional paths like banking and consulting, along with (though to a lesser extent) corporate finance, brand management and marketing, can be intense. But you have to know yourself and figure things out for yourself. Any of the options I have mentioned may be the right fit for you. But choose them for that reason, not as a default to banking or consulting, or whatever classmates are killing themselves over.
Here are three simple rules to follow in figuring out your career options as an MBA. I use these guidelines every day with my students and recent alums, but they are still valid even if it’s been awhile since you’ve been in school.
1. Think Carefully for Yourself
Think for yourself and be open to new ideas. Mark Twain said it best: “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”
I took a logic class in college way back when I was 19, and if there is one thing I remember from that class, other than a lot of trees and branches, it is argumentum ad populum, which is Latin for “appeal to the people.” Known by many names—fallacious argument, argument by consensus, bandwagon fallacy—it basically says something is true because many or most people believe it.
Just because many people believe that finance careers are the only way to make $160K and recoup the astounding cost (and opportunity cost) of business school does not mean it’s true. Even if that were true, it doesn’t mean it has to be investment banking on Wall Street.
As human beings, we have a tendency to accept absurd information as long as it is repeated by enough people, especially when they are our friends. The truth is that your reality, your specific circumstances and your own constraints be they financial, personal or whatever, will ultimately dictate your fit with—and happiness in—a particular career path.
Here are some specific things you can do:
• Speak to alumni and MBAs in your network about five to seven years out and ask them how their traditional and/or nontraditional career choices panned out. Where are they now? Would they make the same choices were they to do it all over again?
• Be flexible with your career. There are creative and lucrative ways of capitalizing on your consulting/marketing/finance skills beyond holding a job. For example, both Skillbridge (Wharton founders) and MBA & Company connect MBA talent to companies for specific projects. Take note—this is the future of work!
2. Know That Your Life Will Change in Ways You Can’t Imagine
You are nowhere close to knowing who you are at 27, the average MBA age. Trust me. Whatever you feel like you are dead set on now will change in three years, in five years and in 10 years. Making and holding on to these perfect multiyear, multitab spreadsheet life-plans is dangerous.
In my own experience and the experience of several of my own WG04 classmates, it is somewhere between five and seven years post-MBA that things start to consolidate. You have enough experience to know who you really are and what you want to do, what career means to you, what family means to you, what community means to you and how all these pieces fit together in a way that is uniquely meaningful to you. This is only anecdotal evidence, but the contrast between my five-year and 10-year Wharton Class of 2004 reunions was striking. At the former, the energy was still career-focused and competitive. By the 10-year mark, everyone had chilled. People had children or family/relationship focused lives, aging parents, receding hairlines and all kinds of other challenges.
For women, family and children will take on a big role. Apparently, it doesn’t matter how career-focused you were in school, once family and children enter the picture, priorities change by definition. Or priorities change simply with age. It’s not that you are less ambitious—it’s that your ambition goes into other things. Male or female, you will realize in your mid-30s and as you head into your 40s that you can’t have it all. There’s no such thing. The universe is specifically calibrated to prevent this.
3. Understand Learned Skills Versus Natural Talents
Learned skills are those you’ve learned through formal education or work experience. Natural talents are those that you were given by nature. These would have been recognizable in you from a very early age. The point is that the more you are doing things that are naturally easy for you, the less upstream you need to swim.
So instead of asking what is the most popular industry to go into right now, ask yourself these three questions (here’s a graphic with more detail):
1) What am I good at?
2) What do I like to?
3) What will the market pay for?
Nail these three, and you’ll be happy for life. Or, at least, it will make you a good interview candidate.