Getting the Most Out of School

Or “how not to waste a lot of time and money!”

I see lots of people starting academic programs, both at the undergraduate and graduate levels. One of the biggest predictors of successful outcomes from my perspective is how pro-active and exploratory the student is. How much drive do they have to learn and try things out?

As someone who still jokes about “not having picked a major”, I get not knowing exactly what you want to do. We’re all on a journey. What I don’t get is not trying to figure it out when you have an all you can eat buffet of academic, alumni and social opportunities to connect and explore.

The “harsh” reality
The reality is that we’re in a tough economy. Things are improving and at my school hiring has picked up significantly, but this is at the business school. These students have explicitly indicated and trained for professional jobs. I hear about and see evidence of how much tougher it is in other places without a career center and without training in some of the ‘hard skills’ (like accounting, modeling, process flows, marketing etc.) that companies desire. 

The alternate reality 
At the same time we see significant press about the number of white collar/skilled jobs that go unfilled despite chronic high unemployment because there simply aren’t enough people qualified for the job (Businessweek cover story May11, 2009). 
So what does this mean for students entering school? 

What do you want?

I’ve written in the past on figuring out what you want at a high level. Suffice it to say, you need to think through a short, tangible list of goals. They can be high level and/or directional (eg: “teaching” or “work in the environmental field”) or much more specific (eg: “strategy consulting at a top tier firm”). Either level of detail will help you focus.

Caveat – It’s OK to not know what you want, but you have to work through a discovery process to narrow the field down.

How do you put a plan into action?

1 – The overarching theme here is “action”.

I like to describe the process as Scan>Focus>Act (repeat).

I know people like a sophisticated, subtle “this will solve all your problems” type answer. Sadly, it doesn’t work that way in my experience. You have to actually work hard at it.

Scanning is the front end of the process. Read extensively. Talk to classmates, professors and career staff. Having thought about what you like/want, bump it up against what’s out there.

Focusing is narrowing the field to a manageable number of paths to explore and digging deeper. This could be more extensive networking with alumni or other experts, taking specific classes etc.

Acting in this context is further narrowing to things you really want to explore and find out about. Internships, part time work, research projects in class etc. all would qualify in my mind.

School creates a huge number of opportunities to “try things on” and see if you like them without having to really commit. I know that we all have different learning styles, but ultimately the only way to really learn about what you want is to try it out.

Think research sounds interesting? Get a research assistant job.

Banking sounds exciting? Talk to several alums, the career center, go to panel discussions and seek an internship.

You found out your quant skills need to improve? Take a class.

I see too many people get the study to action ratio out of whack. Doing will teach you much more than studying from afar. It’s good to do the up front leg work in scanning, but don’t avoid actual work.

You get the idea. Every one of these (and I could go on) is a specific tactic one of my students has taken in the last several years.

2 – Understand what the requirements are for paths that interest you, as well as what outcomes look like

2a. Requirements – In my world, high quality banking and consulting firms basically won’t interview you if you have a GPA below 3.8. And they ask for your standardized test scores. Yes, your ACT/SATs may matter when you’re 22 and your GMAT lingers beyond the admission cycle! Better to know that early than find out your dream is unattainable late.

Every field has it’s version of these guild/union like requirements. Sometimes they’re written, sometimes not. But if you look and ask you can figure out the score.

The earlier you start this process, the better off you are. Some things you’ll need in place by end of sophomore year in UG or 1st term in MBA. Bummer to find that out too late.

2b. Roles and Economics –  Do the math on income vs. what you envision as a decent lifestyle.

Some dreams may sound great until you see what you’ll be able to afford. For me, reality set in when I was in a History PhD program and got under the covers on what professors made. (Hint – It wasn’t a lot.) I wasn’t passionate enough about the work to overcome the financial challenges. Great. Lesson learned and move on. This isn’t about maximizing income, it’s about calibrating expectations.

3 – Perform well academically.

For most jobs you don’t need a 4.0, but good grades matter. You have to perform to the level required for your potential paths.

For me, this reality first hit home as I was applying to History PhD programs. My undergrad GPA wasn’t going to get me into one of the top 2-3 programs (I think Yale was “best” at the time.) I had 6 semesters of high GPA and 2 semesters sophomore year where I played harder than I worked. That year killed me. It was what it was, but I didn’t waste lots of time on unachievable goals and focused my search on good programs that fit my goals.

To be clear here – I’m not saying don’t reach for the stars. Just understand the math. In this case 100s of people who had perfect scores were applying for fewer than 10 spots. I didn’t want it bad enough to dig and scratch for it.

4 – Build perception of you as a team oriented “doer”

You want to be the person who gets stuff done well, not the person for whom nothing’s ever quite right. If everyone wants you on their team, professors are impressed and staff sees you as a go-to person your name will float to the top of lists. It makes it easier to open doors and achieve goals you may even know you have yet.

5 – Begin building a network.

I have written extensively on this HERE. Take a look if you’re interested.

A few parting thoughts:

Whatever school you’re at and whatever program you are in, everyone wants you to be successful. Having said that, it is YOUR career. It’s no one else’s responsibility!

Many of the best opportunities will be found through non-school processes. Don’t anchor on whatever the recruiting machine is at your school if your goals fit outside the conventional career paths that machine supports.

You can and should blaze your own trail. I call it “off-roading”. There are clear wagon tracks to follow in most programs, but if you don’t like the path those tracks follow, break out of them.

So many people want to be told what to do, what the formula for success is etc. Figure out your own goals and scorecard.

People who help themselves also get more help from others. It’s more inspiring and people will invest more in you if you actually do something.

Take the time to have fun. Just don’t slag off too much.

Good luck and take advantage of the time you have!