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Aligning Student Expectations and Job Market Realities

US MBA students graduating in 2011 expected a starting salary of US$98,035, according to a student survey conducted by Universum, an employer branding firm. But GMAC’s 2011 Corporate Recruiters Survey found the average starting salary for new MBAs in the US was US$91,433.

The gap between what students expect and what they may get from their MBA programs and degrees extends far beyond starting salaries, to the skill levels they’ll attain and the likelihood they’ll land their dream job with their dream company when they graduate. Aligning those expectations with reality was the topic of a popular session titled “The MBA Hiring Landscape: Managing Career Expectations,” held recently at GMAC’s Annual Conference in Boston.

Aligning expectations with reality depends on having solid data about the job market, understanding student perceptions and motivations, and then communicating with students─early and often.

“Knowledge is power, and communication is the key to managing student expectations,” said Gregg Schoenfeld, GMAC director of management education research. Neither idea is revolutionary, but together they pack combined force, he added. “Empowering students with information lays the foundation for students to develop goals that are extraordinary, yet grounded in reality.”

Knowing the job market
Schoenfeld offered up detailed data from GMAC’s 2011 Corporate Recruiters Survey, which held good news for current graduates. “More companies are planning to hire, more are coming to campus. They’re hiring the same number of MBAs as last year─and they’re paying more,” Schoenfeld said. Although companies’ MBA hiring varies substantially by industry and by region, the degree still commands a premium on the job market compared with other degrees in the US, Europe, and the Asia Pacific region, he added.

Employers do expect MBAs to have previous work experience, with 41 percent saying they expect MBAs to have at least three years, and 32 percent expecting people to have five or more years of experiences, Schoenfeld said. Programs with more young students should note that internships can pay big dividends, he added. “They are a good way to get experience and get a foot in the door.”

Panelist Austin Williams, an employer branding specialist at Universum, agreed. Universum’s worldwide surveys of students show that internships are important to MBA students, and they are a key factor in landing a full-time job, he said.

Understanding the student
Universum has found it useful and efficient to consider job applicants by personality to find a good fit between employers and employees. Through research, the company has developed seven personality profile types, Williams said. About a quarter of MBAs in both the US and Europe are “leaders,” far outpacing “explorers,” who seek challenging work in their day-to-day activities.

Though there are some differences among MBA students by region and gender, being competitively or intellectually challenged was the No. 1 career goal for this year’s MBA grads, a shift from the past two years, when work/life balance topped their job priorities, Williams said.

Broadly speaking, MBAs are more focused on themselves and their career development because they’re more confident they can get a job than undergraduates, who are more likely to seek job security, Williams said. “MBAs seek a creative environment and want to be surrounded by leaders. They also want to work with the best and brightest—they want high-quality peers.”

Communicate Early and Often
To align student expectations to market realities, schools have to work with students─as early as their pre-admission marketing messages.

Session moderator Jackie Wilbur, senior director of the career development office at MIT Sloan, gives incoming students a spreadsheet with 10-year trend data on where MIT Sloan graduates have gone to work to give them a concrete picture of where graduates are getting jobs. Although three-quarters of the incoming students read the report, she is pushing for even more.

Attendee Monica Powell, associate dean of graduate programs at the University of Texas at Dallas, conducts an extensive survey documenting the expectations of admitted full-time and part-time students before they matriculate. She then does a debriefing at orientation, featuring UTD alumni and supporting data from GMAC research, to help students define what is truly realistic. “It’s a water-in-the-face reality check,” she says.

Over the years, UTD has asked students where they get their information, and women, in particular, look to family and friends. It’s important to give students hard data, she said. “Do it gently and do it early.”

The Graduate Management Admission Council conducts five annual surveys that provide hard data about management education and students at all phases of the process, from the Prospective Students Survey, through the Application TrendsGlobal Management Education Graduate and Corporate Recruiters surveys, to the longitudinal Alumni Perspectives Survey. Survey reports are available to the public, but participating schools also get free custom interactive benchmarking reports, which allow them to compare their data to overall results and to aggregate data from five or more peer schools of their choice. Sign up for survey invitations at[].      

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