I just got an MBA in finance, but I have no experience, and can’t get a job. What should I do?

“I just got a MBA in Finance and now I don’t know what to do.  My experience has been mostly engineering so I have no finance experience, but I want to go into finance.  The economy sucks.  What should I do?”

The Harvard MBA says:
Almost every employer prefers to hire employees with previous relevant experience, and with good reason.  All other things being equal, they’d rather hire a proven commodity.  Therefore, you need a two-pronged strategy.  One, you need to make sure that all other things are decidedly *NOT* equal.  And two, you need to prove yourself in a hurry.

Ask yourself what you can do to stand out from other potential hires, and to prove your ability to do the job.  For example, suppose you researched a company you wanted to work for, and discovered that they were working on an important problem.  You could put together your own solution to the problem, complete with detailed statistical analysis and specific proof points.  If you walked in the door with a 40-page report that specifically addressed their most pressing needs, you’d probably stand out, and you’d also go a long way towards proving yourself.

Another possibility is to volunteer to work for free.  When the economy sucks, it’s tough for employers to resist free labor, and once you’re in, if you can make yourself indispensable, they’re not going to want to let you go.

Finally, you may want to consider working for a lower-tier firm.  Certainly everyone always wants to work for a brand name firm, but you’re better off working for a no-name firm where you can pick up actual experience than sitting around filling out job applications that are doomed to be rejected.  If you end up as a big fish in a small pond, expect to be poached pretty quickly.

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My spouse got into HBS; what can I expect as a partner?

My fiance who is 24 recently got accepted and will be attending HBS. I myself am 24 and was curious how big of a role I will play, i.e. drinking with her section and so on, and what to expect as a male partner?  I will also be attending an MBA program in Boston at the same time.

The Harvard MBA says:

Congratulations to both you and your fiancee!  You’re fortunate to be able to be together in the same city during your MBA programs.  I have seen many other couples who didn’t have that opportunity.

The role you play in your fiancee’s section is really up to you.  You can be as involved or uninvolved as you wish (and as your own studies permit).  I’ve seen everything from partners who were almost completely uninvolved to the point of anonymity, to partners who were so involved that many thought they were the student, and the actual student the partner.

I would encourage you to do what comes naturally.  Don’t forget, you’ll have your own social life to attend to–part of the benefit for you as a couple is that you can tap into two different networks, and it would be a mistake to focus so much on HBS that you neglected your own classmates.

I switched to liberal arts to help find a girl; should I go back to engineering for my career?

Hi Mr. Harvard MBA, love your blog.  Sorry for a slightly longer question, but this is about my college/life and is both important to me and also utterly confused me as to what to do.  Basically, I go to a pretty good University.  Actually, one of the best in my country.  I’m doing Computer Science because I’ve been programming since I was in grade 8, and always thought I had a natural affinity for it.  However, about a year and a half into the program, I realized I just couldn’t focus enough to accomplish the grade requirements needed for the math and logic courses.

It wasn’t because it was too hard.  Rather, it was just because I found my attention straying to other things.  You see, I’ve been single for about 4 years now, and while that can be attributed to various factors in my life, a huge portion of my passion and interest lies in being more social, going out, working out, making friends etc…in general, helping my case in finding a girl.

I thought I’d accommodate this quest temporarily and enrolled into a joint English/Philosophy/History major for a year.  As it turned out, it was a lot more interesting then I imagined, and I’m achieving constant B’s and A’s (as oppose to my C- in Com Sci).  Secondly, it gives me loads more time to do the things I never did in high school, such as joining sports teams and traveling.  I guess to sum up, I’m faced with the dilemma of career vs. relationship.  I don’t think I want to sacrifice either, and I honestly don’t know which is more important or how things will even pan out in the long run.  So what’s your take on the situation, and should I go back to Com Sci for a better career, or stick with what I’m doing now and hope for the best after graduation?

The Harvard MBA says:

Mike, your situation is not unique.  It is absolutely true that doing a challenging Science/Engineering degree at a top-flight school will dramatically improve your prospects of landing a high-paying job at a prestigious company when you graduate.

It is also absolutely true that doing a challenging Science/Engineering degree takes a lot more time than something in the Humanities, and leaves far less time for sports, travel, and getting girls.  No one ever says, “Damn, those CS students get all the girls.”

Unfortunately, there is no way to have your cake and eat it too.  If it were easy to get a Science/Engineering degree, it would no longer serve as an effective screening factor for high-paying jobs at prestigious companies.  However, there is one approach that may allow you to do both.

While prestigious companies care a lot about your degree, you don’t need a CS degree from a top school to succeed as an entrepreneur.  In fact, any degree from a top school will pretty much signal that you have the raw mental horsepower to succeed.  But if you want to use your programming skills to succeed as an entrepreneur, you need to make sure that you hone those skills.  This honing can take place outside the classroom, and might take less time than doing a complete CS degree (which, by the way, doesn’t necessarily help you be a great programmer).

If I were you, I might try coding some interesting apps, if not starting a company.  (The problem with starting a company is that it will consume even more time than your CS classes!).  If it seems like you can build your programming muscles without the tedium of your CS classes, go ahead and complete your humanities degree, play your sports, see the world, and enjoy the company of the ladies.  When you graduate (and you are no longer surrounded by so many attractive and eligible women) you can turn your attention to entrepreneurship full-time, and your lack of an official degree will be less of a handicap.

Should I attend HBS or get a Masters in Finance from MIT?

“I have been admitted to both the HBS MBA and the MIT M.Fin.  I know I want a career in finance. Which one should I chose?”

The Harvard MBA says:

Edward, congratulations on your achievement.  The good news is, there is no wrong answer.  You have two wonderful options.

I am not a finance expert (except for when it comes to angel investing and venture capital), so I don’t know about the relative attractiveness of an HBS MBA versus an MIT M.Fin.  It may very well be that the M.Fin. offers some advantages over the MBA.  But I tend to subscribe to the “best athlete available” approach to life.

This is a term that comes from professional sports, where teams selecting new players in an amateur draft can choose to draft “for need”–that is, to fill a specific need on their team such as quarterback or power forward–or to draft “the best athlete available” regardless of what position he or she plays.

History is littered with examples of how drafting for need is a bad long-term approach.  The classic story here is basketball star Michael Jordan.  The Houston Rockets had the first pick in the draft, and chose Hall-of-Fame center Hakeem Olajuwon, the consensus #1 pick, and ended up winning two championships during Olajuwon’s career.  The Portland Trailblazers held the second pick, and had to choose between drafting Michael Jordan, who was the consensus #2 player in the draft, but who played the same position, shooting guard, as their best player, Clyde Drexler, and Kentucky center Sam Bowie, who would fill a glaring need for a center.

The Trailblazers selected Bowie, and the rest is history.  Jordan won 6 championships with the Bulls, who selected him with the 3rd pick in the draft, and Bowie’s injury-plagued career never resulted in a Trailblazer championship.

In contrast, the Los Angeles Lakers have made two critical decisions where they selected the best athlete available.  In 1979, the Lakers selected Magic Johnson with the first pick in the draft, even though they already had All-Star point guard Norm Nixon.  The result was 5 championships.  In 1996, the Lakers traded Vlade Divac for a 17-year-old Kobe Bryant, even though no guard had ever successfully jumped from high school to the pros, and even though they already had All-Star shooting guard Eddie Jones.  The result was 4 championships and counting.

The point is, life is full of uncertainty.  I believe that a Harvard MBA is more flexible, and thus the “best athlete available” rather than the MIT M.Fin, which represents “drafting for need.”  I would go for the Harvard MBA.  But of course, I’m biased!

I have the boss from hell. What should I do?

“I have a job at a Fortune 500 company but I have the boss from hell who calls the women on his team “his harem” among other things. I have reported this and much more serious problems like the manipulation of territories to make the overall picture look better for himself. The money he is costing the company is outrageous but he is flying under the radar by blaming others. If I cannot get the powers to listen, should I get legal representation before he finds a way to fire me?”


The Harvard MBA says:

Sounds like a very sticky situation.  I feel compelled to point out that this is an Internet advice blog, intended for entertainment purposes, and that you probably should seek out legal advice.  Nonetheless, here’s what I think you should do:

1) Do some scenario planning.

I’ve been involved in a number of lawsuits, and advised others who have been in similar situations.  A lot of times people like your boss or other shady characters will try to take advantage of you by trying to put you on the spot so that you’ll make a foolish decision.

One entrepreneur who is a personal friend was confronted by an angry investor who threatened to sue (on spurious grounds, of course) if my friend didn’t immediately resign from his company.  What he should have done is said something non-committal like “I’ll need to think about this,” and immediately called a lawyer, and then me.  Unfortunately, he panicked and resigned, and he was never able to regain control of his company.

Most of us don’t know all our legal rights.  I know I don’t.  But if you think something bad is going to happen sooner or later, don’t waste your time worrying about when it’s going to come.  Instead, plot out all the most likely scenarios and construct a plan in advance, so that when the time comes, you can calmly swing into action.

2) Document everything.

Save every possible incriminating email, document, or memo.  You probably have no legal right to keep that information, or to reveal it to the public, but that doesn’t matter.  What you want is to know where the bodies are buried.  You can always get access to that information via subpoena later on, and sharing that information with your attorney is protected under attorney-client privilege.

3) If you think conflict is inevitable, take the offensive.

If the situation becomes truly intolerable, and you have nothing else to lose, take the offensive.  Any Fortune 500 company has both an HR department and a strong desire to avoid negative publicity.  If you’re convinced it’s you or your boss, you have nothing to lose by approaching the HR department and laying out the issues.  Make sure you do this in writing, and save that evidence as well.  I’d also write directly to the CEO’s office for good measure.

What you’re trying to do is to make sure that you can’t be easily silenced.  Your asshole of a boss is going to try to torpedo your career anyways; your best bet is to turn a bright spotlight on the situation.

4) Get a lawyer.

Ultimately, if you listen to any of my advice, do this one thing: Talk to an employment attorney.  You’re not the only one who encounters these kinds of issues.  An employment attorney will know the right things to do (more so than me!) and while it may cost you a few bucks, I think your sanity is worth more.

What are your thoughts on mixed-race marriages and kids?

My question has nothing to do with money. Instead, it’s about race. I noticed that you are Chinese-American and your wife is Caucasian. Lately, I’ve been hearing children of mixed race marriages refer to themselves as “mutts.” Now, I’m not trying to get into a rant about racism or engage in a long, windy discussion of society’s prejudices, etc. I just want to know the practical realities of how parents deal with this when their kids get asked, “what are you” and “what fraction of this and that are you.” I’m directing these questions to you because I particularly value your objective thinking and honesty. (Your approachability even when loaded with Ivy League degrees will eventually pay off as huge political capital, I guarantee it.) I absolutely hate it when someone acts like they need to turn to a preacher and scold people for talking about the real things in their lives. I know you fell in love with your wife, but did you ever want to marry a Chinese woman to have Chinese children? Did the fact that you were going to have mixed kids instead ever cross your mind?

I’ve been noticing these so called “mutts” are now days using these issues to publish books, get on Oprah, etc. Once again, I’m not trying to initiate a conversation about how they are victimized by racism. But when mixed raced children start talking about their racial “halves” and such and such, I get curious about what their parents think.


The Harvard MBA says:

Thanks for the very thoughtful question. I do my best to answer the sensitive questions because I think that there are too few people doing the same.  There are plenty of places to get answers to the easy questions!

And besides, how many other blogs provide expert (and not-so-expert) opinions on business school admissions, investing, interracial relationships, and getting into the adult film industry?

Did you ever want to marry a Chinese woman to have Chinese children?

1) For whatever reason, my taste has always run to buxom brunettes with dark skin and curly hair.  So I knew from a  young age that I was unlikely to marry a Chinese girl.

Did the fact that you were going to have mixed kids instead ever cross your mind?

2) The idea of having mixed race children always appealed to me–behold the power of hybridization!

I just want to know the practical realities of how parents deal with this when their kids get asked, “what are you” and “what fraction of this and that are you.”

3) We tell the children that they are half Puerto Rican and half Chinese.  To which my daughter Marissa quickly responded: “I’m half Puerto Rican and half Chinese.  I’m a masterpiece!”  No worries about her psychology there!

I will note that my own experiences are influenced by the fact that we live in Palo Alto/Silicon Valley, where half-Asian children probably make up some 15% of the kids in the schools these days.  (Of course, most of these marriages involve an Asian wife and a Caucasian husband) No one bats an eye.

Things would be different if we were living in Puerto Rico.  When I went there on vacation to meet my wife’s family, people stared at us wherever we went.  For many people, I think I was the first Chinese person they had seen.  We only saw two other Chinese people the entire time we were in Puerto Rico, and both worked in the same store.  They stared more than anyone!  They also offered me some darn good prices on their merchandise.

The same applied when my wife and I went to China–she was followed by crowds who had never seen curly hair, and they all assumed I was her guide.

The bottom line is that I think the world is changing for the better.  Interracial couples and kids aren’t that unusual any more.  But as William Gibson said, the future is already here–it’s just unevenly distributed.  Some areas will be more mixed-race friendly than others.

What’s up with older women and younger men?

I am interested in your analysis of the older women/younger man trend.  Let’s hear your authoritative point of view.

The Harvard MBA says:

A question near and dear to my heart!  I’ve always preferred older women (some would argue that circumstances made this inevitable; I went to college at 15, so going for younger women would probably have been difficult, and certainly illegal) so I’ve often wondered why more men don’t share what seems to be an eminently sensible preference.

There are certainly many biological reasons that men go for younger women–it is incontrovertible that women are at their most fertile before the age of 30–so it is not surprising that most cultures consider young women more attractive than their elders.

Thanks to modern medicine and habits (after all, most now consider 2 children to be the ideal family size, versus the 5 or 6 of yesteryear), these reasons no longer apply, and there is no biological bar to younger men pursuing relationships with older women.

It’s also the case that over the past 10 years or so, there has been a renaissance in the portrayal of the sexual attractiveness of older women.  Numerous examples spring to mind, from the rise of the MILF (first mentioned in mass culture in the movie, “American Pie”) and the parallel emergence of the cougar (here’s an article I wrote detailing my own exploration of the cougar sub-culture), with real-life examples like Demi Moore and Ashton Kutcher.  I don’t have a definite explanation for this, but I suspect that as with most things in American culture, it’s being driven by the aging of the Baby Boomers, who can no longer consider themselves young, but still wish to remain youthful.

Yet while our cultural perceptions may have changed, it is unclear that our habits have done the same.  The dating site OKCupid often uses its data to provide interesting insights into how our actions belie our words (here’s a fascinating article on race and religion in dating that is well worth the read), and has done the same for online dating age preferences.  Here is the key graphic:

As you can see, men of just about any age are willing to message any woman who’s legal.  They even message women who are younger than the age they’ve specified as their minimum.  Here’s the money quote:

No matter what he’s telling himself on his setting page, a 30 year-old man spends as much time messaging 18 and 19 year-olds as he does women his own age.

The irony, of course, is that older women seem like a better match with what men claim to look for in a woman.  Older women are far more likely to say that sex is one of their favorite activites, that they are okay with having casual sex, to be willing to contemplate a threesome, and to enjoy giving oral sex.  They are also more self-confident, and are more likely to say that they are happy with their life. (all stats drawn from OKCupid)

Perhaps older women simply need better marketing.  I’d be willing to bet that if I approached the average single guy and told him that I could point him to a group of women who enjoyed casual sex and were keen on threesomes and blowjobs, and who were also financially independent and less interested in marriage, I’d be dealing with a stampede.

Ultimately, my assessment is that there is a market inefficiency; men undervalue older women and overvalue younger women.  Most market inefficiencies will eventually be arbitraged out of existence; the cultural changes that I pointed out earlier may very well be the leading indicator of just such a change.  But in the interim, I would strongly advise a single guy to take advantage of this opportunity and try to find an older woman.  In a couple of years, she may be out of his league.

How should I organize my finances once I’m accepted to HBS?

I am a 25 year old who was recently accepted by HBS and I am trying to organize my finances appropriately. I will work until July of next year so I can save some cash, but should I also lower my 401k contribution? Additionally, did any of the students trade financial securities for their personal accounts while you were there?

The Harvard MBA Says:

Bear in mind that this particular Harvard MBA is not a registered investment advisor or tax professional, and that the economic conditions were, to put it mildly, somewhat different when I attended HBS.  That being said, I would advise you to continue your 401k contributions.  Because 401k contributions are both pre-tax and tax-deferred, they are tough to beat.

While you will want enough cash on hand to pay for HBS and enjoy yourself along the way, there are probably better ways to raise that cash than by diverting money that could be reducing your taxes and paying for your retirement.

When I was in school, the major banks would essentially loan you however much money you wanted, figuring that HBS students are good credit risks.  While times are different, it certainly seems like HBS is working hard to keep loans available, though the losses in Harvard’s endowment may eventually cause problems.

As for your second question, I can assure you that many HBS students continue to be aggressive investors.  I even had friends who didn’t need loans, but took them out anyways so that they could lever up and invest more in the stock market (I do NOT recommend this approach, but it did happen).

Finally, my hearty congratulations on your acceptance.  You’re about to have a wonderful two years.

Do I have any chance of getting into HBS being 180° away from the typical applicant? Am I too different?

I’m the polar opposite of the typical HBS applicant. My undergrad GPA wasn’t great and my degree is from the Harvard of contemporary music – Berklee. I’m 39, a woman and have vast entertainment industry experience working on records & films that people have actually heard of. I know HBS wants diversity throughout the student body, but do I have any chance of getting in being 180° away from the typical applicant? What admission strategy would you recommend for someone like me? I’ve never worked in a corporate environment. Am I too different?

The Harvard MBA says:

Dear Jen,

You’re not too different.  In fact, those differences may actually help you win admission to HBS.

As I’ve noted before,  business schools aren’t actually looking for “typical” candidates and the quest for “diversity” has ruthless economic logic underlying it:

Business schools are in the business of building the best possible portfolio of students (or as I like to refer to them, “future alumni donors).  Like any investor, they prefer a diversified portfolio, and will allocate some portion of their investment (acceptance letters) to “alternate asset classes.”

Even better, while your business experience is unusual, it is still business experience, which makes it highly relevant to class discussions.  That means that you’re a low-risk alternate asset class–something that would probably be very attractive to an admissions officer.

As for your age, as I’ve noted in a recent answer,  while the average age of students entering an MBA program is somewhere around 27, it’s not unusual to see students in their 30s or even 40s.  If you’re open to new experiences (which it certainly sounds like you are), you’ll do fine.