How to deal with career uncertainty post-MBA

Jamie McGraw, MBA2023

Jamie is a behavioural economist and entrepreneur with 4 years of experience in financial services and public health. Particularly passionate about Tech, he is currently doing an internship at a FinTech start-up in London. He decided to do an MBA at LBS because he wants to build an international network and live in an international city while pivoting from a niche role into Tech. Jamie was also directly inspired by two South Africans who had done incredibly after doing their MBAs at LBS. He is also particularly passionate about making a difference in his home continent. He’s currently a member of many clubs including the Tech and Media Club, Africa Club, Consulting Club, Expedition Club, Football Club and Entrepreneurship Club.

How certain do you have to be about your post-MBA career?

The first time my class sat together in a lecture theatre, we were asked to introduce ourselves to the class and say something about our post-MBA plans. Most people repeated what they had said in the application that had earned them the seat they were now sitting in. But a few brave souls came clean and admitted they actually weren’t sure what they wanted to do – our class was audibly amused.

Hearing people laugh at this refreshing honesty took a weight off my shoulders because I immediately realised that every person in the room, regardless of how certain their post-MBA plans were, could relate to the feeling of doubting their aspirations.

This is definitely something I wish I’d known before starting the application process.

The “contradiction” in your application process

If you are applying to a top business school, like LBS, you may have noticed an odd part of the application process. On the one hand, you’ll be asked several times by admissions committees about your post-MBA plans. What is your 5-year plan? What are your post-MBA goals? What are your short- and long-term goals? On the other hand, we know that one of the main functions of an MBA is to discover the answer to this question. At LBS, there are a number of students each year who don’t stick to the plans they stated in their applications.

When I started applying, I found this part of the application process jarring. Initially, I felt like I would have to be insincere: don’t admissions staff know, statistically, that I’m probably not going to stick to what I say? If so, why am I saying it? And those of you applying may have wondered something similar. Can’t you just “drop the act” and admit that in reality no one knows what they’ll do after the MBA? You could tell them you have some rough ideas but… you know… nothing specific! Won’t they appreciate this “refreshing honesty”?

Why admitting your uncertainty is not a solution in the application process

Well, put yourself in the admissions committee’s shoes. In particular, imagine someone reviewing your application not in isolation, but alongside hundreds of other applications. To be clear, what follows isn’t an official insider’s guide to the LBS admissions process; it’s a general way to imagine the admissions process that I found personally useful when going through this exercise.

So, imagine you’re trying to recruit someone who has just told you they have no idea what they want to do. There’s nothing wrong with being less than 100% certain about the future, but if you award a spot to someone in a prestigious programme, you want to be sure they’ll use it wisely. In other words, you’d want some assurance that the applicant has some direction, right? So, while admitting uncertainty may feel cathartic to the applicant, it just makes it more difficult for the recruiter to justify picking them over someone who has put the effort into reducing that uncertainty.

It’s not that the admission committee is trying to coerce you into saying things you don’t mean, they just want to know that you have at least one thoughtful, realistic career plan. And if, during your MBA, you find a path that you love even more than your initial plan then more power to you! But, on the off chance that you don’t, you do need a basic plan to fall back on. So what this means is you’ll have to put a “stake in the ground” for your application.

Two reasons you might be feeling uncertain

Assuming you’ve accepted this, if you’re still feeling uncertain about how to do this, two things might be getting in your way:

  • Awareness; you actually aren’t aware of the full spectrum of opportunities available to MBA graduates.
  • Selection; you’re aware of the opportunities available, but you’re not quite sure how to choose between them all.

Fortunately, increasing your awareness is fairly easy; LBS (and most business schools) provide an employment report on their website which describes in detail what opportunities recent MBA graduates have been able to secure. So that takes care of one problem. Unfortunately, selecting your path is a little bit trickier and merits its own discussion.

Three tips to tailor your post-MBA plan 

Here are some useful tips I received for my post-MBA plans that helped me narrow down the set of viable options:

  1. Connect it to your past. Telling the admissions committee you want to do something that has absolutely no connection to your experience signals that you might not be thinking carefully about the risks involved. Connecting it with your past (even in a small way) also helps to keep your aspirations realistic and craft a meaningful narrative about your career progression. This will be especially useful if you weren’t sure about your aspirations in the first place.
  2. Show don’t tell. It doesn’t cost you anything to state your aspirations but it does cost you something to act in line with your aspirations. So a good way to differentiate yourself is to start doing something (again, even something small) that you can point to when you’re telling the committee about your plans.
  3. Show how an MBA will help get you there. There are lots of ways to pursue your aspirations. In fact, most people pursue their aspirations without doing an MBA. So you’ll want to sense check whether the career plan is something your MBA programme of interest is known to help people get into.

Defining your post-MBA plans is good preparation for your MBA

The reality is that your MBA is about learning to form opinions and make important decisions during periods of uncertainty. Constructing your post-MBA plan will be good preparation for your time in class when you’ll be constantly taking positions in case studies about things you’re not 100% sure about. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. And, as you will hopefully see once you’re inside the programme, it’s very normal to feel uncertain. 

Good luck!

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1 comments on “How to deal with career uncertainty post-MBA”

  1. Anjola Reply

    Thank you Jamie!
    This is an incredibly insightful write up and it’s also very practical.
    I am definitely going to make some edits to my essays based on this.

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