You’re at b-school! Here’s how to do it right

By Matt Miner

We once built an enormous bench with a DT Buffalo on it.  It was the first and only bench in Fuqua's history.  Duke, of course, has a huge bench-building tradition.

We once built an enormous bench with a DT Buffalo on it.  It was the first and only bench in Fuqua's history.  Duke, of course, has a huge bench-building tradition.

If you haven’t noticed, I’m working on a series of posts about going to grad school and how to do it the right way.  Because of my experience I’m focused on writing about business school.

Having finally finished the series of four posts about the application process, I’m ready to preview the remaining content in this series.  I have a bunch more to share in a variety of categories, but my grossly immodest ambition is that this series will become for grad school applicants what Jim Collins’s excellent Stock Series is for DIY index fund investors.

The Job – how to focus your search

How to get The Job

How to negotiate your offer

Starting The Job

Your Post-School Financial Lifestyle: The streamlined, optimized, high-income earner’s spending plan to buy freedom, NOT stuff

The focus of this post is on having the best grad-school experience while minimizing your debt burden when you graduate.  In my b-school experience, I pretty well got the first part right, but didn’t give enough thought to the second.  I am convinced, looking back, that I could have saved many tens of thousands of dollars and still had every bit as much fun.

You’ve got to remember: whatever dollars you’re using to fund this endeavor, they’re after-tax, and your post-school income is not as grand as it seems at first blush.  To the extent you’re borrowing money, they’re not only after-tax dollars, they’re after-tax-plus-interest dollars!  Don’t needlessly spend your life.  Even if you’re not sure that early financial independence is a particular goal, there’s no reason to foreclose that goal.  Your desires may change as time passes.

Here’s the big, earth-shattering advice: Don’t spend money on wasteful stuff.  This would include living in the most expensive apartment, having a car payment on a fancy auto, spending excessively on food and drink, dressing like you already earn multiple six figures, etc.

I’ll swag this for you: A single person ought to be able to live easily on $20,000 per year + tuition.  A couple should be able to live on $30,000 (which you can easily earn), and unless your family has multiple school-aged children, $40,000 per year is your maximum budget.  Where do I get these figures?  Well, the entire Money Mustache family lives luxuriously on less than $25,000 per year, or $40,000 if you impute a mortgage.  If they can live their lifestyle for this, you can too.  If you’ll accept these budget challenges, your job is simply to figure how to fit your expenses into these amounts.  Jacob Lund Fisker makes it on $7,000 or so per year.  It can be done.

Now that we’ve established your budget benchmark, here are your five focus areas while you’re at school.

1.       Your growth as a leader & manager

2.       Your choice of job

3.       Your b-school relationships with classmates, faculty, & staff

4.       Your opportunity to explore managerial careers

5.       Your opportunity to explore entrepreneurship

You have to do all this while upholding your values, too.

Growth as a Leader and Manager

This comes down to the basics.  It’s the academics and the people.  Here’s the reader’s digest version: Pick professors, not class subjects.  Learn the things that interest you and which you plan to use in your career.  Keep your commitments to your group partners.  Exceed your own expectations for the quality of the work you deliver.  Learn the things you want to learn.  Passing classes should not be a problem.  Focus on using the classes to support your growth.

To grow as a leader, seek out opportunities in clubs, in student government, or by starting something new.  You’ll never be in an easier environment to try new things.

Choosing and getting the right job

Your future job comes down to four things.

1.       The tasks you’ll be doing

2.       The firm for which you’ll be doing those tasks

3.       The people with whom you’ll be doing the tasks

4.       The geography or place where you’ll be doing the tasks

It pays to focus on each of these items.  Obviously the ideal job will have you doing tasks which are a great fit for your strengths, in a firm with a culture that resonates with you, which is chock-full of co-workers you love, in your dream geography.  Realistically your job will likely be some degree of compromise across these dimensions.

The key here is self-knowledge.  I found I could maximize my pay and enjoyment if I could be flexible on one of three key trade-offs.  How much time does the job take?  How much will the job take me away from my family through travel?  Will I be able to live where I want?

Here’s what I mean, specifically.  Investment banking pays the most, but requires the worst trade-offs (expectation of 70-90 hour weeks including of course Saturday and Sunday, living in New York).  Consulting was inherently appealing.  I liked the people and the work.  But why would I say that my life is centered on my family and church and then spend four days each week away from them?  The corporate managerial track had a better look on the hours and travel dimensions.  It simply required me to be open minded about my postal address.  For us, this was the right trade-off.

Then, after five years, I got the opportunity to keep on a corporate track (albeit with some different trade-offs) and get the geography I wanted.  If I’d insisted on this combination coming out of school the quality of my job would have suffered dramatically and I would not have gotten the current opportunity.

Motor scooters in Vietnam.  Gasoline sold by the liter in glass bottles on the side of the road.  We rode about 60 kilometers that day.

Motor scooters in Vietnam.  Gasoline sold by the liter in glass bottles on the side of the road.  We rode about 60 kilometers that day.

I'd never been to an Indian wedding before.  Pro-tip: If you get invited, Go!!

I'd never been to an Indian wedding before.  Pro-tip: If you get invited, Go!!

Your b-school relationships with classmates, faculty, & staff

You are with an incredible subset of the population at business school, no matter what school you are attending.  This is a group that has chosen to invest to grow their career and knowledge, that is putting time and money to making that happen, and that nurtures growth and excellence.  Enjoy them!  I always looked around at my classmates and thought, “Man!  They let me in here?”  You’ll never be with such a great, self-selected group again.  Through business school I’ve known a former NFL player, a former Olympian, a gentleman who went on to become a partner in an electrical services firm, many successful managers in excellent firms, several former special forces veterans, and countless other incredible people.  I also enjoyed strong friendships with both professors and other staff at Fuqua.

Explore Managerial Careers

You’ll never have a better time to explore management careers.  People will take your phone calls and they will schedule informational interviews with you.  This subject needs a whole post, but here’s what you do in an informational interview.  First, the overriding principle: You must care, and you must be truthful.  Don’t fake it.  If you don’t care, don’t schedule the interview.  If you’re a tool, people will figure it out quickly.  If you satisfy this basic requirement, here are the steps for a successful interview.

  1. Ask the person to introduce themselves.  Be prepared to give your elevator-speech introduction too.
  2. Ask them about their career and their thoughts about it.
  3. Ask them about their current projects, particularly ones you've researched in advance.
  4. Ask them about their current and past firms.
  5. Ask them what advice they have for you.
  6. If the call or meeting has gone well ask them two very important things:
    1. How can you help them?
    2. Are they willing to introduce you to someone else?

If you follow these steps you can build out your network quickly.  You can focus your efforts with people most closely aligned with your goals.  Informational interviewing is a powerful tool.  The ability to call and say, “I’m a first year business school student at Tuck, and I’d like to talk to you about this aspect of your career” is a terrific way to get people to schedule time with you.

Do your research up front and try to ask them about something specific they have done or are doing that you are interested to learn about.  “I’d like to have coffee and pick your brain” is a poor way to start a conversation.  “I saw your article on LinkedIn about the importance of culture fit in recruiting and would like to talk about discerning culture fit in my own job search” is much, much better.  You’ll never have an easier or better time to explore managerial careers.

Entrepreneurship

There are various routes here.  You could use your flexibility and time in b-school to actually start a company.  You could learn about entrepreneurship through a club or startup competition.  I took this route, volunteering with the Duke Startup Challenge which provided some small funding to young entrepreneurs.  You could also provide consulting services on a pro bono or hourly basis to established firms that don’t normally have access to your skillset.  These might be either local private firms (e.g. an air conditioning distributor) or international firms that need talent but don’t have big dollars to spend on a full-time MBA (e.g. in Ecuador).  Pursuing one or more of these options is a great route.  Learn about the opportunities at your school, or go create the opportunities for yourself.

Your Values: You be You

Finally, you have to do all this while being true to your values.  That topic goes beyond the scope of this post, but suffice it to say that these business-school goals live within the framework of who you are, and the total analysis of what you want in life.  All your grad school plans need to exist in the context of “doing the right things for the right reasons.”  Otherwise, you’re trading too much in pursuit of these goals.

You can wear your gear for the rest of your life!!

You can wear your gear for the rest of your life!!