Stacy Blackman, founder of the eponymous Stacy Blackman Consulting, has her finger on the pulse of the business school world.
I had the chance to chat with her recently about the state of the MBA — admissions, interviews, international studies, and more. Here’s what she had to say about where business school stands right now — and where it may be heading.
You’ve talked about how “white spaces" — or the things between the listed items on someone’s resume — can convey just as important a story as the bullet points on a person’s MBA application. Do you think that your “white spaces" along the way are typical of someone with an MBA?
I think what I’ve learned is that there is no “typical" for an MBA, and that’s what’s so great about the degree. It’s very flexible. A lot of people fill out the application with a very firm idea of what they want to do — and that all changes once they actually get into the program and they end up doing different things. I saw that in my personal experience with my classmates, and I also see that with my clients.
I think a lot of people apply for MBA programs, and they kinda want to fit into one of four traditional types of jobs — like marketing, consulting, banking, entrepreneurship — and as time goes on, seeds are planted during the program. Whether it’s immediate or gradual, there are often a lot of twists and turns. So, in a way, it’s typical to have a lot of these twists and turns and to end up finding yourself. Yes, I would say I was typical in the sense that there isn’t really any typical.
So, there may not be any typical paths, but there have to be trends. Have you noticed that these four types of positions you mentioned have changed at all in the last 10 years?
I think those traditional post-MBA jobs are always shifting a little bit. You know, it shifts with the economy and with what’s trendy. Definitely over the past 10 years, there’s been more of a shift toward operating companies — companies (and, I mean, these are big companies) like Google, Apple — are becoming more employers of MBAs. During financial crises, there are fewer finance jobs. I would say that you’ve still got those traditional buckets: the brand marketing, the consulting, the finance, maybe entrepreneurship, or the more recent addition of operating positions.
At risk of asking a very trivial question based upon your answer: What’s trendy?
I guess trendy may not be the right word. It’s more what people seek out. When the economy dips and the finance world is crashing, there just aren’t as many finance jobs. People are not seeking out investment banking positions. That was the case in say, 2008, 2009, 2010. So, it’s not as much trendy as it’s realistic and desirable. Obviously, there are hot companies that go in and out, companies you may hear about more frequently in the news that people are more excited about joining.
Do you work with a lot of American students who are interested in going to business school abroad? Or, on the flip side, do you work with a lot of international students interested in studying in the U.S. for an MBA?
We do both, for sure. I would say probably there are more international students who want to come to the U.S. than the reverse, but we’re definitely placing plenty of Americans in international programs. And that is something that I think has grown a lot over the past 10 years — the growth of different types of programs, different options, and the increased popularity of programs outside the U.S.
Is there any big advice that you give to international students who want to come here for business school?
I think there can be challenging logistics for people who are coming from abroad to go to school in the U.S. In the beginning, things are a lot harder, ranging from financial aid, to finding housing, to overcoming some culture shock and finding their way. It’s very common for someone in the States to have friends in their class, you know, people they know from college, or just throughout life. But coming internationally, they may know no one. It can just be more challenging.
My advice would be, in the beginning, be realistic. Take it slow. Being careful and clearing all those hurdles can lead to a very, very rewarding experience.
How about American students wishing to go abroad? Do you find that they have different expectations about programs abroad? Perhaps they want to work in a particular country or in an industry that has a larger presence in that country?
I think both — they’re interested in working in that country or they’re interested in working in a sector that’s more popular in that country. They may also be interested in working with a more international group of people. There are all sorts of reasons why Americans may choose to work outside the U.S.
Take a school like, say, INSEAD (a business school based in France but with campuses throughout Europe, the Middle East, and Asia). It’s a very internationally-focused school. It has an international population and campuses around the world. So, if someone really wants to be outside the U.S. and have an international career, they may be drawn to that sort of program — although U.S. schools are doing a great job with that as well. I guess it depends on personal circumstances.
Since we’re talking about recent trends, have you noticed — in the corporate world or in the business school world — a greater sense of gender equality?
I know there are certain programs that are like, “We’re breaking barriers and we hit the 40 percent mark, or the 45 percent mark," or whatever it is. But in general, overall, I don’t see a huge improvement there. And I think that women are still the minority in the business world, and in leadership positions, and in MBA programs. There are still cultural issues, gender issues. I haven’t seen huge shifts there, I hate to say. Certainly among my client base, women are the minority. I think that reflects both in applying to school and going to school.
Do you have advice for women entering the field who may be discouraged by corporate culture in general?
I think first of all, you have to look at the fact that different programs have different cultures. Certain programs — just like they may be different for different types of men — they’re different for different types of women.
Some programs force you to be more extroverted and to speak out more. And others don’t. So I would say, look program to program to find business schools that are the right fit for you, schools that fit what you’re looking for right now, and that fit your lifestyle. And then think about where you want to be in two years, in five years, in 10 years.
There’s a lot of research that goes into it — it’s not just like a one-size-fits-all thing. And with an MBA you can do many things. Some women are stopped from going through an MBA program because of a program’s culture or because of personal goals (they’re married or planning on having kids, and they’re thinking, “Why would I get an MBA when I’m going to be out of the workforce for five years?"). I’ve definitely found, personally, that my MBA has continued to serve me through all of those stages, so I’d recommend being open to that and talking to other women about their experiences.
Do you ever work with students who you dissuade from pursuing an MBA — either because they’re not great candidates or because they have career goals in mind that they don’t need an MBA for?
For sure, yeah. That’s a very honest conversation that we would have: “Actually, you don’t want an MBA. You want to look at this other type of degree [like an M.S. in business] because it’ll serve you better in your career goals." Or maybe, “Now isn’t the right time for you, and you’re better served working at X job, or changing jobs, working two more years before applying." We think the MBA is a great degree, a flexible degree; there are a lot of people [who] are well-served, but it’s not for everyone at every time.
How would you say that the field has changed with the advent of MOOCs, open-access classes, and online MBAs?
So, I would say that the online MBA is another option. There’s the full-time MBA, the part-time MBA, the nighttime, the executive — these are all different options. There are just a lot more options, and the online MBA is one of them. I don’t think it’s a replacement by any means at this point for the traditional full-time MBA.
You know, it hasn’t evolved that much, but it may. I’m definitely open to that possibility. Everything changes, and MBA programs are changing, and they still need to change even more. And what has come so far in the online MBA world isn’t changing the traditional two-year Harvard MBA, but it could. Let’s see.
This may be hard to think of off the top of your head, but I’m sure you have conversations with students after they go out for admissions interviews. Can you think of any particularly unusual or difficult questions that they’ve had to answer?
So many! Here’s a weird one: “Why don’t you be the interviewer and interview yourself?"
Yeah, so someone had to conduct [her] own interview, which definitely put [her] on the spot. Others have had to answer some crazy case questions. The thing is, across the board, these interviews are sometimes conducted by the admissions committee, sometimes by alums, sometimes even by alums [who] are 30 or 40 years out. It really varies. I’ve seen a little bit of everything, but that one definitely cracks me up.
I don’t know how I would respond to that line of questioning.
You gotta stay cool.