An MBA Is Only Part of the Success Equation

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Many junior-level Wall Streeters look on an MBA as their ticket onto the fast track. But experts warn against thinking an MBA alone can open doors.

Only a dozen or so business schools, the ones making up the top tier of MBA programs nationwide, can confer instant credibility to candidates seeking their first bulge-bracket investment banking job. But if your career seems stuck in the slow lane, and Harvard or Columbia isn't a realistic option, don't despair. When added to the right mix of elements, an MBA from a less elite institution can materially raise a candidate's odds of making the next step.

According to U.S. News & World Report, the top MBA schools are Harvard, Stanford, Wharton, Sloan (MIT), Kellogg (Northwestern), the University of Chicago, Tuck (Dartmouth), Berkeley, Columbia, Stern (NYU), the University of Michigan, Fuqua (Duke) and Darden (University of Virginia).

"The rule of thumb is always go to the best possible program you can get into," says Roy Cohen, a New York career counselor, Five O'Clock Club Master Coach, and holder of an MBA from Columbia. "Investment banks are very prestige-oriented. A top-school MBA allows you to present yourself as a candidate with the expectation that you'll be taken more seriously," he says.

Thanks to the schools' rigorous admissions criteria, top-tier MBAs are seen as an indicator of high intelligence, says Cohen. "If I'm a hiring manager looking to hire someone who can become a superstar, I'm going to rely on past performance as an indicator for future performance."

More to the Story

In the New York area, bulge-bracket banks tend to recruit for investment banking and other front-office departments only at Columbia and NYU-Stern. Which means that "if you can't get into there, you shouldn't even bother" going for an MBA, believes Ken Murray, president of Mercury Partners, a New York search firm.

Strong words. But if a candidate has other assets to leverage, then the picture is less black-and-white.

Dr. Barry Miller, manager of alumni career programs and services at Pace University, cites a part-time MBA program as one ingredient that helped his son pull off a rarely seen move several years ago: He jumped from in-house financial reporting at Morgan Stanley to a role in equity research. Miller says the research department was recruiting only from Wharton. Nevertheless, his son made the switch during his first year of working toward an MBA at Fordham.

What accounted for his success? Miller points to four factors.

First of all, the candidate was already inside Morgan Stanley. "If he were going from outside, he would never have had a shot at that job. No way," Miller says. Even for those seeking to move internally, "some companies have pretty much a caste system," he adds. If you work in their finance department or in an operations function, "they'll never let you switch."

Second, the candidate was a strong performer in his initial role. Supervisors liked both him and his work.

Third, pursuing an MBA at night, while working hard and performing well during the day, demonstrated ambition.

Fourth, even when applying from inside, "he had to be very tenacious," Miller recounts. For a time the candidate received no word about where he stood, but he persisted, and in the end got what he wanted.

The key takeaway: Although an MBA from a lower-tier school won't get you in the door, the degree can strengthen the upside if you have other selling points.

Planning Your Strategy

For his part, Cohen offers these pointers:

1. Have a defensible strategy and "story." Be able to explain convincingly why you want to be an investment banker.

2. Go to the very best possible school for your MBA.

3. Demonstrate a track record of success.

4. Network. Get to know people while you're in school.

5. Leverage any relevant experience from your previous career. For example, an engineer with experience or connections on the financial side of technology companies can position his industry experience as an asset for Wall Street.

Cohen's basic message: You must articulate a story that justifies your goal and gives employers a good reason to hire you.

A Harvard MBA can win you a hearing. But it won't get you an offer, unless you make a persuasive case for why you are a strong bet to succeed in the role you seek and bolster your case with relevant facts. Any MBA, says Cohen, "is just a tool. It's a resource."

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