Whether the perception was based in reality or not, many people used to think that an MBA was a near-certain route into high-paying jobs on Wall Street – and from there, it was a quick jump to having a fleet of fast cars and boats, and then an early retirement.
“It was very much the public perception that an MBA is what you needed, and then you were going to be wealthy and wise, and you were going to retire at 28,” says Jim Dixey, the director of graduate business career services at Texas A&M's Mays Business School.
“That perception has kind of died.”
Indeed, just over five years after a global financial crash, the financial services sector seems to have lost some of its luster, and for at least some recently-graduated MBAs, other sectors hold more promise.
“Before the financial crisis, banking and finance were a big chunk of the post-MBA careers – as much as 60-70 percent,” says Lawrence Chan, the director of marketing and student recruiting at the Chinese University of Hong Kong's CUHK Business School.
That figure, however, dropped to 36 percent with the school's 2012 MBA cohort.
Chan notes that this has created a leveling effect, where graduate career paths are shifting into a number of different sectors.
“It's getting much more balanced,” he says “There are students going into consulting, there are students going into FMCG [fast-moving consumer goods] and luxury brands,” among other sectors.
Conrad Chua, the head of Cambridge Judge's MBA recruitment and admissions, has noticed similar diversifying trends.
“We see a lot fewer people going into finance,” Chua says.“Increasingly we see people explore non-finance, non-consulting careers. People are going into sectors like healthcare, and energy is getting quite popular as well.”
But that's not to say that the financial services industry is a dead spot for career-seeking MBAs. Each year, the sector still employs a large chunk of new MBAs, and ironically, as regulators have tried to fix the problems that led to the financial crash in the first place, a new class of finance jobs has opened up.
“Some people who want to go into finance will find that there's a lot more work to be done in terms of complying to new regulations,” Chua says.
More MBAs going into technology companies and startups
On the other hand, some MBAs are also finding that some of the larger technology and e-commerce firms are great places to find management jobs after graduation.
“We have students going into e-commerce companies, like Ebay, Amazon, and Google – since these companies are expanding so rapidly, and they're hiring a lot of talent,” says CUHK's Lawrence Chan.
And more than a few MBAs are seeing either starting their own business or working in a startup as good options. To this end, CUHK students leverage the school's Center for Entrepreneurship as well as resources in the wider region.
“There are a lot of startups and high-tech companies, in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and so-forth,” says Chan. “In general in Asia, the tax systems and the capital requirements for startup companies are generally easier than in Europe or other places.”
Indeed, many new MBAs are finding that in their post-education career search, geography can be just as important as industry. A 2013 hiring report from GMAC (the company that created the GMAT) found that while recruiter demand for graduate management candidates is remaining relatively stable in Europe, it's increasing in Asia and the US.
“Our economy is very good,” says Mays' Jim Dixey about Texas, “and people like to stay here.”
Dixey notes that Mays' graduates who want to stay in Texas generally go into one of the state's strongly-resilient industries – not just the energy sector, but consumer goods and technology, among others.
It's not just about the industry
If anything, the past five years have instigated something of a learning moment among those who aspire to get an MBA. Many are seeing the degree not just as a means to get high-caliber investment banking jobs, but as a way to acquire real skills which can be applied across industries.
“Over the past few years, people have been thinking much more deeply about what they hope to get out of an MBA,” says Cambridge Judge's Conrad Chua.
“And some people are beginning to realize that it is not just about the job you get after the MBA. That job is still very important. But what is also important is the management skills that you get, which will help you, whether you're going into the finance or consulting industry, or starting your own business.”
Indeed, some MBAs might find that an industry-focused approach to finding a job after graduation can ultimately be too limiting, and might choose to instead focus on developing skills in the functional areas that they're passionate about.
“HR is HR; finance is finance,” says Mays' Jim Dixey. “There might be some peculiarities between industries, but in the end those positions are pretty much going to be the same.”
With that in mind, Dixey advises students to “never focus your career on an industry, focus on what is it you bring to the table, because that's what companies hire.”