Navigating the Job Search as a T-bird: Hard Truths & Advice from Someone Who’s Been There

By Nash Wills, Co-Editor

Last week I attended an IBM Consulting informational session at the CMC. I didn’t need to go. I already have a job, one that I am very excited about. Helen had invited me though and I trust her judgment—if she thinks something would interest me, she’s usually right. Also, I’ve made a habit out of going to CMC info sessions during my tenure here. I’ve probably been to well over 50. Even if I sometimes don’t feel like going, I think it’s important to learn as much as you can about the different types of opportunities out there. How else can you figure out what you want to do if you don’t take the time to search?

Why hire a thunderbird?This was the first info session I’d gone to since having officially accepted a job offer, which meant a couple of things: First and foremost, I didn’t feel the need to suck up or show off. I hate doing that, especially in front my friends. Second, and precisely because I wasn’t in the market for a job, I was able to relax and play more of a “silent onlooker” role.

The info session went well. I learned a few things and even wrote some stuff down. I felt that my observational role helped me to read between the lines, so to speak. Yes, by the time I found myself seated in CMC 118 that Friday, I had sufficiently invested the necessary time, energy, and emotions into the job search to where I was able to plainly distinguish between the truths and facades presented to us. My moment of clarity inspired me. In the 2+ years of my quest, I’ve experience the entire gambit of ups and downs and have developed a solid base of knowledge concerning how to go about landing a job as a Tbird, which is very different than if you are at another graduate school. Having finally seen my search come to an end, I feel obligated to share some of the lessons I’ve learned with my fellow Tbirds who are still out there looking.

Now I don’t claim to be an expert. I can say though, and without hesitation, that as a job seeker, I worked my butt off and tried every conceivable method of getting the most out of this university. I consider my outlook on the career search to be pragmatic and realistic, almost to the point of pessimism. The advice and recommendations I’m about to give won’t be sugarcoated or laced with cheerfulness, but they will be practical, especially to Tbirds. With that being said, take my words for what they’re worth. If you think they’re applicable, then great. If not, well, distinguishing between good and bad advice is just another part of the search.

My story, in brief

I came to Thunderbird because I couldn’t get to where I wanted to go without having some sort of business education on my résumé. My prior experience consisted of a history degree and the better part of a year teaching English in Argentina. In other words, and even though I would have denied it at the time, I was completely under qualified for the positions I was applying to. And as I disappointingly discovered during the internship search, the fact that I didn’t have any “legitimate” professional experience was still just that: a fact.

During that first year, I interviewed with a few big-name companies, went to the CMC at least once a week, attended job fairs and info sessions, constantly changed my résumé up, scheduled phone calls, sent out what must have been a thousand emails, and ultimately got zero bites. As summer slowly approached, I got desperate and just started going down the list of Fortune 500 companies to apply for openings. I must have applied to 100 jobs online. It was a demoralizing and desensitizing experience. I only heard back from probably 10 companies, and they all gave me the same response: No.

Tbirds team oriented...In hindsight, it’s now easy for me to see the value I got out of that agonizing process. That’s because I got a great internship: consulting for Rio Tinto in Madagascar. I wish I could tell you there was a clear-cut reason for me getting that opportunity. If I hadn’t bothered spending hundreds of hours applying online, would I have still gotten the same chance? I don’t know. I do know that those hours helped to both shape me professionally and prepare me for my interview with Rio Tinto. I also know that my internship search taught me what to do and, more importantly, what not to do when trying to find a job. Never again would I put all of my eggs into the Internet basket.

With a successful summer internship officially in the bag, I thought that surely my impending career search would prove easier—I now had that coveted experience. To reinforce things, I enrolled in the Consulting Practicum so that I could get some more client work on the résumé. But it was all seemingly to no avail. Although I changed up my search strategy, started trying to build meaningful professional connections, and got a fresh new résumé format, nothing clicked. My burgeoning consulting career was a light at the end of a never-ending tunnel. That was all during the first semester of my second year.

Things started to turn around during my second semester. My strategy started to pay off, as people in my network began to legitimately want to see me succeed. To make a long story short, I finished things out with two good offers, one of which I accepted.

What I learned from it all

I want to preface what follows by reiterating that these are all opinions formulated over time through my career search experiences.

1.) The hiring system in corporate America, for the most part, is broken: When it comes to large publicly traded companies, gone are the days when a couple of solid internal references got your foot in the door. I have been internally referred at 5 or 6 different companies on multiple occasions and nothing ever came of it. And it’s not like it was because I talked to someone and they didn’t think I was a good fit—I played the part and jumped through all the hoops. Those who referred me helped me with my résumés and cover letters and were truly confident that I came across as a great candidate. Nevertheless, of the few companies I heard back from, I received only generic rejection emails.

Although I couldn’t see it at the time, I now believe that my situation was quite normal. And it’s because those firms are, for the most part, giant bureaucracies where none of the people who refer you have any contact with HR. The age of online applications has created a situation where, no matter what, you have to apply online. To HR recruiters—who have no idea who your referrer is—you’re no more than another one of the thousands of online candidates. They have no practical methods for distinguishing you from the masses.

2.) Getting a job out of Thunderbird is a different process than getting a job out of other MBA programs: Ironically, one thing I’ve always noticed is that T-birds work at almost every large company. The paradox: these companies won’t hire T-birds, but T-birds work there. Most big companies have fallen into the habit of recruiting from a number of specific schools. If you don’t go to one of those schools, then tough luck. Many of these firms come to Thunderbird to give informational sessions, but not to recruit, and there’s a huge difference between the two.

This can all be frustrating and seem contrary to common sense, because the business education we receive at Thunderbird is amongst the best in the world. Even though we host some of the most renowned professors in all of academia, for some reason it seems as though our reputation doesn’t extend to many the firms we study and want to work for.

IBM is a great example of this particular situation. Thunderbird students currently work with the tech giant as consultants in the Consulting Practicum class. From what I’ve heard, the majority of IBM’s feedback has been extremely positive, and apparently they are even implementing a few of the T-birds’ recommendations. By any standards, the partnership must be fruitful because they agreed to come back for a second project.

When Thunderbird recently hosted an IBM partner for an info session, the speaker articulated different career paths that T-birds could excel at within with the company. Many of those in attendance asked about the types of skills and backgrounds that IBM looks for, the various aspects of the rotational program, and how to do well in an interview. Their questions all received hope-inspiring answers. By any account, it would seem obvious that Thunderbird would be a great source of future IBM talent. Why else would they be here, working with T-birds and utilizing our recommendations in the first place, right?

Unfortunately, the bitter truth is that the chances of someone in that room landing a job with IBM are, whether it’s logical or not, infinitesimally small. I was skeptical of this from the start, so I asked the speaker, “Would you say that 95% of the people IBM hires for the rotational program come from schools that you formally recruit from?” His answer, as I suspected it would be, was yes, and “we currently do not recruit from Thunderbird.” I don’t think many people in the room fully understood the gravity of that response, because they kept seeking answers that would only be of use to someone who could get an interview. Sorry, guys, but as I suspected and subsequently confirmed, the speaker wasn’t even aware that the recruitment season for the rotational program he was talking about has already ended.

Add a tbirdRight now, our school is simply not big enough to entice a lot of the well-known multinationals into making the trip out to Glendale. That, and most of those same companies are extremely slow moving. In all likelihood, it probably takes years for them to give the green light on initiating recruitment at a new school. They operate on the laws of numbers and probability. If ASU’s MBA program has 200 prospective graduates and Thunderbird’s has 50, then they will go to ASU—the odds of them finding eligible candidates are higher if there are more people for them to interview.

So what does this all mean? As I will explain later, as a T-bird, you can’t rely on getting your foot in the door with these companies by hoping they recruit you at school. Instead, you have to get creative.

3.) It doesn’t matter if you’re qualified for the job: A few alumni who now work at AT Kearney came to campus for an info session last semester. For myself, it was one of the most successful campus talks I ever attended. One of the many alumni I had been in communication with knew the guy giving the presentation really well, so I had a unique “in.” And things couldn’t have gone better. The guy thought my work experience looked very promising, he was happy about our mutual acquaintance, and he gave me his card and told me to reach out so that we could schedule a phone call about consulting opportunities at the firm.

Our first call fell through—he was sick. We rescheduled. When we were finally able to talk on the phone several months later, our conversation was short and disheartening. He told me that AT Kearney only hired from a select few MBA programs. It didn’t matter whether or not I was qualified and would make a good fit, they wouldn’t even consider me. He told me that he had been a part of hiring numerous people who turned out to be terrible workers, but that was just the way it was. Nothing would change their selective school policy.

This wasn’t the first time I’d heard this. I had once been introduced to a partner at EY by my Thunderbird mentor. After having spoken to him on the phone a few times and built a solid relationship with him, he articulated to me that he thought I would be a great addition to the team. It wasn’t until after I informed him that EY wasn’t scheduled for any Thunderbird recruitment trips that I was told that, because EY didn’t actively come to campus, my chances of getting an interview were essentially zero.

As an aside to my EY story, and relating to the aforementioned IBM speaker not knowing the recruitment dates for rotational programs, another quick anecdote: A few months after my phone calls with the EY partner and before I had accepted a job offer, an alumni who now works at EY gave a virtual informational session here at school. The talk went extremely well and he told us that if we were interested in consulting opportunities at the firm, we should send him an email with our résumés along with a two sentence description of why we would make a good consultant. I did this and got a positive response—he wanted to internally refer me and thought I had an impressive background. It wasn’t until I went online to complete the application process that I realized the recruitment season had already passed and I would have to wait until next year. Maddening…

Those types of interactions have been personally enlightening and I have learned some hard truths from them: First, you can do all the right things, be the best candidate, have the right skills and experience, and show an active interest in a company and position, and if you don’t happen to fulfill some HR criteria like having been formally recruited at a campus event, then none of it matters. Second, it’s not fair and seemingly makes no sense. Third, I don’t want to work for a company like that. I have to believe, if only because of everything we have learned in business school, that a company with those types of inefficient and unreasonable hiring systems is unsustainable. How can a company survive in the long run if it refuses to give potential talent a chance because of exclusionary HR policies that aren’t based on value, skills, or experience?

Advice for T-bird job seekers

As I’ve already discussed, you shouldn’t rely on some big company seeking to fulfill your dream job coming to campus to sweep you off your feet. I’m not saying it’s impossible; there are a number of incredible companies that consistently come to campus to seek out T-birds. I know a few people who have been hired by them and I’d be a liar if I said I wasn’t envious. The fact is, though, that the chances of that particular scenario playing out for you are quite low—there are just too many variables that have to align.

But T-birds having to approach the job search differently isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s only a negative if you never figure that truth out. It took a patient game of trial and error over the better part of a year for me to realize it. To expedite your learning curve, I want to offer a little bit of advice and provide a few recommendations on strategies that worked for me.

1.) Be creative in how you access the T-bird network: The Thunderbird alumni network is arguably our greatest asset as an institution. There truly is nothing else like it. It’s almost more of a fraternal organization than it is a network, and navigating and accessing it, in theory, is relatively simple. The LinkedIn and MTB alumni search engines allow you to discover alumni in any number of industries and companies. If you want to identify an entry point into, say, Microsoft, then just type Microsoft into the search engine and voila, up comes a list of every T-bird who has ever worked there. It is truly stunning to me how few current students utilize this simple tool.

The MTB alumni search tool
The MTB alumni search tool

Discovering alumni is easy; it’s successfully building a relationship with them that’s difficult. That’s because alumni, while generally quite welcoming and willing to help, are also busy and a little skeptical. I’ve observed that around 7 times out of 10, a random alumni probably won’t respond to you if you just send them a LinkedIn message introducing yourself and asking for advice. I think that’s pretty reasonable and I understand where they’re coming from.

So how do you increase your odds? By getting creative and approaching the situation differently. For example, I’ve been writing for Das Tor for close to 2 years now, and, after composing an article every week during that time, I’ve gotten pretty good at it. I use my position to my advantage. If I find alumni who I really want to meet, rather than just reaching out and saying, “I’m Nash Wills. I’d like to talk to you about your job,” I say: “I’m Nash Wills. I’d like to interview you about your job and publish an article on you.” 9 times out of 10 I get a response, because who doesn’t want a positive article written and published about them? Some of the most important and powerful connections I’ve made have come about through this strategy. It takes more work, but that extra effort pays dividends. And you want to know the good news? Das Tor is an open forum. You don’t have to be an official writer for the paper to publish an article.

There are a few other simple but effective ways to creatively access the network. I’ll provide one more example: Many of the professors here have been on the faculty since the early 1990s. That means they have more than likely taught pretty much any alumni you could want to meet. Now, you tell me, who do you think is more likely to get a response, someone who just randomly reaches out to an alumni or someone who gets introduced by a professor? Exactly my point. Again, some of the most important connections I’ve made have come from utilizing this approach because these professors know us well and carry some serious clout.

2.) Use the CMC in a way that works for you: A lot of people rag on the CMC, don’t use it at all, or rely too much on it, and to be honest, the joke is on you. The CMC is an incredibly helpful resource for specific purposes. I owe a lot of my professional acumen to the time I spent speaking with and learning from the wonderful people who work there. During my first year I really leaned heavily on them for all my career aspirations. It wasn’t until my second year that I realized the CMC probably wasn’t going to get me the type of job I wanted—they had their agenda and I had mine. But that didn’t mean I stopped going to the CMC; I just started using it in a way that worked best for me.

For example, when it comes to résumés and cover letters, they’ve got some great stuff to offer. I’m not talking about grammar and how to describe your work experience. I mean, they can help you with that, but for the most part, you need to figure that out on your own. I’m talking about formats, structure, strategy, ordering, and set-ups. Have you seen the “T cover letter?” That thing is brilliant.

Another thing about the CMC: it should be used as a complement to your personal career search. I’ve found that the CMC is most useful in helping to maintain focus and in preparing for interviews. The key here is that you have to actually get the interview first. Ultimately, you should try and make regular trips to the CMC while simultaneously conducting your own outside search. That way, you never have all your eggs in just one basket, and if a company that aligns with your interests just so happens to come to campus, the people who matter will be able to put in a good word for you.

3.) Get to know your professors: In my opinion, there is an apparent disconnect between the CMC and the professors—they too just have different agendas. The professors are the ones who know us best from a professional standpoint and have great connections, but the CMC is the conduit for bringing companies to campus and arranging interviews. Rather than trying to bridge this gap, just use both sides.

For myself, I use the CMC for things like résumés and interview prep. I use the professors for talking through my career aspirations and ideas and building new connections. They are the ones who know my strengths and weaknesses, as well as the people I need to meet. I have made a habit out of meeting with different professors every month simply to talk with them about what I want to do with my life. They have always been more than willing to help out. Granted, you probably need to be a good student in their classes… Simply put though, the more people you talk to about the career search, the more people you have on your side, which ultimately raises the likelihood of something coming your way.

4.) Know what you want and it will be easier to find: If you don’t at least have a general idea of the types of things you want out of a job or company, then how will you know whether or not an opportunity is right for you when it comes along? For example, I know that my ideal job will have an international aspect to it, will require me to lead and manage differing tasks and aspects of a business, will not be within a giant bureaucratic machine, and will require me to learn quickly and solve challenging problems. I know which types of functions I would be ok with working in and which ones I wouldn’t. I write this stuff down, talk to people about it, and think on it daily. I try and take every opportunity I can to meet new people and learn about different roles and companies. Now I might be getting a little lofty and philosophical here, but I have found that if you take the time to focus on the things you want every day, the universe has a funny way of leading you towards them.

As a final note, I will end with one more anecdote: I once had a partner at a large firm that I thought I wanted to work for essentially tell me that I was worthless and would never stand a chance working for his company. During a 10-minute phone call, he really laid into me and tore me to shreds, without ever giving me the slightest chance. His terse advice was that for all professional phone conversations, I should only have 3-4 questions and that I immediately delve into them over the course of a short call—because otherwise, I am wasting the time of people who are above talking to me in the first place. Even though I was hurt by what he had said, I knew his advice was, for the most part, ludicrous. If I would have adopted his approach during the phone calls leading up to my interviews with the company I eventually accepted an offer from, I would have looked like an idiot.

My point is this: The job search is different for every person. During your quest you will correspondingly receive varying and seemingly contradictory advice from all kinds of people. If you really put yourself out there, which you must do if you truly want to find something good, then you will inevitably run into negativity. It is your job to be confident and to know what it is that you desire so you can drown out the noise coming at you from all directions. You have to think on your own and avoid falling into the trap of dogma: living with the results of other peoples’ thinking. If you can do this, then surely one day you too will have your own unique “how I found my job” story.

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