By The Glass At INSEAD: Call Me If You Get Lost

Chris with INSEAD classmates at the Brazen Head

Plastered on the wall of the party was a list of prohibited questions – to ask one was punishable by a shot of liquor. Written in authoritatively thick black sharpie ink, the litany of illegal inquiries included some of the most clichéd conversation starters at INSEAD: What country are you from? What non-English languages do you speak? Did you start on the Singy (Singapore) campus or are you a Fonty (Fontainebleau) lifer? Some of the embargoes seemed particularly topical. Any sentence that included the word “career” or mentioned the consulting acronym “MBB” earned you an immediate and boozy punishment.

Even outside the context of late-night parties, the seemingly innocuous question of “What do you want to do after graduation?” has quickly become taboo. And I’m not just talking about a post-MBA job. Other major life decisions – Where do you want to live?; What parts of your identity do you want to prioritize?; and How do you plan to balance your personal and professional needs? – are suddenly weighing more heavily on my classmates’ minds.

Fontainebleau Sunset

The INSEAD academic calendar is split into five two-month periods. For students in the June graduation class, those first two periods (P1 & P2) are the quintessential salad days of the MBA experience, where the only priority is getting to know your classmates and racking up a plethora of passport stamps. However, once P3 and P4 begin, the proverbial merde hits the fan. The focus shifts away from weekend getaways in Marrakesh to Zoom-assisted “coffee chats” with corporate recruiters. For members of the December graduation class, this shift from socializing to job searching begins even earlier, largely due to an obligatory summer internship sandwiched between their P3 & P4.

(Note for prospective students: the J-class at INSEAD doesn’t get the opportunity to do an internship. If that experience is important to you, apply for the D-class).

So, do you feel ready for making the next step in your career? And beyond that, do you have any sort of game plan for the subsequent steps you’ll take after that first post-MBA job? I’ll be honest: that P4 vibe shift caught me by surprise. I could feel myself getting pulled in the direction of professional pursuits, but wasn’t on the right footing. More than anything, I felt my career exploration lacked linearity and focus; it felt less like a hike to the mountaintop and more like a wander through the woods.

But maybe you feel differently. After all, most MBA applications require that you write a big fancy essay for each school about what your post-graduation plans. To secure a spot in these competitive programs, you need to draft a professional narrative that’s compelling, ambitious, and realistic. But here’s the thing: once you’ve been accepted into a program, you might as well tear up that part application. No one from the admissions office will track you down to confirm whether you actually pursue that perfectly-worded path. The worst thing you can do as an MBA candidate is to prematurely close yourself off to certain careers. In the early months of the program, use the career services department, as well as second-year students, to learn about different industries and functions. You’ll likely discover something that never crossed your radar during your admissions process.

If you’ve made it this far, then you might think I know what I’m talking about. However, I’m going to be real with you: I’m still feeling a little lost. That is totally unfair! After all, I was one of those people with a well-crafted essay outlining my short, medium, and long-term goals. I wrote about leveraging my career as a sommelier to first land a job at LVMH and then start my own boutique transatlantic beverage importation company. But here I am, two months from graduation, still unsure where to go next. Do I return to my passion – food and beverage? Or, do I bring my transferable skills to another function, in different industry or a new country?  There’s no shortage of big decisions to consider when you’re at INSEAD, so I’ve laid out some of the biggest decisions INSEADers face during the period of self-reflection.

CONSULTING OR NOT CONSULTING

Chris and classmates in Giverny, a garden where Claude Monet painted some of his impressionist masterpieces

When I was deciding what school to attend, I was repeatedly warned about INSEAD. “Only go there if you wanna be a consultant,” my friends would say. Why does INSEAD have a reputation as a conveyer belt into consulting? It’s a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy: of all schools, INSEAD ranks first as a feeder to MBB, so applicants who dream of building decks for one of these three firms end up applying to INSEAD. But there’s something else at play: for many students, consulting is an anti-decision. In other words, it’s what you do when you don’t know what you want to do. Working as a generalist in management consulting means that you can spend a couple more years figuring out what industries and functions most interest you. Ask a lot of recent hires, and they’ll tell you that consulting feels like a more intense (i.e. sober) extension of your MBA. The career also fits the INSEAD profile because our school is filled with students who want to make that “triple-jump” of industry, function, and country. That geographical leap is particularly tricky, especially for people without an EU passport. I can attest – LVMH (the company I had written about in my essay) straight-up refused to consider my application because I lacked EU residency. It can be immensely difficult to find jobs that will sponsor you, and an offer from a top-tier consulting firm is an easy way to change countries.

That’s not to say that everyone at INSEAD chooses consulting. Far from it: we even have a student-led support group on campus that champions non-consulting careers. When I arrived at INSEAD, I was one of those people who had sworn off the industry. But then I met my friends who were pursuing consulting, and I came to understand the appeal: working with a team of committed individuals to solve a wide array of complex, dynamic problems. Now, I’ve found myself not only open to consulting, but willing to actively pursuing it. Pre-MBA Chris would probably roll his eyes at the May 2022 version of me. Given what I want to do and where I want to do it, generalist strategy roles not only serve as a career accelerator, but also give me more optionality down the road.

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