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by Hans H. Chen | March 10, 2009

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Read The Wall Street Journal every day. Get involved in a start-up. Take time to get acquainted with your finance professor. Don't date other students in your study cluster. And network, network, network.

That's the advice that a handful of recent business school grads delivered Wednesday night to students at Columbia's Business School during a panel entitled "Optimizing the Business School Experience: What I Wish I knew in B-School."

And though the tips originated from the collective experience of eight Columbia alums, the discussion topics -- the drawbacks of holding a part-time job during the semester, the merits of summer traveling versus those of a summer internship -- could apply to grad student anywhere studying management, advanced finance, or operations.

The most critical element to a successful business school career -- and professional career afterwards -- lies in the networking among students, several panelists said.

"Even though you're thinking about your first job now, you're planting seeds for future jobs," said Jodi Sternoff, a 1996 graduate and now the associate publisher of Slate.com, the online magazine owned by Microsoft. "So networking is very important."

Once business school students graduate, their education and degree become a thing of the past, one panelist said. But the networks that students build can stay with them for the rest of their careers.

"The only thing that appreciates is your network of colleagues," said Peter Gray, a 1997 graduate and now a principal with Korn/Ferry Futurestep, the online arm of the executive search firm. "In 10, 20 years, what we've got is a roomful of powerful business executives who are going to be in a position to help you at critical junctures in your careers."

~Students also discussed holding down part-time jobs during their two years of business school, a practice in which about half the panel took part -- to the regret of all.

"Really think hard about that because it's so difficult," said Sternoff, who worked with the publishers McGraw Hill during school. "You have to be very efficient in managing your time. There are a lot of advantages to working, but I know I was burned out the end; I was exhausted."

Another panelist said he now regrets how his job distracted him from school.

"It was too much," said Andrew Jacobs, a 1996 grad and now a vice president with Angelo, Gordon & Co., a money management firm in Manhattan. During school, Jacobs worked 20 hours a week as an executive with Godiva Chocolatier. "It should have just been school and what was going on here."

Panelists also debated a question posed by one student in the audience: should she spend the summer between her two years of business school traveling the world or grinding out spreadsheets as a summer management intern?

"I know people who were hired just because of where they've traveled," said Renata Rojas, a 1996 grad whose business school education was paid for by her then- and current employer, the Banco Nacional de Mexico.

Decisions on summer productivity may hinge on the degree of experience students bring into business school and how much experience they need coming out.

"It depends on how much professional credibility you have outside that summer internship," Gray said.

Consideration of students' long-term goals may also make an internship more practical.

"Particularly if you don't know what you want to do [after graduation], I would strongly encourage you to get internships, just so you can cross things off your list," said Nicole Pullen, a 1999 grad and now an associate with Goldman Sachs.

Current business students who attended Wednesday night's panel said they were surprised the night's events, organized by the two-year-old Columbia Business School Young Alumni Council, hadn't taken place earlier.

"It's really helpful for us first years to get a perspective from people who haven't been out of school for too long," said Jeff Palmer. Palmer, who last worked for Starwood Hotels & Resorts in Madrid, Spain, said he was wasn't planning to return to the hospitality business after grad school so found the discussion on summer internships valuable.

"I'm probably going to be one of those career changers," Palmer said. "I'd like to take the three months to go traveling, but I think I'm going to need that summer internship on my resume."

Another student said he found the discussion on part-time jobs reassuring, especially since going to school in New York presented myriad opportunities for work from September to May.

"It was confirming thoughts I'd had as a gut feeling," said Tobi Wittich, a first year student who had worked for a consulting firm in Germany before starting school. Wittich, who had been considering a 10- or 20-hour a week job, said the panel helped him fight the temptation to land a part time job. "There are a lot of people in the city who want to recruit cheap labor."

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