Coming to the U.S. to pursue an MBA as an international student is a huge accomplishment. You should feel very proud that you are where you are. However, don’t forget that you have a lot of work ahead of you, especially if you’ll be seeking U.S. employment after graduation. To that end, here are some common job-search mistakes to avoid as you march toward your career goals.
Mistake #1: Feeling overconfident
The start of the MBA degree is a festive and beautiful moment in the life of an international student. Without the stress of classes, you’re able to celebrate getting into b-school and connect with your new colleagues while dreaming about high-paying jobs with big-name firms. It’s easy to feel that everything will go smoothly and that your efforts and talents will be enough to overcome any job search challenges that might lie ahead.
Solution: Don’t rest on your laurels. Don’t assume for a second that all the hard work is done and now all you have to do is get good grades and wait for firms to come to your campus, interview you, and offer you a job. Getting accepted into a top MBA program and securing a high-paying H-1B job are two very different things. Instead of feeling invincible, take a conservative posture early on in your MBA studies and ask yourself, “What could derail of me? Am I possibly already off track and not aware of it? How can I avoid the dreadful scenario of having an MBA diploma on my hands but no job offers? What can I do early on in my studies to set up myself up for a great H-1B job come graduation?” Start getting answers to these questions by fully leveraging your career center resources.
Mistake #2: Positioning yourself as a generalist
Most schools describe the MBA degree as a general degree. You learn a little bit of finance, marketing, general management, and maybe supply chain. And therein lies the great danger for international MBA students who want to work in the U.S. after graduation. As an international MBA seeking U.S. employment, you don’t want to be perceived as a generalist by recruiters and hiring managers. A generic MBA profile that can easily be found anywhere could be the kiss of death for international MBAs seeking H-1B employment.
Solution: Be a specialist, not a generalist. Find your sustainable competitive advantages early on in the MBA program and build on these capabilities going forward. Focus on clarifying your interests, skills, experiences, and languages skills early in the program. Realize that interplay between these can be complex. And double down on your international advantages. Find your niche and own it. Analyze your profile through the lenses of employers and always signal differentiation, specialization, and depth to the market.
Mistake # 3: Overvaluing your MBA
You might have heard this before: an MBA on its own is not enough of a differentiator, even if you’re getting your degree from Harvard or Stanford. The MBA is certainly not a guaranteed of employment. The degree may have been popular in the 1980s, but it’s under much pressure these days, as hiring managers and recruiters realize that there are several different ways to acquire knowledge and skills these days. In fact, it’s not just the MBA degree that’s under pressure, it’s the entire formal higher educational system in the U.S.
This past March, Apple CEO Tim Cook attended an American Workforce Policy Advisory Board meeting in Washington, D.C., and while sitting next to President Donald Trump, Cook said that about 50 percent of Apple’s hires lacked a formal four-year college degree.
Solution: As a recently arrived international MBA, start to construct a narrative that highlights how the power of an MBA education complements what you’ve done prior to coming to the U.S. If you can do this, U.S. employers will take notice and your MBA will play an important role in helping you get hired.
Mistake #4: Overvaluing your degree specialization
I’ve interviewed many MBAs who proudly told me that that they obtained an MBA with a specialization in finance, for example. Even in the areas where MBAs say they've “specialized,” sometimes I’ve found their level of knowledge and skill to be little more than rudimentary or not significantly differentiated from an undergrads' knowledge. In addition, MBAs sometimes forget that they might also be competing with other master’s degree candidates with graduate degrees in statistics, mathematics, and economics.
Solution: An MBA specialization might help, but it might not be enough. Supplement your skill set and demonstrate more muscle power in areas you're interested in. Go beyond the traditional MBA curriculum and gain deeper knowledge and confidence in important areas that could separate you from the crowd. Free courses on Udemy and Coursera can help fill the gaps in your profile and help enhance your competiveness. Savvy international MBAs leverage their strong cognitive abilities to quickly pick up hard skills on their own that might differentiate them from other competitors. You don’t need to take a full college course to learn Tableau; for example. A few hours of investment may be all you need to get you started. Watch a few YouTube videos and get going.
Mistake #5: Not taking hard skills seriously
You might naively believe that, as an MBA, your job is to let others worry about data crunching and the more technical aspects related to a project, and that your role is to focus on strategy—acting as the interface between the technical and product teams, talking to clients, and delivering powerful, crisp presentations. Remember that, in general, tech companies are reluctant to hire managers who lack hard skills, so MBA grads who spent some time working as a programmer or engineer before attending business school are more attractive candidates for management positions at tech firms than MBA degree recipients without that experience.
Solution: Treat any MBA job, regardless of functional area or industry, as a technology job. Even outside of tech, hard skills matter. Skills in coding and analytics can get you noticed as a candidate. Technical skills have the added bonus of improving your general problem-solving and decision-making skills because they provide more rigor to your thinking. Knowledge of analytics is also beneficial. Start by picking up advanced MS-Excel skills and move on from there. Add some VBA to the picture perhaps. You don’t have to be super great at the technical stuff. Know enough to handle most ordinary situations. Knowing enough already puts you ahead of the pack and will make it look a magician in front of hiring managers and your peers.
Mistake #6: Thinking too much like an MBA
MBAs can look alike, think alike, and talk alike. They’re taught how to interview the same way and they basically take the same classes and use the same textbooks. This can result in MBAs sounding rehearsed and robotized, like people who’ve memorized a framework from classes they took and are eager to showcase their new knowledge during job interviews.
Solution: Impress U.S. hiring managers with bold, fresh, non-MBA thinking that can help their businesses explode. Differentiation is the name of the game, and you have to think outside the box and connect the dots better than other candidates. Careful with traditional MBA speak. Showcase your global thinking and superior cognitive abilities. Leverage the full force of your multicultural brain. Let your international advantages guide you. After speaking with U.S. hiring managers, leave them with a feeling of “Wow, this is not your typical MBA.”
Mistake #7: Placing too much focus on job title
Let me guess: perhaps you’re interested in becoming a product manager or know international MBAs who will be targeting jobs with this job title? And you or they plan to accept nothing less than a product manager role upon graduation? Be careful not to limit yourself!
Solution: Instead of targeting jobs with specific jobs titles you might like now, savvy international MBAs focus on identifying quality firms they might want to join. First, get your foot in the door with a great company that sponsors and might want to give you an H-1B visa, no matter what job they may be interested in giving you. Worry more about finding the right job fit and worry much less about what your job title will be. Joining a good firm is much more important than focusing on getting a job with the job title you’ve always dreamed of.
For example, if you’re interested in technology, would you turn down Microsoft if they asked you to join their cloud-computing group as a sales professional because you’re good with clients, already understand the power of cloud computing, and know how to translate the benefits of this emerging technology to business value for firms?
There’s great mobility in corporate America. With results, patience, and some corporate savvy, you can easily migrate to the group and job of your dreams once you join the right organization and secure your H-1B visa. The product manager job title can wait, but don’t be surprised if your desire to pursue a job you’re in love with now vanishes once you get your first job in the U.S. after b-school. Once you enter corporate America you’ll discover a ton of roles that look interesting and excite you and that you never knew existed while pursuing your MBA.
Marcelo Barros is the founder of The International Advantage, a firm specializing in providing job search training for international students who seek U.S. jobs. He is also the author of The International Advantage: Get Noticed. Get Hired!, a job search guide for international students. Marcelo Barros partners with over 50 U.S. universities to provide extra help to assist their international students with their quest to find U.S. employment via an H-1B visa.
Next stops for The International Advantage include: Lehigh University College of Business (August 30th), Texas Christian University Neeley School of Business (September 16th), Texas A&M College Station School of Public Health (September 17th), Texas A&M Commerce (September 18th), and University of Texas at Dallas (September 19th).
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