A few weeks ago, Financial Times Weekend carried a poignant story of a young woman, Marina Keegan, who died in an accident a few days after her graduation at Yale. During her time there, she wrote a series of essays, which have now been compiled in a book, “The Opposite of Loneliness”. One of the essays, which FT excerpted, details Keegan’s frank surprise at the number of students at Yale who opt for a career in consulting or investment banking.
In words that hew remarkably close to my own experience of business school, Keegan wrote: “I conducted a credible and scientific study this week — asking freshman after freshman what they thought they might be doing upon graduation. Not one of them said they wanted to be a consultant or an investment banker. .. Unsurprisingly, most students don’t seem to come to Yale with explicit passions for these fields. Yet sometime between Freshman Screw and The Last Chance Dance something in our collective cogs shift and these jobs become attractive”.
This description is not far from the not-so-subtle training that had been drilled into me at business school. On my very first day, all us first years were called to a meeting where the horrors of the placement process were shared with us. Specifically, we were told that if we did not start working towards a job at McKinsey or Goldman Sachs, we might as well not be there.
The likes of Boston Consulting Group and McKinsey, we subsequently learned, are invited for the highly coveted Day Zero slots. The fight for the best brains on campus has a gladiatorial ring to it as companies go to any lengths to hire the candidates they have set their eyes on. It helps that Tier-1 consultancies pay the most attractive salaries and offer the most mind-boggling performance bonuses.
This is the stuff of legends, arguably apocryphal, passed down generations of B-school grads over milky tea. When Mc (so called in B-school parlance) and BCG visited my campus some years ago, so goes one account, they literally fell over each other to take back this 9-pointer (CGPA: 9) who had managed to crack every single puzzle and every last estimation thrown at him. Apparently, a partner from one firm, in a visible huff over the other firm’s machinations, drove the candidate to the airport and made him sign a smashing good offer on the way.
Ms Keegan’s dilemma, then, is little more than a study in herd mentality. The pick of the graduates, the crème de la crème, is whisked away by the Mc’s and BCGs. These are Tier 1 “consults” (another avoidable but handy short form). Tier 2 consults are the likes of Accenture and Capgemini, which are normally invited on Day 0.5 or (horrors) even Day 1. (Day Zero and Day 0.5 both refer to the first day of placements but are demarcated to highlight the hierarchy of companies. Day 1 is actually the second day of placements and is reserved for top-class banking and FMCG firms.)
When it was time for me to appear for the placement process, I was – notably, since I had been a journalist – picked up by a global recruitment firm that was recruiting from B-schools for the first time to expand its nascent India presence. Ludicrously, they too called themselves consultants, the sole reason, I am certain, a full 50 of us appeared for the process.
It was a farce. The work could not have been any more meaningless. Calling people to sell them jobs they were uninterested in would be soporific, if it was not also ignominious. Within a month, I was out. From colleagues, I heard similar tales of exhaustion and a lack of interest in work. Yet, most people stuck, since few, if any sectors match the perks of consulting.
(And yet, it is never enough. In time I learnt of another sordid dimension of consulting. One reason competition at the graduate level is so intense is that Teir-1 consults do almost no lateral hiring. So if for some reason you have missed the bus at school, you can rest assured you will never get to board it again. You would be stuck with a Tier-II or Tier-III firm for life unless you decide to go entrepreneurial and start you own service.)
It would be easy to overlook this if it was restricted only to those few days of placement week. But the fact is, B-school changes those it welcomes. The rush for the next big opportunity, the fight for numero uno can make the otherwise merely competitive assume a special cruelty.
One candidate I interviewed during my stint as placement trainer at an IIM spoke haltingly. Her communication skills were not good. It was an effort for her. I finished some of her sentences, and she would merely nod in agreement. I looked at her CV. She was an engineer who was interested in design.
When I asked about her family, her eyes filled with tears. But she kept speaking like nothing had happened. I asked her if everything was ok. And she cried, quietly, embarrassed. I told her that it’s fine. I wanted to reach out and hold her hand but feared she might misconstrue. I was supposed to prepare her for a summer internship but here she was, so sad. After a while, I asked her to talk to me.
She was having a difficult time adjusting. She had joined late, and had made no friends. Everyone here was from the big colleges and cities. She was from Hisar. “There is no kindness here, no words of care, only competition.”
Currently, she was working on a project with five other girls, three of whom were domineering. “They cannot talk to each other, because each thinks of herself as a leader, so they take out their frustrations on me”, she said, and cried some more.
This was so wrong, and made me furious, but I had to control myself so I could offer her encouragement. I told her she would be fine in no time and that this was an initial passing phase. I elaborated some of the things she needed to prepare and worried about her chances. I asked her to meet a kind senior and seek help with preparation. She thanked me profusely and left. As she walked away, from the corner of my eye I imagined those girls bullying her. Man, I hated them.
I might have interviewed those girls on another day and they would doubtless have been silken with me. After all, I was there to help them crack that consult interview, or land that HUL profile. I was useful. But this girl from Hisar, struggling with her English and trying to manage from one day to the next, was dispensable. Utility value=zero.
Ms Keegan had still not made up her mind about what profession to follow when she passed away. (McKinsey had expressed an interest in her.) Given how she felt, one feels almost grateful she did not witness the madness.