Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Term 4 Reflections

Term 4 for first-years at Darden started on Martin Luther King Day, January 17th, at which point life here hit warp speed.  Wow.  Darden, you continue to amaze -- I had no idea there was another level on the B-school intensity-meter, but you reached it, Darden.  Remarkable.

As I've pointed out on this blog before, business school is what you make of it, and Darden is no exception.  No one is holding a gun to your head and telling you to apply for summer internships (though this is HIGHLY encouraged), no one insists that you strive to win case competitions, no one forces you to volunteer your time for others, and no one forces you to be fully prepped for classroom case discussions.  When you try to balance all of this at once, the going gets tough.

I came to Darden wanting to live life here to the fullest, to make every day count.  You only get two years in this academy of higher learning and I want to make the most of it.  However, there's an inherent danger in this approach: you can easily bite off more than you can chew.  Impactful leadership opportunities come your way, and you grab them.  Exciting learning and social opportunities present themselves, and you sign up for all of them.  Pretty soon you can barely squeeze both sleep and studying into your Outlook calendar, and your life gets the feel of one who has been thrown off a ship, treading water while you try to swim back to safety.  Some days here, I'm just happy that I can summon the energy to continue full-throttle.

My syndrome is common, of course.  I'd be lying if I claimed I was the only student who walked into the business school candy store and ate enough to give himself a stomachache.  Business school can teach you your limits.

I didn't plan on waiting a whole month between blog posts, but here I am...so let me catch you up on my experience!

Ah yes, those of you applying to Darden now are probably very curious about this one.  As anyone in the U.S. is well aware, the economic recovery has been particularly "jobless".  One look at the chart below shows the devastating overall picture here...

The red line represents jobs lost in the current recession (in % terms), compared with other U.S. recessions since WWII.

This comes from Calculated Risk blog, a highly informative economic commentary I started reading in the fall -- Dean Bruner likes to pull from it frequently in his blog.  Any reader would look at that chart and wonder, "Where are the jobs?"  At first glance, every B-school student should be shuddering at the thought of being voluntarily unemployed right now...why on earth did we leave our job when there are no other jobs?  And most of us probably know someone who was laid off and has been without work for awhile.

Interestingly, I'm finding the MBA job market to be quite robust right now. There are plenty of companies hiring at Darden, and a slew of job postings. Everyone I know here has had interviews by now, and many of my classmates have summer job offers already.  We're a little over one month into a four month job hunt, and a large number of students here are doing rather well.

Granted, I have nothing to compare this recruiting season with.  Perhaps there were even rosier times before the GFC.  But the hiring cycle could be much, much worse...just ask anyone in the Class of 2009.

Bottom line, my anecdotal evidence suggests that the market for highly educated labor has returned, and the economic recovery is about to blossom.  There are some sectors of the economy, such as manufacturing, which may be permanently battered, and certainly government policy is going to need to figure out how to return the long-term unemployed back to the labor force. From the narrow perspective of an MBA student, though, things are looking up.

Renewable Energy Case Competition
In late January, I joined a team of Darden students at the Renewable Energy Case Competition held at the University of Michigan Ross School of Business.  Our team of five competed against 12 other schools in analyzing a real-life business opportunity faced by Duke Energy -- how should the company respond to potential EPA emissions regulations which could shut 18% of the coal plants in the mid-Atlantic US in the year 2015?  Should the company build renewable energy  (biomass, solar, and wind) power plants?  Should the company build traditional (coal or natural gas) power plants instead?  Or will the power generation gap be met by demand response (contracts with large power consumers to use less power on the hottest days)?

The problem was fascinating and highly complex.  Teams were asked to build detailed financial models incorporating fossil fuel price estimates, power price estimates, power plant construction costs, and use our crystal ball to predict future government CO2 regulations and state renewable energy requirements. We had a week to figure all this out, come to a recommendation, and deliver a presentation to a panel of industry judges.  Meanwhile, we were still taking classes at Darden AND interviewing for jobs.

That week of preparation and travel to Michigan will go down as the roughest in my Darden experience -- consistently on 4-5 hours of sleep -- but totally worth it. On presentation day, the Darden team ran into a buzzsaw in the preliminary round called the McCombs School (University of Texas), who eventually won the whole competition, but I think we performed well.  I hope to lead a team back next year!

Volunteer Efforts
I've taken on two volunteer roles at Darden this spring. First, I'm working with a team of four students on a project for the Darden Building Goodness in April effort. This year, the school is working with local contractors and the Building Goodness Foundation to help 14 homeowners with renovations to their homes.  The work is performed for homeowners who otherwise wouldn't have the income to fix their own homes -- all the work is done without any costs to them.  The effort was funded through a big auction week at Darden in December...$67K raised in total!  Between now and Build Day in April, our team will be scoping out a project, recruiting student volunteers for the non-technical work, and making certain we are providing the most effective fixes for the homeowner.  Our team met with our assigned homeowner last week and she is excited to have us helping her out!

Also, I'm working with the Fundraising Team for the Darden Cares 5K, also happening in April 2011.  Funds raised will support the UVA Children's Hospital. I've never gone door-to-door to solicit funds from businesses before, so this is definitely outside of my comfort zone.

Oh yeah, and I still go to school full-time!  Last term we had classes in Strategy, Operations, and Economics. The term was a little strange with so many student absences due to job interviews -- took a little bit of the buzz out of the case classroom learning environment.  Hopefully as the administration continues to tweak the first-year system to accommodate the exhausting recruiting commitments many students face they will find a happier medium between case discussion and finding a job.  The case method curriculum certainly doesn't do any favors and the reading load was higher in Term 4 than in the other terms.

With many students struggling mightily with balancing school and work, my job as exam review coordinator in my section (along with another student) became extra important in Term 4.  Preparing exam reviews is difficult with our rapid-fire term system, but at Darden we are all responsible for helping other students learn the material, so I find the review coordinator role to be rewarding.

Term 5 starts Tuesday and I hope to get back to blogging with my usual frequency. Until I decide on a summer job, however, all bets are off!