Summer Before B-School: When and How to Quit Your Job? Then What?

by on May 11th, 2017

“I quit!” How many of us have fantasized about saying those two words to a boss at some point in our career, turning with a flourish and marching out the door, never looking back? While that kind of dramatic exit could offer a certain kind of short-term satisfaction, it’s perhaps not the best way to leave a job to head off to business school.

So what’s a better way to let your employer know that your days at the company are numbered? Just how long before business school starts should you plan to make your exit? And what’s the best way to fill the time before you start? For those heading to campus in the fall, these questions are top of mind right now. To get some answers, we checked in with some current MBA students and recent grads to see what they did—and whether they’d do the same if they had it to do over.

Give Your Employer Ample Warning of Your Departure

Most of the students we spoke with opted to let their employers know their plans as soon as they decided themselves, even if they didn’t intend to depart until just before school started. Obviously, doing so allows your employer to plan sufficiently for your departure, eases the transition for your team and helps maintain good relationships with people you might very likely rely on in the future for references, networking and more.

Candace Lee, who graduated last spring from a dual-degree MBA/MPA program at NYU Stern School of Business, told her employer the same week she decided where she was going. She was a managing director at a small market research firm, so her boss also happened to be the president of the company. “I’d worked very closely with him and knew that when I left three months later, there would be a non-minor impact on other people, so I wanted to give people as much of a heads up as possible,” she said.

She approached him in his office toward the end of the day, letting him know where she’d gotten into school and where she’d ultimately decided to go. Although a little awkward, the conversation went pretty well, she said. “My boss was great. He congratulated me while also expressing that he’d miss me, which was both wonderful and sad to hear. I don’t wish I’d done anything differently.” Giving her boss ample heads up also let them be strategic about when to tell the rest of the company. “While the management team knew well in advance that I would be leaving, we didn’t tell the rest of the company until a bit later, when we had formulated a plan for next steps, which I think made a lot of sense because we didn’t worry anyone unnecessarily,” she said.

UC Berkeley Haas School of Business second-year MBA student Cameron Scherer was also working for a small firm—in her case, a Washington, DC‒based international development nonprofit—where her departure would have a significant impact. Though she was fortunate to have a very supportive boss who even wrote some of her recommendation letters, that boss was also planning a departure around the same time.

“We had a mutual understanding that we wanted to time our departures so as not to completely upend the organization,” she said. “If we left too close together, it would be problematic because there would be no handover. But if she left too much before me, it wouldn’t have been great for me. So we timed it so we both left in the summer.”

In general, we found that those working in consulting roles had it easier than most, since comings and goings in the industry are de rigeur. “I came from consulting where employees routinely leave the company or take sabbaticals to pursue their MBA, so I was very upfront with my leadership from the start,” said INSEAD MBA grad Rayan Dawud. That said, his firm was reluctant to let him go completely. “In the end I agreed to take an unpaid sabbatical rather than to permanently leave the firm because the approval process was quick and did not require any type of commitment on my part,” he said.

For Charity Wollensack, a second-year student at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, letting her employer know her plans was also no big deal. “Because they knew when I joined the organization I would only be there for one year and was applying to business school, it made the whole process very easy,” she said. More difficult was determining her last day. “I wanted to quit far before they wanted me to so we negotiated a time in between,” she shared. “In retrospect I would have stuck to my guns and made my last day the day much earlier.”

Many Wish They’d Quit Sooner

Wollensack’s sentiments—that she wished she’d given herself more time between quitting and starting school—were echoed by many of the students we spoke with. “In an ideal world I maybe would have left my work a little bit earlier,” conceded Haas student Scherer, who delayed her departure to coordinate with her boss’s. But because she really enjoyed both her work and her colleagues, she’s not filled with huge regret.

That said, the fact that she is from the San Francisco Bay area meant that she was already familiar with the area she was moving to for school. “Once you start school you don’t really have a lot of time to figure out some basic things—even just the walk to campus—so if you are going somewhere new I would definitely recommend giving yourself more than a week to settle in,” she said. “It’s also a great opportunity to meet classmates that also get there earlier,” she added.

Jen Wong, who graduated last year from Wharton, had actually left her job before getting into school and was already traveling when she learned of her acceptance. But after a few weeks of travel she decided she wanted to do something more with her time. After applying to a range of positions, she accepted a role working with the Ministry of Health and World Bank in Ebola-stricken Liberia.

Though grateful for the experience, in the end it left her with not as much time as she would have liked before starting school. “If I could do it over, I wouldn’t have worked in Liberia until the last minute,” she said. Ultimately, her last day turned out to be the Friday before school started. Scheduled to fly back to San Diego to pick up her stuff before moving to Philadelphia and starting school the following Wednesday, she was derailed by mechanical issues that caused her flight from Monrovia to be canceled. Her rescheduled flight left no time to return to San Diego. “I would have appreciated the time to go back and see my family beforehand,” she said.

What to Do With the Time Between Quitting Your Job and Starting School?

INSEAD’s Dawud gave himself two months before the start of the program. “I left the U.S. and moved to the Middle East for that period to visit family and friends and use the time to network and investigate new career paths,” he said. He’d originally planned to use the time to intern at a new company, but the timing didn’t work out for the companies he was interested in.

“Many of my classmates took more than two months; some took six or more to travel, intern at new companies or just to go on holiday,” he said. “For me personally, I would’ve loved to do some volunteer work or set up a full internship six months out (with a buffer between the end of the internship and start of INSEAD) however, I needed to strike a balance between taking time off and saving up for the upcoming year.”

Travel was also at the top on the list for several other students, but needing to balance that with reserving funds for school was a recurrent theme, too. Haas’s Scherer spent a few weeks traveling in Spain and Portugal, a game-time change of plans when a trip to Greece fell through. And Wharton’s Wollensack spent the four weeks she took off traveling to Peru and Mexico and spending time with friends and family, although she also stresses the importance of saving. “I would absolutely save more money for school,” she said. “There are so many expenses you can’t predict that come up.

Lee, meanwhile, stopped working full time in July but continued on a part-time basis until mid-August, giving herself just a couple of days off before heading to Stern. “I really loved my job, and so my desire to continue working with my team as long as possible was a big factor,” she said. “I also didn’t want to leave anyone hanging, so my sense of responsibility to the company was the second largest factor. Finally, I wanted to save as much money as I could, and so I figured I should work until the very last moment.”

Take More Time to Prep Academically

Looking back, Lee would definitely have stopped working earlier. “I was not well rested when school started,” she said. “I’d also been out of school for seven years, so I had to re-learn what it meant to be a student again, while also balancing recruiting and meeting all of my great classmates.” The first few weeks were a whirlwind that left her wishing she’d taken a little more time to prepare mentally for school. She also had a stack of leadership books she’d hoped to read but didn’t get to. “I was lucky enough to go to some great leadership-focused classes and talks while at school, though, so I guess it all worked out in the end!” she added.

Scherer, for her part, didn’t spend much time reviewing business concepts before heading to Haas, although she did think about it. “I definitely considered whether I should, especially coming into business school where I had very little business background,” she said. “I think I knew that no matter how hard I tried to get ahead of the curve I was going to get there and be a little bit overwhelmed.”

She did brush up some on economics in preparation for waiver exams, but that was about the extent of it. “I knew that I was going to get there and completely lose my free time, so I wanted time to make a serious dent in my for-fun reading list.” In the end, she doesn’t think she’s any worse off for not having done more, although she realizes her approach might not be the best for everyone. “My advice is to do what makes you feel comfortable—if you are going to be stressed out not having prepped in advance, go ahead and do that.”

While he wouldn’t drastically change how he spent his pre‒business school time, Dawud said he would have prepared a little more by brushing up on topics he hadn’t studied since college. “INSEAD is an extremely fast-paced program; you absolutely need to be ready to hit the ground running in all subjects,” he said. “I also would’ve tried to read a bit more; I read quite a bit but there’s very little time for reading outside of classwork and the news here.”

What Do Schools Recommend the Summer Before Business School?

Are the various approaches these students have taken in line with what business schools think will best prepare them for the demands of the MBA? Largely, yes.

Stacey Rudnick, who heads career services for UT Austin’s McCombs School of Business, notesd that letting your employers know well in advance that you’ll be leaving can actually offer other advantages. “What a perfect opportunity this presents to start talking to people at your current company about your future goals,” she told Clear Admit. “Go to your company’s marketing department and explain that you are headed off to business school and really interested in a career in marketing. Utilize the resources at your disposal to learn as much as you can about your future career path.”

She also urged prospective students to read the business press. “When you start an MBA program, you are going to go from reading a lot of email, which is very short, to reading long cases for class,” she said. “Reading the business press will help you get your business vocabulary back up if it is not already sharp and will be important in preparing you to digest huge amounts of information in a really short period of time.”

Luke Kreinberg, associate director of the Haas Career Management Group, stressedthe importance of a clean exit. “Make sure that you have a clean closure at your place of employment and leave on a good note if at all possible,” he said. Not only does it maintain valuable relationships down the line, he finds that the person leaving the job is better off when he or she leaves things at a good handing-off point. “It really shifts how someone approaches the next challenge, whatever that is,” he said.

Rudnick reminded incoming students that the first semester of any MBA program is very academically challenging—and this is especially true if you don’t come from a strong math, accounting or statistics background. “If you are coming from a liberal arts educational background there is a lot that can be hard to digest, so anything you can do to better prepare yourself before you hit the first semester is a good idea,” she said.

But she’s also a big proponent of taking a break between work and school. “Give yourself some time to recharge, to get acclimated to the city before orientation or just to relax, because things are going to get very intense very quickly.”

What Approach Are This Year’s Admits Taking?

Though some are still in the throes of making precisely these decisions, we know from exchanges on Reddit what a handful of next year’s first-year MBA students are planning to do with the time before they start. Some of this year’s first years have also chimed in with advice based on what they did—or wish they’d done.

Needing to balance taking time off to travel with staying at work to save up as much as possible for school was a recurring theme in the Reddit threads. A current first-year student urged those who could to travel, writing, “I worked until two weeks before all of the orientation activities began. If you have the means, I know everyone who traveled beforehand really enjoyed that.”

“I’m sticking around work through June and [will] leave sometime in July,” wrote another. “I want to travel a bit and have time to prepare [for] the move to school but I also want to continue getting paid. Now if I had gotten a hefty scholarship or even a full ride? I’d be gone before the end of February.”

Another poster on the same thread did get a hefty scholarship—covering 90 percent of the cost—which prompted a change from the original plan of working through early June and then traveling and relocating cross-country. “Now I’m leaving in April and travelling until orientation in early August,” the poster wrote. “Seems like a lot of time off, but I’m unmarried/childless and have plenty of money saved that I was going to put to school. I never took a gap between school and work and have been full-time at the same company now for five years. Feels like I’ve earned it.”

And another first-year student shared having worked until about a month before orientation and then traveling for a few weeks. “It was honestly more than enough time to recharge and I needed the money,” the poster wrote. But many classmates without financial constraints quit as early as April—though mid- to late-May was more common—and traveled the entire summer. “For those people, they had fantastic experiences and made great bonds as well. Some of them seemed to feel it was a bit ‘too long’ and were very antsy after 90 days of no structure, but I don’t think any of them would trade it for the world.”

Oh, I’m Just Going to Squeeze in a Wedding

For two of the people we talked to last year, major life events also factored into the summer before business school. Haas grad Sneha Sheth (MBA ’16) quit her consulting job at Dalberg Global Development Advisors at the beginning of July, giving herself just under two months to plan and shop for her wedding, travel and move. “It was a really interesting time in my life,” she recalled with a laugh.

Sheth’s path to business school sounds strikingly similar to Natalie Neilson’s plans. Neilson started at Wharton last fall, leaving a consulting role e quit in mid-July, got married a week later, and then started school a week after that, she told us.

No Single Path to Business School

In summary, it seems like there’s no one “right” way to spend that summer before business school. That said, key tidbits of prevailing wisdom emerged from our many conversations with current and future students, as well as representatives from the schools themselves.

Our takeaways: Travel if you can, but remember to balance your need for adventure with your need for money for the two years ahead. Brush up on your math skills—especially if you’re several years out of school and/or from a liberal arts background—and familiarize yourself with the business press. Give your employer as much notice as possible, not only to maintain good relationships when you leave but also to network within your company and learn more about potential post-MBA career paths.

Finally, more than anything else, the message current students shared with us was that they wished they’d given themselves more time than they did—whether to travel, to squeeze in a wedding, to catch up on reading or to catch up on sleep. Because by all accounts, when you get to school it’s like drinking from a fire hose the moment you set foot on campus.

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