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Career Search Tips for International MBAs

Getting into a competitive MBA program, landing a summer internship, and finding a job all require loads of tenacity and endurance for any student. But international students conducting their post-MBA career search in the U.S. often have an even higher hill to climb – with sponsorship challenges, less understanding of the search process, and a smaller network.  

Most of the top MBA programs in the U.S. have a strong contingent of international students — according to Poets & Quants, all but two of the leading MBA programs in the U.S. exceed 30% international enrollment, and half report 40% or more. It makes sense because, as Denise Karaoli, Director of International Student Careers at the University of Virginia (Darden School of Business), puts it, “To have a top global MBA, we need the brightest talent from preeminent students coming with exceptional experience and leading schools from around the world.”  

We gathered recommendations for international women navigating the often-rocky road to landing their first post-MBA job in the U.S., from conversations with Denise as well as Rocio Martinez, Director of Global University Relations & Programs at Pega. We also heard from international MBAs who have first-hand experience and are now living and working in the U.S. and Canada: 

  • Tuganai Borina, Dell Technologies, University of Texas at Austin – McCombs School of Business (Kazakhstan) 
  • Vanessa Li, Alix Partners, University of Rochester – Simon Business School (China) 
  • Ifueko Ogbeide, Google, University of Michigan – Ross School of Business (Nigeria) 
  • Priscila Silva, CIBC, University of Toronto – Rotman School of Management (Brazil) 

Recommendations for International MBA Students 

Get the support you need

Denise encourages international students to get comfortable asking for the help they need to get through the recruiting process. Even though her role was created for the sole purpose of helping international MBA students, “In some cultures, asking for help is seen as negative,” she explains, but she believes “it as a sign of power to use all the resources you have.” 

Rocio has similar advice. As soon as you step foot on campus, meet the advisors in the international office and become best friends with them,” she recommends.   

For example, MBA career centers offer counseling, as well as resources like lists of companies that hire international students, how a candidate can tell her story beyond her resume, and how to network.  

Rocio recommends that students ask for help on practical issues, such as obtaining a social security card to work in the U.S. “You’d be surprised how many students don’t know the basics,” she says. “Every year we hire someone who didn’t realize they needed a social security number to work here and then it can take weeks or months to apply and obtain one,” she explains, which delays their start date.  

Network with Alumni and Domestic Students

Everyone knows that networking is essential to landing a job, but for international students, this advice takes on special importance. 

Living far from home, many students from other countries do not have an extended network of family, friends, and colleagues who can help with their career search. While a student at Rotman, Priscila says that she made extra efforts to forge “deeper connections with peers and alumnae.” She even created an Excel spreadsheet and tracked the names of the people she met at industry events and club organizations to help her remember to follow up on specific interactions later.  

Vanessa recommends connecting with alumni. “Follow up even if they graduated a long time ago, if they work in an industry you’re interested in…it’s very helpful to learn from people in different stages of their careers.” Denise suggests that alumni who are working at companies an MBA is interested in can ask HR to look at a resume, often clinching an interview. “This is how our students are getting jobs,” she says. International students must understand “it is not the resume that gets you the job, it is who you know.” 

Vanessa also encourages networking with classmates, particularly domestic ones, who may be aware of more opportunities. “They may already know recruiters and can connect you or refer you,” she explains. Denise agrees, saying, “It’s a little extra effort, but that connection you make with domestic students goes a long way.” 

Stay Close to Your Passion

While it is tempting to gravitate to industries and functions that are known to hire international students – consulting, technology, and investment banking for example –  Ifueko recommends exploring industries and taking your time to find a role that will be enjoyable for the long-term. “Speak with people in different fields…and ask what they do. I went into business school dead set on consulting, but there are so many different roles and careers. You will work a lot, and it’s important to be in a place you can thrive.” 

Denise agrees, stressing that selecting a company based on this criteria is not a wise strategy.  “If you are not passionate about your chosen field, you are not going to do your best to show your interest and convince your connections that you are right for the position” she says.  

Also have realistic expectations on the types of jobs you are seeking, based on your language level and comfort with networking. Going into consulting, for example, Denise says it’s essential to have the client-based language skills needed to instill confidence among clients. “Investment banking requires an intense amount of networking so if you are not confident to network, this will be a tough field to get into.” 

It’s also important to accept that some industries are less open to hiring international job candidates.  Tuganai says that she found certain industries — oil and gas, security and aviation, consumer marketing — are difficult for international students to break into. 

Approach Sponsorship with Care

When MBA students research organizations that typically hire international students, they may not always find the answer. There are other ways to approach the topic of sponsorship with a company.  

One suggestion is to simply ask the recruiter.  Ifueko says, “After going through the niceties and initial emails, I would ask the recruiter about opportunities for sponsorship.” She also recommends having an in-person meeting, if possible. “Having a face-to-face, I felt it was super easy to slip the questions in.” By doing so, she was able to narrow down companies more quickly and focus her search.  

Tuganai agrees with Ifueko that asking a recruiter directly is acceptable, but she cautions, “You don’t want it to be the very first question — you want to show respect” that sponsorship is not the sole reason for your interest. Even if a company does not usually hire international students, Tuganai says, “There are always exceptions. Be exceptional in your interviews, and you may be the exception.”  

Leverage the Summer Internship

Summer internships are essential to gaining the experience to apply for full-time roles later. For international students, they can help focus the recruiting process. As  Ifueko says, internships are “super important because they give you a safe environment to know if what you recruited for is what you want to do long-term.” 

Vanessa agrees, seeing the internship as an opportunity to create your story for the recruiting process. “Once you have internship experience in the country where you want to work, it is so much easier. You can build up your story and what went well and what didn’t and sell yourself in a different way.” 

Even if a full-time offer does not arise from an internship, which happened to Vanessa and Ifueko, Vanessa chose to see it as a “blessing in disguise.” She realized, “I wouldn’t want to do that job full-time, so I re-recruited, and it took me seven weeks to get an offer.”  

Priscila had a different experience. After her internship at CIBC, she found it much easier to get a full-time job offer. “I already had the connections,” she explains. “Once you do an internship at a company, the power dynamics change. The company is already spending a lot of time to train you for a new position, so you now have more power [to secure] a full-time position.” 

Other Advice  

Stay Organized

Rocio encourages students to be organized and get ahead of deadlines. “If your goal is to find employment,” in the U.S., she says, “prepare ahead of time, stay organized, and do things in an orderly manner.” Give yourself plenty of runway because “your timelines do not always align with company timelines.”  

Create a Story Outside of Your Resume

In recruiting, Denise says that incoming international students had to rely too heavily on their resumes for their previous searches in the U.S. It’s all about your relationship with people at your desired company which requires “feeling comfortable to talk about yourself, your accomplishments, and your story.” 

Don’t Compare Yourself

Priscila says it is very easy to compare yourself to others during recruitment. “We see other people doing different things, but be true to yourself and your goals. It’s your career — stick to it.”  

Hang On

Vanessa encourages resilience. Recruiting as an international student, she says, “There is no denying it is a difficult process. Hold on for longer and try harder, and it will work out. Do not give up.” 

Prioritize Well-Being

To stay on top of their game,  Tuganai encourages students to prioritize their well-being. “I had to make choices about healthy habits to stay mentally sharp and focused. For example, it may be going to bed at 10 p.m., having a workout, eating good meals. Once you have your health, you will be unstoppable.” 

Go Where You Feel Comfortable

When thinking about where to locate after the MBA, Vanessa suggests comfort and familiarity are key for international students. “All my family lives in China so [being near family] was not a factor, but I [chose to] live in New York City where there are so many different cultures. Work is not everything — you want to be somewhere where you can have relationships outside of work.” 

Resources for International MBA Students 

While every international MBA must ultimately forge her own path, being willing to ask for help and leaning on others are recommendations with proven success records. As Denise says, “Lean on your schools for support to become acquainted with the companies, the resources, general coaching, and career choices. You don’t want to do it alone.” 

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