The Isolation of HBS

I was happy to get the chance to reflect on HBS. Since then, a few more classmates have as well. I wanted to share their reflections, as I think they bring a more balanced perspective to mine. I agree with the underlying message in each. Here’s Philip’s Reflection on Myths of HBS, and here are Sparsh’s personal thoughts. [ed: if you’re an HBS student with a reflection up, I’m happy to add a link here, just let me know].

Besides “busy,” I’ve also noticed that HBS forces students onto a shared path.

One night when I was feeling particularly cynical, I made a sketch of how it felt. I don’t have it with me, so here’s a written version:

HBS is a giant highway. All the students are on the highway. The highway is paved, the billboards give clear instruction, and the view is nice. The problem is, if you stay on the highway long enough, there are only two exits: consulting and banking.

Next to the highway there’s also a little trail through the woods. It’s technically a path through HBS, too. It’s lonely, but gives you more space to think and reflect. It’s bumpy and not as smooth as the highway. You feel like you’re doing it wrong pretty often. And the trail goes close enough that you can see the highway, so it’s easy to keep ending up on the highway, even if you don’t mean to.

HBS claims it wants those nontraditional candidates — the ones on the trail. Students who want to do something other than consulting or banking — and get involved in other communities. After a semester, I’m just not seeing it.

As mentioned yesterday, everyone is busy. “Busy” starts with the time constraints created by HBS.

Even a job gives you flexibility that HBS does not. Coffee with mentors? Only if they’ll meet you at 7am, near campus. Product Management breakfast? Not an option anymore — I have discussion group from 8–9, every day. Conferences that happen on a weekday? Once again, class has to take precedence — no vacation time you can use.

Even if you want to attend other events at Harvard, it’s hard. Lunchtime research seminars organized for PhD students, but open to the public? Definitely conflict with class.

Even just the class schedule restrictions result in a limited amount of time to do anything. Then you have to toss on recruiting and extracurricular activities.

Most of the things that fit in the time that’s available are planned for HBS students. No one else is planning around the HBS schedule — nor should they. It’s not impossible to do other things, but it’s hard and most people don’t. I have a hard time blaming students too much for that — the system pushes people not to. Instead, students take part in the HBS system. They create clubs, take leadership roles, plan conferences, use HBS mentors, go to parties.

To be clear, before HBS, people had a job, hobbies, and a personal life. At HBS, it goes like this:

Your job is going to class, which is at HBS.
Your hobbies are HBS clubs, which are at HBS.
Your personal life and friends are also attending HBS.

To me, these things feel superfluous compared to the resources outside communities already have.

Instead of attending existing tech conferences, HBS made it’s own (Cyberposium). Instead of outside design conferences? DesignxHarvard. I rarely see students discuss events outside of the ones sponsored by HBS groups.

For every new field of interest, a group forms on campus instead of getting involved outside.

Why do HBS need all their own events, anyway? I’m all for starting new groups, but I’m also all for seeing what already exists.

This would bother me less, but it isn’t just about the events. The same system seems designed to shove people towards a “standard” MBA path after.

Want to interview with a consulting firm? Great! There are dedicated days where they come to campus and talk to you. All their events will be scheduled around the class schedule, so you never have to be absent. Everything will fit in the areas HBS makes for you.

Want to interview with a small startup in Seattle? Much harder. They’re never going to come to campus, and if you want to interview — you have to tell them to put it on one of the days there aren’t class. The career days are often Tuesdays — no way to fly to Seattle and back for a Tuesday. Then you’d better hope you find out about it and get an interview scheduled over WesTrek or Spring Break. That makes you look back to the startup — who wants someone that can only interview on two days? To me, that seems arrogant.

I’m also disappointed in this from the town-gown angle. I’ve always been hoping for another significant tech hub outside of the Valley — be it Seattle, NYC, Boston, Boulder, or Austin.

One of the laments common in the Boston tech scene is that students always leave. This doesn’t surprise me: from what I’ve seen at HBS, going to a school in Boston doesn’t make you loyal to Boston — because you’ve never DONE anything in Boston. It’s all about the school environment that you were isolated in.

Obviously, HBS has designed the program intentionally. I know there’s the intent to have a bootcamp, to have a shared experience. But in my mind, following a pre-set path isn’t what “leaders” do.

If you want a job in consulting or banking, go to HBS. No brainer. You’re going to get all the fundamentals you need, and all the path is convenient, structured, and there for you.

Want to do something else? The jury’s still out. I hope that it’s less likely this in the following three terms, and I’ll keep you posted. For now, we need more nontraditional people if this is going to change. But, I’m not sure if it will, I’m not sure HBS wants it to, and I’m not sure if it should.

update: I’ve noticed that many people think this post is a frustration about my own balance. I’m doing fine (thanks for the concern!) For me, it’s more about opening the conversation. I wrote a little bit about that here.