Stuart Nachbar's Reviews > Ahead of the Curve: Two Years at Harvard Business School

Ahead of the Curve by Philip Delves Broughton
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Aug 18, 08


I have read four “insider” accounts of life at top business schools, three written by Harvard MBAs, the fourth by a Stanford graduate. I read two of these: Peter Cohen’s The Gospel According to Harvard Business School and Peter Robinson’s Snapshots from Hell about the Stanford experience prior to going to business school. I read the third: Robert Reid’s Year One: An Intimate Look Inside Harvard Business School five years after I finished my MBA. Now I’ve read Philip Delves Broughton’s Ahead of the Curve, the first 21st century inside account of life in the Harvard fishbowl.

These inside accounts all share these things in common: criticism of school administrations and over-extensive commentary on the rigors of a demanding full-time education at a top business school. All Harvard stories also talk about the case method, where all material is taught through applied “real world” and fictional problems.

Broughton, however, takes things a little further than I expected. He spends more time talking about the quality of his classmates and a surprise networking opportunity from working among them. He gets the chance to present a business plan for an education and media podcast site to Boston and Silicon Valley venture capitalists through a classmate’s connections, though he fails to get funding.

Formerly a New York and Paris bureau chief for the London Daily Telegraph, Broughton constantly reminds readers that he is not the typical Harvard Business School student. He entered Harvard with ten years experience in journalism and a young family. His only previous business experience was a short stint in telemarketing. His journalist accomplishments and a 750 GMAT get him into Harvard, but he explains that students with prior experience in consulting or investment banking have a big leg up in the job search. Broughton is the first insider to write that he fails to find a summer internship or a permanent job offer at graduation. He did not find Harvard to be a springboard to a career change, though he learns to think like an entrepreneur.

However I sense that Broughton might have learned more from the experience than his classmates. He shows concern when guest speakers, successful financiers, entrepreneurs and chief executive officers, talk about work-life balance when their scales tilt too far towards work. He envisions a life where he is comfortably successful in business and as a family man. Then again, he is one of the few family men in his class.

Near the end of Curve, Broughton mentions that Harvard is considering admitting fewer students over 30 and rethinking its attitude towards admitting recent college graduates. The average student is 28, and too many come from the two-year analyst programs in investment banking and consulting; so, this is hardly a diverse student body. My hunch is that Harvard will continue to take very few recent college graduates, but will listen more closely to the recruiters. If more employers want candidates with banking and consulting experience, then Harvard will try to become a better matchmaker.

I did not earn my MBA from Harvard, though my experience was equally positive and negative. Like the Harvard students, I experienced some of the best and worst teaching I’d ever seen in my life. I had teachers who were very kind and wanted us to learn as well as those who just showed up. I also enjoyed the case method; it was in all of my marketing courses. However, there was one important difference: I worked at least part-time over the full two years. I needed the income and equally important, I needed business experience. Like Broughton, I did not come from business, consulting or banking. And I knew I would not get any work experience sitting in classrooms all day. Harvard does not appear willing to arrange such experiences for the students who need them the most, though it pushes expensive MBA study abroad programs at extra cost.

I strongly recommend Curve to anyone considering business school. Unlike the other inside stories, Curve shows that the intense full-time experience may not benefit everyone. Harvard and its kin all admit very bright people, and they graduate a little smarter than they started. However, it has become a much riskier investment for anyone contemplating a career change or wanting to start their own business.
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Anita Also recommended for people who come from non-traditional backgrounds, but want to work in business.


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