This interview is a follow-up to our Wellness & Busyness article from November, in which we received an overwhelming response from students regarding their tactics to balance life, work, and attaining MBAs in a society that tends to glorify “busyness.” Allyson Dhindsa is an associate director in the Office of Career Development at Stern. She coaches full-time MBA students 1:1 as well as in groups, on attaining internships and full-time roles, particularly those with non-traditional backgrounds. She looked over our raw data (anonymous still) from the survey and sat down with me to give her thoughts on busyness in business school, from the perspective of a career coach.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
First, how did you come across our Wellness & Busyness survey?
I’m on the Oppy list-serv, of course!
What overarching patterns did you discern from the raw data of my Wellness & Busyness article?
A lot of people gravitate toward things that you would expect. I was a little surprised that people took to cooking as a form of relaxing, but nothing surprised me too much. I also thought that more people would write that they feel overwhelmed by all that they had to do, but it actually reminds me of something Angela Duckworth has said, that the feeling of being overwhelmed is very personal. MBA students often have had experiences so much more intense than business school in their past, whether it is familial, military service, etc, that perhaps they came in prepared to balance their MBAs with their lives.
What patterns do you see in students that approach you for career coaching?
I try to take a holistic approach to coaching. Some students have immediate professional needs, but sometimes I sense that there’s something else going on under the surface, and it can then become a much richer experience if we choose to delve into that. It can make career coaching very dynamic and enriching. Other patterns I see are students seeking advice on how to be more productive. To these I discuss time management (it’s not just Google Cal, are you chunking your time?), whether your phone is next to you and you’re multitasking, things such as the Pomodoro technique…
Do you think there are ample resources to support adults in balancing all parts of their career while getting their MBA?
I think yes, and no. It’s complicated because we’re in New York City — Stern and Columbia are such unique MBA programs for that reason because there is just so much here. Stern and NYU are replete with resources and they can be very hard to find, and oftentimes not integrated directly with your program or what you think you have access to. However, they’re there! I often get someone saying “I didn’t know you had that!” in response to me showing a student a resource available to them. The health center is great, the writing center is fantastic, but I think many students wouldn’t know to look for them.
So it’s a bit like the paradox of choice/downfall of having too many options, you don’t know where to look or start.
Can you talk more about your group coaching program at Stern? Who is this available to?
I do a form of group coaching to full-time MBA students called Circle. I actually developed it while in my Masters of Applied Positive Psychology program. It’s an evidence-based form of group coaching — we see it as a safe space to talk about the highs and lows of recruiting, so students can really feel that they aren’t alone. I think most students intellectually know that they’re not alone, but it’s hard to actually gauge until they can be in a space where they’re comfortable discussing their experiences and hearing that other students in other fields are going through the same thing.
I think “intellectually” knowing you’re not alone versus actually feeling that way is so relatable. How big is your average group?
The sweet spot is 9 students, but we’ve ranged anywhere from 7 to 15.
What’s the structure of a standard group?
We meet for 90 minutes weekly for a semester, so either MBA1s in the spring or MBA2s in the fall. We’ll share something challenging that happened to you over the week, announcements, recap the prior week, and bridge to this week’s topic, and always close with some sort of personal appreciation or commitment. Of course, the flow of the conversation can be more dynamic than this, depending on what we land on. There’s always a presumed “abort mission button” where if a topic is not pertaining to what’s imminent in their lives, we can switch.
Do you have any plans to expand Circle?
Yes! We hope to expand Circle so that students can learn to become facilitators themselves and lead groups. Group facilitation is an excellent skill to bring into a career in business, also, so you can learn how to lead a room and guide a discussion. It’s not always innate.
Leading a group is definitely not an inherent skill. What is the hardest part about running a coaching group, in your opinion?
In Circle, you can’t press on a single thing you sense someone wants to discuss, like in group therapy, to get someone to share. You can’t make any assumptions, and have to use actual observable behavior to try to get them to where they want to go in the session. I also think that most students who join Circle are from non-traditional backgrounds, or if they are, participating in it makes them think about their path a little differently, and it can cause a small crisis of consciousness. They suddenly might feel in their heart that they don’t know if they should be pursuing this, but I as a career coach can only be involved to a certain extent. The most important thing they walk away with is having developed self-efficacy [in developing their career].
We’re really all just trying to figure it out, aren’t we? What do you want students to know from your perspective as a career coach, regarding busyness and doing it all?
We’re all complex humans who inevitably compare ourselves to each other…if you need to de-stress by watching The Bachelor for 2 hours, do it. If people seem to be running laps around you because they just returned from military service and also have a 2-year-old at home while you’re just juggling a 9-5 plus school, realize that your version of feeling overwhelmed is yours only. Do the things you need to do to relax without guilt.