When she entered business school two years ago, software product manager Laura Mogilner assumed she would go back to the same field — with a higher paycheck — after graduating.

Two years later, most of her recently graduated M.B.A. classmates at Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business have a job, but Ms. Mogilner is interning at the Vermont Agency of Agriculture. She says she has discovered her passion: working in alternative energy. And despite holding more than $100,000 in student loans, Ms. Mogilner is willing to go out on a limb to get what she wants.

Across top-tier U.S. business schools, a small but growing number of students are skipping traditional winter on-campus recruitment and its seemingly surefire jobs. Instead, they are logging long hours conducting their own searches and networking furiously to get onto the career path they want, say career-services officials.

Their searches can stretch long past those of peers and be more costly. For some graduates, the pursuit comes when they realize they don’t want the run-of-the-mill jobs in, say, finance or consulting that companies typically tout on campus. In other instances, students may want to restrict their job search to a particular location. And some industries, like venture capital and media and entertainment, are known for just-in-time hiring, leaving students with no option but to hunt later on their own.

Above all, they are undeterred by the uncertainty of a self-directed job search. Indeed, despite the economic slowdown affecting most industries, the job market for M.B.A. graduates — particularly those from top schools — has remained robust.

At Dartmouth, a few students have always opted out of on-campus recruitment, and that number is now at about 10%, says Paul Danos, who has been dean at Tuck for 13 years.

Some who go it alone enter an M.B.A. program with a career goal in mind — and then decide to change direction. Before business school, Merav Benson, a 2008 graduate from Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, had worked in consulting with a focus on supply-chain issues in the food and beverage industry. At school, she decided to switch to working in the industry. While consulting interviews were plentiful on campus, the type of jobs that Ms. Benson wanted didn’t make the roster. Instead, she signed up with industry associations, networked extensively and finally got a job at Kraft Foods in June.

A summer internship consulting on internal projects at Google refocused Grey Montgomery, a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, on his goals. The 33-year-old, who had worked on the business side of his family’s newspaper business, realized he cared most about the problems of the newspaper industry.

Mr. Montgomery launched his job hunt in September, when most of his almost 800-member class was already preparing for interviews. “The challenge at these companies is that they don’t recruit from M.B.A. programs, and so you need to understand their needs and pitch yourself accordingly,” he says. Reaching out to 10 companies, he heard back from five, got two offers and accepted a job with Gannett Digital in May.

Students like Mr. Montgomery are forcing business-school career-services offices to alter their strategies. Working individually with students, helping them understand their strengths and then zeroing in on a target job requires more time and effort than the one-size-fits-many approach that is more standard for career centers.

“It can prove challenging for us,” notes Regina Resnick, assistant dean and managing director of the career-management center at Columbia Business School. Most regular recruitment is done by February; only then can her staff devote greater attention to one-on-one assistance, she says.

Columbia is also tapping into its vast alumni network to help students. It is launching the Columbia Coaching Program, which will involve 20 alumni advisers across industries advising students with complex job hunts.

Dartmouth’s Career Development Office has created a job-search matrix to help students identify their skill set and match them with companies, alumni to network with and industry associations to join. Many schools are launching similar efforts for self-directed job searchers.

Wharton advises students to have a backup plan and set a deadline on how long they are willing to wait to find a job, says Michelle Antonio, director of Wharton’s M.B.A. career-services office. That can mean taking a step back and working on a low-paid project or at an internship to gain experience.

Ms. Mogilner took an internship to “show her commitment” to her new career path. At the agricultural agency, she is working on a business model to recycle agricultural plastics that can be used as a wood substitute. Her internship ends soon, and even though she doesn’t have a job, she doesn’t regret her go-it-alone approach. “If I had a job [from on-campus recruitment], I know two years down I’d be in the same boat,” she says.



This article is reprinted with permission from Career Journal, the executive career site of theWall Street Journal. is committed to presenting diverse points of view. However, the viewpoint expressed in this article is the opinion of the author and is not necessarily the viewpoint of the owners or employees at IMD.