Former commercial banker Michael Noonan surveyed the field of job possibilities en route to his MBA.

After 18 interviews and five job offers, Mr. Noonan accepted a position with Bear, Stearns & Co., where he will join a management training program this August and make about $125,000 in bonuses and salary in his first year.

Though not all those who will receive MBAs this spring are headed for Wall Street, Mr. Noonan's move reflects a strong interest among this year's graduates in being where the action is.

"Even with all the talk that we hear about this new generation of people entering the work force wanting a more balanced life, there's still a pretty sizable segment of people coming through MBA programs who are interested in money and prestige and power," said Tom Kozicki, director of the MBA career resource center at the University of Southern California.

Mr. Noonan does not frame his choice quite that way. But before he went to business school the 29-year-old spent six years in corporate lending with First Union Corp. in Charlotte, N.C.

As a result, Mr. Noonan said, he wanted new challenges in a faster-paced environment. And investment banking would involve more "cutting-edge ideas" and "cutting-edge applications" than commercial banking, he said.

"When we take a look at students who are targeting financial services, the prime jobs are in investment banking," said Mr. Kozicki. "That would be where the glamour, money, and prestige is."

Though he described his experience at First Union as positive, Mr. Noonan said returning to the conservative environment of a traditional bank did not appeal to him.

Even in one of the strongest job markets in memory, Mr. Kozicki said, the competition is stiff for work on Wall Street. Many graduates are more than happy to land jobs with regional investment houses as bankers or research analysts.

Snatching even more students than Wall Street, however, are consulting firms, which draw from finance programs as well as other disciplines. With higher base salaries but without end-of-the-year bonuses, consulting pay for MBAs from the biggest schools is generally on par with investment banking by most accounts. Both offer $100,000 or more to graduates of top MBA programs.

However, consulting firms are offering newly minted MBAs from Alabama's Auburn University salaries in the $50,000 range, said Daniel Gropper, director of the school's graduate program in business. That is up sharply from just a few years ago, Mr. Gropper said, enough to spur substantial student interest.

Unlike at the elite business schools, where commercial banking is not very popular, Auburn has traditionally sent many of its students to regional banks like Compass Bancshares and SouthTrust Corp., both based in Birmingham.

Bank offers to Auburn graduates, often in the high $20,000 or low $30,000 range, lagged those of consulting firms, but until recently only by a few thousand dollars. With the gap widening in the last two or three years, Mr. Gropper said, "I'm watching bank recruiters come in here and get frustrated."

With companies bidding aggressively, this year's MBAs are also signing up with specialty financial services companies and even commercial and industrial companies, often for reasons quite apart from pay.

"I was looking for the best opportunity available that would provide me with the skill set that I need in the future," said Dennis Soares, 27, a University of Southern California MBA candidate. Upon graduation, he will enter a management training program at Charles Schwab & Co. Including signing bonus and base salary, he will make about $100,000 in his first year, he said.

Even at schools whose graduates are unlikely to land offers as lucrative as Mr. Noonan's and Mr. Soares', pay is only one of several criteria students use when looking for a job and deciding whether to accept an offer, campus experts said.

"I find more students seeking a solid employment situation with growth potential," said Laura Mazman, recruiting coordinator for MBA placement services at Loyola University of Chicago.

Consulting firms hired 19% of Loyola graduates last year, drawing the biggest concentration of the school's MBAs. Among the 56% of Loyola MBAs who concentrated in finance, investment banking was the most popular field. But finance grads also are working in manufacturing, telecommunications, pharmaceuticals, and health care, she said.

Donald Lundy, 30, who graduates this spring from USC's business school, considered investment banking briefly but decided against it. "To justify some extra money, I couldn't see working 80 hours a week," he said.

Instead, Mr. Lundy accepted a financial analyst's position with Fannie Mae in Pasadena, Calif. His first-year pay will be about $75,000, he said.

When Mr. Noonan was on his job hunt, he attended many of the campus recruiting programs held by major companies at his school. "I went to everything from the Booz-Allens and McKinseys to marketing at Coca-Cola and Microsoft," he said.

Gradually, he ruled out marketing and operations jobs. He considered in- house corporate finance, and then took a summer job with Coopers & Lybrand, where he saw that client projects can drag on forever and constant travel can be grueling.

Mr. Noonan had not completely ruled out either consulting or commercial banking when he began lining up interviews for permanent employment. But he focused most of his energy on Wall Street.

"I felt if I was going to go back into banking, I wanted to do I- banking," Mr. Noonan said. "Investment banking really is more interesting to me."

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