Tom Neff and Marguerite Markey, graduate students in George Mason University's master of business administration program, were conducting a freewheeling discussion of the stock market's recent bearishness and its meaning for them.

Gallows humor was the order of the evening.

"I understand the retail market in Rolexes is going to be swamped by the secondary {secondhand} market," joked Neff.

"If you can't make it here, go to the Orient. There's a lot happening there," advised Markey.

"I hear there's an opening at Merrill Lynch in Miami," chimed in instructor Jim Sugrue, who was leading the discussion in the finance course he teaches at the Fairfax County university.

Only a few months ago, an MBA degree, which more than 70,000 students across the nation will receive next spring, seemed to many a sure ticket to expensive cars, watches and other accoutrements of the good life.

But when Wall Street came crashing down last week, many MBA students took a fiscal cold shower, according to instructors at local universities.

"They took a big hit when they realized how very uncertain this world of finance is," said Michael Ferri, chairman of the finance department in GMU's graduate business school.

"Everybody just forgot what a rainy day looked like," said Robert Parker, dean of Georgetown University's graduate school of business administration, maintaining that the market's turndown is not an abnormality and that there is "nothing wrong" with Wall Street.

An informal survey this week of students in MBA programs at George Mason, Georgetown and George Washington universities revealed more puzzlement about the future than gloom, but there was a distinct uneasiness that the assumptions of last year, particularly about the availability of jobs, may no longer apply.

Even so, a few students said their appetite for risk has not been diminished by the stock market's gyrations.

When Georgetown offered a "networking" trip to Wall Street this week for its second-year MBA students, half the class of 75 went.

Across town at George Washington, that interest is shared. "I'd still like to be on Wall Street," said GW student Fach Marvi. "There may be more opportunity at the bottom of the business cycle," added classmate Tom Conner.

Toby French was less enthusiastic. "The last two weeks . . . have made me wary," he said, adding that he is now considering a job in manufacturing.

"I would have a lot of trouble losing other people's money," French said. "Having someone call up and say, 'You've lost my entire life savings' -- that really scares me."

For some, though, it's not a question of losing other people's money. Kurt Marks, another business student at GW, said he had hoped to use profits from his stock investments to pay off his student loans. "The stocks I had invested in have taken a beating," he said. "I have to decide whether to sell them now and take a paper loss or keep them and hope things go back up."

"All of a sudden, the future seems real uncertain," said Kevin Hulbert, president of Georgetown's MBA student association, looking ahead to next year's job search.

Indications that the finance industry is shrinking abound. Last week one of Wall Street's biggest investment houses, Salomon Brothers Inc., announced it was laying off 800 people; the field of mergers and acquisitions, a popular proving ground for MBA whiz kids, has all but shut down with the market decline, according to industry analysts.

Hulbert, noting that "there will be far more competition for jobs" in all areas of business, said he is rethinking his career plans and may continue in property management, where he now works part time, rather than pursue investment banking.

Parker, Georgetown's dean, predicted that "there will be the same number of firms coming to campus" to recruit "but they will be far more selective in whom they hire."

The stock market's two-week roller-coaster ride has caused some instructors to reexamine how finance is taught at their universities and why students enroll in graduate business programs.

"Too many students have been going to Wall Street for the wrong reasons, primarily making money," said Parker. "The lure of money is very enticing."

GW finance professor Neil Cohen worries that "we are so quantitative and theoretical in finance that we have little time to study financial history."

Cohen said he had tried to introduce the topic earlier this year and it was met with little enthusiasm from students.

"Now they're very interested," he said. This week he assigned two works to read: John Kenneth Galbraith's "The Great Crash of Nineteen Twenty-Nine" and Ravi Batra's best-seller, "The Great Depression of 1990: Why It's Got to Happen -- How to Protect Yourself."

One of Cohen's students, Susan Jeffers, said she does remember bad times.

"I graduated from college in 1982 when there was a recession," she said.

"My friends were taking jobs as supermarket cashiers."

Jeffers, who works for the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., said she had hoped that GW's MBA program would open up job opportunities, but that she now thinks her work experience may be more valuable than the degree she is paying about $20,000 to get.

"I'm feeling more discouraged about the whole degree," she said.