Karen Dowd, senior director of MBA career development at Notre Dame's Mendoza College of Business, has been on the job for less than four years. But though she's only a few years into the role, she has put her mark on nearly every aspect of the career development office. By having her department revamp its Web site to make career resources more accessible to students, adding new program offerings and making some mandatory for students, and implementing an official mentoring program, she hopes Mendoza students will be able to continue their strong record of job placement, even in a rough job market.
Mendoza also has a distinct advantage in drawing recruiters to its campus because of Notre Dame's famous football team. Dowd says whether it's to root for or jeer at the Fighting Irish, recruiters jump at invitations to bring their families to the school's well-attended games and pregame tailgate parties. Mendoza students, in turn, get an informal but valuable chance to make an impression on representatives of the companies where they want to work. Recently, Dowd spoke to BusinessWeek's Francesca Levy to discuss what, besides football, keeps recruiters coming back to campus.
What does the career development office do to prepare students for the job market and help them with their job search?
We're a small program, so we're able to offer customized help to students. We have an active program of coaching, where a student is assigned to an individual coach by function, and we have an active program of education and programs throughout the year, so students get an opportunity to develop skills and get access to resources to help them connect to services. We're also always reaching out proactively to corporate partners to generate job opportunities for students.
Tell me about the one-on-one coaching you provide students?
We assign every student who's seeking employment to a coach. We make those coaching assignments by function so the student can interact with an expert from the industry, someone who really knows and understands the function of the industry. We also put undecided students through a series of self-assessments to help them understand their past and opportunities that might be open to people with their background.
Who are the coaches?
They are individuals who are highly successful in their own careers and who have shown a commitment to helping others develop as professionals. What I've found in this business is that there are people in the industry who are excellent executives but lack the people skills to help develop careers. So we look for both qualities: a strong background that's of interest to MBA students, and those who have shown this orientation toward mentoring and helping develop careers.
How does Mendoza help students who are transitioning from one career to another?
Well, it's absolutely essential that they obtain a summer internship. We don't use the word "mandatory" but we tell them one-on-one if they're making a career change, they have to get an internship in their new area of interest rather than their former area of expertise.
We believe in being honest and realistic with students: that it's going to take hard work on their part and they need to start early.
How has the current economic climate affected the job of the career services department?
We just had our first company rescind an offer, so we know we're not going to be immune to the downturn, but aside from that, we've done surveys showing that companies are still very interested in hiring grads, and we have had a healthy interest in our students.
The rescinded offer: What industry did that reflect?
It was from the auto industry, so it was fairly predictable. What we advise our students to do is focus on companies that are growing. But it's one thing to say that, and it's another to get an offer from a good company where you think you'll be O.K. What we're hearing formally is that mid- to senior-level people are more vulnerable than the entry level. MBAs are still considered to add a lot of value to companies. The standard party line is that companies are not going to reduce hiring. We've actually seen an increase in companies recruiting on campus and posting jobs with us.
How do alumni help Mendoza students with their job searches?
At Notre Dame, alumni play a huge role in our success. We're fortunate to be known for the loyalty of our alums. They help us get on the radar for corporations that are hiring, and we utilize them as mentors to our students and practice interviewers.
What's that mentoring relationship like?
If a mentor's background is related to the student's preferred career area, the mentor agrees to spend time with the student in person, by phone, or by e-mail, advising them over a year or two on all sorts of professional matters, from course selection to internship leads to résumé content to negotiation strategies. We leave it to the mentor and student to make the arrangements to be in contact with each other. You'll see some mentor relationships that are very robust in terms of frequency and the mentor's role in the student's decision-making, and then others that are less structured and less frequent. A few students even get jobs through the mentoring program, but that's not the point of the program.
Does that mentoring typically extend beyond graduation?
We just piloted it in the past year, but we certainly have heard from graduates that they plan to stay in touch with their mentors. Some relationships will end, and the mentor will take on a more recent student, and some will stay in touch.
What special services do you provide for international students?
We do offer some programs and resources that are geared specifically toward international students. We have an employer database for them, an international employer newsletter that guides the student through the visa process, and we offer some job search programs throughout the year, and internally through contract instructors. Also, the university brings in an immigration attorney for students, both undergrad and grad, to talk about visa and employment issues.
Do international students face special challenges?
This year has been the most problematic for international students in many years because of the change in the quota system. We want to be responsible to our students, so we spend lot of time counseling them on a dual search strategy: pursuing a job both here and in their home country, or another country where visa requirements may be less stringent. We're very realistic with them about the chances of getting a visa. All students should have a dual search strategy, whether international or not, but we probably advise international students to do that earlier than others.
What opportunities and services do you offer alumni of Mendoza?
We do have a position within our office dedicated to working with alumni as well as our EMBA students. And through this resource we offer a job board and a résumé book to employers. Both of these are specifically focused on the experienced candidate job market
You were saying that there's more volatility at the middle and senior levels. Has that come into play for your alums and EMBAs?
There has been a slight uptick in EMBAs looking at other options, whether voluntary or involuntary. In our travels to employers, we're hearing more and more from alumni who want to use us as one of the resources available to them. We're fortunate to be able to offer that.
You've been on board for three and a half years. It sounds like you've made a lot of changes since you started.
We have. We revamped the Web site, and there's now a solid base of career information available to students on the site. Coaching has been reengineered and many elements of the program are now required, and most are new. We have several trademarked processes we use to engage students and recruiters that have come online within the past few years.
Many MBA career services offices are preparing their students for recruitment earlier and earlier. When does the process start at Mendoza?
I'm laughing, because we are in career development all year round. We're onboarding in May, right after we've placed recent MBA graduates. You have to laugh at it or else you cry. Companies are coming to the campus earlier, requesting résumés earlier, and listing postings with us all year round, not just during the traditional recruiting season.
We're also fortunate to have a very well-known football team. You love them or hate them, but everyone knows them. It means we have great interest from recruiting companies in being part of athletic events. We invite them to games, and we have tailgates that recruiters are welcome to with their families. It's a good opportunity for fun and recruiting.
What else contributes to Mendoza's brand for potential employers?
We've had recent strong performances in B-school case competitions across the country. We've placed in the top three in at least seven competitions this past year, and we were competing against and collaborating with some of the top schools. And our recruiter surveys tell us that students have strong interpersonal and communication skills, problem-solving skills, and team skills. Our students are more involved in leadership than many other business schools. Retention is strong. They tend to stay on their jobs longer than some of the job offerings you'll see at other schools.
What industries do you see Mendoza MBAs graduating into?
Roughly 40% are in finance, there are probably 20% in marketing, and almost 20% in the general management or "other" category. Our top hirers are places like IBM (IBM), General Electric (GE), Procter & Gamble (PG), Kraft (KFT), Booz Allen Hamilton, Deloitte, Citigroup (C), and UBS (UBS).
Have sites like Facebook and LinkedIn, which have started to change professional networking, and other new technologies, affected what you do?
Yes, in a positive way. Our office has a Facebook page, which helps us link to alumni and recruiters, and to stay current. We're on LinkedIn quite a bit, looking for connections and resources to help our students, and looking for search firms on LinkedIn. We did a Webinar for students this summer for the first time, and it was a fresh presentation for our prospective students, introducing them to our office and our patented career development approach.
Finally, how do you bring recruiters to campus, and what do you tell them about Mendoza students?
The Notre Dame brand is unique and very well known, so when companies recruit, they know they're getting students with high integrity, who are smart, and who are good people. And who are interested in helping not just themselves but others succeed. That's what recruiters tell us they know they're getting.