From Cornell to Career

Karin Ash, career-management director at the Johnson B-school, explains why focused, well-prepared grads do best at the job search

Karin Ash is the director of the Career Management Center at the Johnson Graduate School of Management at Cornell University. Ash has a long history with Cornell, dating back to her days as a PhD candidate studying educational psychology with a concentration in organizational behavior. She led career services at Cornell's School of Industrial & Labor Relations from 1985 to 1999 and ran the greater university's Career Services Center from 1999 to 2002. She took the reins at the B-school in July.

In the last 11 months, Ash has created the comprehensive Career Management Program to help MBAs find internships and jobs. She was also recently appointed to the board of directors for the MBA Career Services Council, an international organization of MBA career-services professionals. On June 4, she spoke with Mica Schneider, BusinessWeek Online's management education reporter. Here are edited excerpts of their conversation:

Q: Your résumé covers a number of roles in career counseling. How does your work with MBAs compare to the years you spent at the undergraduate level?


It feels like a different world. At the MBA level, most of the students have had four to five years of work experience. Even though they may not know exactly where they fit in the business world, they know they want to be in business. Some know that they want a position related to marketing or finance, but they may not know exactly what they want to do in those fields. We help them clearly define their personal statement and their brief synopsis of work experience, and [teach them how to communicate] that to an employer.

Rather than reaching out to new and current employers, we spend more time on the students. They have to be primed before they can reach out to employers. Not every job they want is listed in a classified ad, so [MBAs] have to search for it through networking. But if students are unable to convey what they want, their success level is lower.

Q: You've got a good vantage point across a number of B-schools as a board member of the MBA Career Services Council. How do Cornell MBAs stack up against the competition?


Mostly, I'm familiar with the top-25 schools, because we e-mail each other frequently. We're right on par with those schools.

MBA recruiting has been recessed, rather than depressed, in most areas of the country. California was hit the hardest two years ago, so that area stands out as being the biggest challenge for students. But most metropolitan areas are recovering to a degree, and that's where the jobs are.

Q: How has the MBA careers office changed under your direction?


The office used to be based around on-campus recruiting. Because it's a time-consuming affair to host employers, there wasn't room in the schedule to do much else. Now, we're spending much more time preparing students to do an independent job search and not to rely too strongly on on-campus recruiting.

The most effective way to find a job is through an independent job search: going after what you want, where you want it. I don't, in any way, want to diminish on-campus recruiting, because it's wonderful. But most of the companies recruiting on campus are large companies, and not every student is interested in working at a large company.

Q: You seem to put a lot of emphasis on preparing MBAs for their job hunt.


We have a career-management course that begins before the MBAs arrive. Beginning at orientation, we hold a weekly [careers] class through the fall semester. Although not all of the sessions are mandatory, we strongly encourage students to participate. The majority attend most of the classes, but halfway through we begin to lose attendance with the onslaught of exams and papers.

In the past year or two, more recruiters -- not only ones from consulting firms -- have begun asking case-type questions, whereas in previous years recruiters focused more on behavioral-based recruiting. Students can rehearse their responses to behavioral questions, because they are presenting examples from their experiences. For instance, in a behavioral interview, students would be asked, "Tell me about a time you solved a complex business problem." In a case interview, the recruiter might state, "Here's the situation (described in some detail). Tell me how you would solve this." The students are being judged less on their experiences, and more on their critical-thinking abilities.

So, next year we're adding sessions on analytical problem solving. We're encouraging students to practice problem solving, case-type presentations for their interviews. Students need to understand the frameworks for solving problems. They also need practice in presenting how they would approach a problem, even if they don't have a solution.

Currently, the students' skills in handling case interviews are varied. Some have consulting backgrounds and are well practiced. Others who have worked in technology development or implementation, for example, are practiced in solving technological issues but not in framing solutions to a complex business issue.

Also, in the 2001-02 school year we implemented a blitz initiative. The career center staff, a few faculty members, some associate deans, and the dean sit down with students, one-on-one, to assess where the students are in their job search, their strategy, and where they need help. These blitz sessions are in addition to the regular one-on-one appointments advisers have with students to review their résumés, help them assess their career focus, and refine their interviewing skills. Because the Johnson School is smaller in size, we are able to provide this type of individual attention.

Q: What different skills are MBA recruiters looking for in this market?


They're not looking for different skills, but different levels of experience. So a recruiter may say, "We're seeking students who can start day one in a high-level job and hit the ground running." In peak [recruiting] years, companies would take any bright students and train them. Now, there's no one left at companies to train the [MBAs].

Q: In 2002, just 67% of Cornell's MBAs had a job offer by graduation. How will the class of 2003 compare?


Right now, 65.2% of the graduates have found jobs, though 70.4% of our U.S. students have found jobs. Just 52.1% of our non-U.S. students (30% of the class) have found jobs.

For first-year internships, 83% of U.S. citizens have offers, vs. 67% of international students.

At the beginning of this year, we were predicting that the job market would be off-mark, a little tougher than last year. It turns out that it was difficult for the class of 2003, but this summer there were more internship opportunities for first-years than in 2002.

Q: What's your outlook for the grads' job prospects three months after graduation?


Last year, we jumped from 67% [job placements] to 78% by September. I'm hoping we'll do the same or better this year.

Q: In 2002, graduates reported median starting salaries of $85,000. How will that figure change in 2003?


Compensation packages are about the same as last year. This year, overall salary averages are $84,432, but the average among U.S. students is $86,238.

Q: What are the options for international students?


Some of them are seeking project work in our project team initiative this summer. This program places students at companies lacking the full-time staff to do short-term assignments. Some projects aren't paid, but it gives students a chance to get some experience and is offered to both the second-year and the first-year students.

There were about 40 companies in the pool we e-mailed asking for possibilities, but the companies that have posted [short-term summer] jobs are Advanced Education, GenTek, Hearst Publications, Jane Street Capital, Museum of the Earth, and Roche Vitamins. Most recently, we had two students placed with Aramark.

Q: Aside from the summer projects, what advice do you offer international students?


This year it has been an uphill battle to find a job in the U.S., but it can be done with a lot of hard work. It's difficult because companies are restricting their overall hiring and are less compelled to go through the sponsoring process for a student to obtain an H1-B visa. The process is time-consuming and there are costs attached.

The international students are a wonderful group, and we cherish the added value they bring to Cornell, but they cannot count on a job in the U.S. Before applying to a U.S. B-school, they have to think about the fact that they may need to return home to work after graduation.

Q: How is Cornell's alumni network abroad?


It's good. Every spring, we hold an alumni symposium in Europe. The Career Management Center's international student adviser travels to Europe annually to visit alumni and employers. She coordinates a mentoring program, linking about 40 international and domestic students with alumni in Europe. We're about to start a similar [mentoring] project in Asia.

Q: Just less than half of the class found jobs in finance or economics in 2002, with an additional 17% pursuing jobs in marketing. Is it safe to say that these figures reflect Cornell's strengths?


More than anything else, that was a sign of how the economy affected the investment banks, consulting, and high-tech companies. We haven't broken out the job placements by functional area yet, but I assume they'll be about the same as last year.

Q: Johnson chooses 30 top students each year as Park Leadership Fellows. How do the Park Fellows fare in their job hunt vs. the rest of the MBA class? [Park Fellows receive full-tuition scholarships, stipends, and take extra courses to develop their leadership skills.]


I haven't pulled that information out yet. Some Park Fellows highlight it on their résumé. Some don't. I don't know that it becomes the leading factor in every job interview, but it's something they're proud of.

Q: Your office went to great lengths this year to find jobs for MBAs. In March, the school hosted an event called Just about Jobs, and flew recruiters to Cornell's campus in Ithaca, N.Y., courtesy of jets donated by S.C. Johnson and another alumnus. Will this become the norm when times are bad?


I hope that bad times aren't the norm, and that the economy improves. We'll always try to do something special to help students when the economy isn't thriving -- first, to help students with their job search, and second, to boost morale, which we do by inviting the entire [graduate] school to embrace a particular program.

Students participate and invite companies to attend, and faculty and staff offer the names of their contacts. Alumni also were pivotal to the success of the March event. This type of group collaboration helps combat the negative mood so prevalent in the media, which quickly spreads among students facing rejections during their job search.

The event was a great success and created buzz in the school, on campus, and in the media. The MBAs were so appreciative, and MBAs aren't always the easiest group to please. The companies were glad to be here and were extremely complimentary of the students. As of yesterday, we had 24 job offers from the 25 companies that attended the event.

The recruiters flew into Ithaca in the morning and flew out the evening of that same day. They appreciated the efficiency of the day, since typically recruiters must commit two to three days away from the office, including travel time, information sessions, and interviewing. (A Northeast company can manage a visit in one to two days, but recruiters from the West Coast need two to three days.)

Q: What advice can you offer people who are headed to B-school in the future?


There are three important elements of a successful business school experience. First, you're probably going to have a more productive two years if you arrive at B-school with a clear career focus. If you enter with a vague idea of what you want to do, there isn't that much time before you have to begin presenting yourself to recruiters. Employers hold briefing sessions in the early fall and already at that time are making decisions on students who are a good fit for their companies. Six months after entering business school, students are interviewing for internships.

Compared to undergraduate education, there is a very limited amount of time to explore [your career] options at a business school. If you're seeking a career change and you're vague about what that career is, you will find that obtaining an internship and ultimately a job is much more challenging than if you are focused.

Second, know your passions. From the time you arrive at business school until the time you leave, build a network of contacts with your classmates, professors, and former employers to support your career aspirations. Focus on why you're returning to school, what you hope to get out of the experience, and how you can leverage your experience and skills. Know your passions. Employers seek candidates who stand out because of their passion for the job function, the industry, and the company. This ultimately becomes more of a deciding factor than your academic grades or standardized scores.

Finally, you have to be able to communicate clearly. This is of primary importance for all students and becomes very important for students who haven't had much experience working with customers and clients. Excellent communication skills will be expected in your next job. Companies are seeking the future leaders of their companies, and leaders cannot inspire others unless they communicate well.

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