Carnegie Mellon's Key: Clear Goals

Ken Keeley of the Tepper School says too many MBA students are clueless when it comes to their careers. He's out to cure that

Ken Keeley is executive director of the Career Opportunities Center at Carnegie Mellon's Tepper School of Business (No. 15 on BusinessWeek's 2004 list of Top-30 business schools) in Pittsburgh. Before arriving at CMU 11 years ago, Keeley was the director of the MBA program at the Fisher College of Business at Ohio State University.

Choosing a career goal is the key to having an enduring, fulfilling career. "If students know what they want to do," says Keeler, "they can stick to their guns and put 80% to 90% of their effort directly into achieving that goal." He recently spoke with BusinessWeek Online reporter, Francesca Di Meglio. Here are edited excerpts of their conversation:

Q: What should new MBAs do before getting to campus?


In the applications that students write to get into MBA programs, students are trying to convince the admissions staff that they know exactly what they want to do and how the school will help them do it. But about 60% to 80% of the MBA students who walk through our door are clueless. They know more about what they do not want to do.

Developing a career goal is Step One. Step Two -- and you can't do this unless you have a focus -- is to pick the school that lines up best with your goals. Know the school's strengths and choose accordingly.

Q: Which careers goals don't fit well with the Tepper School's offerings?


Carnegie Mellon, in general, has a great reputation in operations and information systems. Our finance program is the hidden gem. It gets some recognition through various rankings, but I don't think most people understand how good it is.

Q: What are the most innovative services you offer MBAs?


This year, we chiseled out 13 hours of the orientation program exclusively for career services. We included a session on etiquette that was run by a woman who used to be a manager for Merrill Lynch. Later in the week, students tested their networking and etiquette skills at a luncheon with alumni and career-services staff, who periodically provided feedback.

When they graduated from undergraduate institutions, many of our students were heavily sought by employers, because of their engineering and computer-science backgrounds. Things are different when you come out of the MBA program: Graduates are both the product and marketer. We brought in Next Step Partners, [a career counseling firm], which delivered a session on creating a career marketing plan, and ran a case-interview workshop to benefit both first- and second-year students.

Q: Have things changed for career services since March, when the hedge-fund manager and alumnus David Tepper announced a $55 million gift to the school?


Yes. When the economy was hot, the career-services staff was at one end of the building, and the interview rooms were at the other, because there was more room there for recruiters and students. Visiting executives and alumni were physically separated from our staff, and we lost valuable networking opportunities.

Now, we've renovated a portion of the building so that the professional staff and the interview rooms are in the same location. And the interview facilities have a much more corporate look. We're also putting more money toward marketing the school in general and career services in particular.

Q: How do you market your students?


For the first time, we're developing a marketing brochure specifically for companies. The quality of our program is strong, and our graduates do well. But because [our MBA classes are smaller], you are less likely to run into one of our alumni. Highlighting successful alumni in various industry segments creates awareness about the quality of our product.

Q: Which recruiters are coming to campus, and which ones are you trying to attract?


When the high-tech industry was booming, we would place at least 25% of our graduates on the West Coast, but that market has pretty much disappeared in the last two years. We're fighting hard to regain relationships. We just got Intel to commit to meeting students at our California facility, which is outside San Jose.

Q: Do recruiters have a say in the MBA curriculum?


In one form or another, recruiter feedback gets into the curriculum. The dean has an advisory committee that includes corporate executives to provide feedback on the overall operation of the school. Our dean has lunch with recruiters on a fairly consistent basis, which gives him a chance to get blunt feedback.

Q: What is the average starting salary for Tepper grads?


The median starting salary [in 2004] was $85,000, and the mean was $82,115.

Q: Is the job market really recovering?


The obstacles have been reduced. At the moment, 94% of our graduates have at least one job offer, compared to 84% at the same time last year, and about 92% of our graduating MBAs have accepted an offer. More companies are reengaging in the MBA-recruiting process: 178 companies have made offers to graduates, compared to 129 in 2003.

Consulting firms, traditionally the big eaters in the MBA world, came close to disappearing for two or three years. But in 2004, about 21% of our graduates accepted offers in consulting, indicating the industry is returning to a level of health.

Q: How do you help MBAs overcome the obstacles of the still-recovering economy?


Some companies weren't hiring at all, but others weren't doing much recruiting because they had no travel budget. We decided to take the students to the recruiters. Our students traveled on their own nickel, but we conducted interviews at Carnegie Mellon locations in Manhattan and California. We're doing the same in October and January.

Q: How are recent graduates faring?


I don't have any crisp numbers, but we do provide career services to our alumni for life. They don't participate in on-campus recruiting, but we register them and send job leads. In a normal economy, about 100 alumni register [with us]. At the height of the downturn, about 550 alumni registered. A steady stream of people has told us they just accepted new jobs.

Q: What are some trends in today's job market?


Many students at the leading business schools came back to campus with offers from their summer-internship employers. Now, companies are pushing students to make decisions about accepting these offers before we even begin on-campus recruiting [for full-time jobs].

There are guidelines suggesting recruiters refrain from doing that. But given the supply and demand factors, many employers are pushing students for a quick response, and there's not much we can do about it. As counselors, we don't think it's in the best interest of the student or the company.

Q: How do you serve international students?


We've decreased our international population to about 25%. Part of that is in recognition of the visa problems. We value the participation of international students, and we like a broad representation, but we know it's going to be more challenging to look for employment in the U.S. Except for sponsored international students, most would like to find work in the U.S. at least for a couple of years.

If you're an international student and you want a job in the U.S., the job search is exactly the same as if you were a domestic student or permanent resident. But we advise international students to seek companies that have international activity, so that knowing another language and culture is an asset rather than a liability.

Q: What's the best advice you offer students?


Develop a career focus. Then, try to develop the skill set necessary to get to that next step. You're always looking for a job. You must work on making yourself a valuable member of a professional network. Get active in your profession on a local, regional, or national level. Stay visible. Meet people. Do good things for them so that when opportunities start to develop, people think of you as a resource.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.