Olin Shows Students All Their Options

Undergrads at Washington University's business school earn credit with career exploration exercises, and experience via internships abroad

If you study at Washington University's Olin School of Business, you could earn credit for completing career exploration exercises. The school offers sophomores a for-credit class called "Managing Your Business Career," which about 80% of students take. A major point emphasized in the course is that the career search is not only driven by skills, but also by interests and values, says Jim Beirne, associate dean and director of the Weston Career Center at Olin.

For undergrads who enroll in the class, and even those who don't, personal attention from center advisers is stressed. Because of Olin's small size—there are only about 150 graduates each year—Weston's staffers can work closely with all students looking for help with internship search. Beirne says about 90% of students use the center at some point.

Beirne, who has been at Wash U. for about two years, has an interesting perspective to offer undergraduates. He worked at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School in career development for about 10 years before going to the corporate side of the field. Beirne ran recruiting for North and South America at Hewlett-Packard (HPQ) and directed university recruiting at General Mills (GIS) (see BusinessWeek.com, 5/15/06, "B-School Food for Thought at General Mills").

Now, he's back in the academic world. "I had a chance at a really, really interesting university that's very, very, good [and] that wants to be even better, to take my experience and apply it to the school and career services and administration of the school," Beirne says.

Beirne recently spoke to BusinessWeek.com reporter Julie Gordon. Here are edited excerpts of their conversation:

A large part of the for-credit career class is self-evaluation. How is that performed?

We use two sets of tests and instruments that we believe very strongly in. One is called Career Leader. It was developed by a couple of career counselors at Harvard Business School over the last 15, 20 years. Career Leader is really good for future business managers—whether they're for-profit or not-for-profit—because it isolates those capabilities and helps people understand how their interests match up with people who have been successful in those types of careers. We also use something called the Strong Interest. It's much broader.

When you say "interests," do you mean outside hobbies such as playing soccer, or business-related interests such as working with people?

Interest in activities such as, are you more interested in counseling and mentoring or in theory development or managing people in relationships or influencing people through language and ideas? And the way these guys have worked this out is, it's kind of rank order. You can't just say, 'I'm interested in everything' or 'I'm interested in nothing.' Your interests are all relative.

The class is taken sophomore year, but is there any career preparation students should do freshman year?

The short answer is they should get accustomed to the whole college scene. We don't want to hit them on Day One saying, 'All right, you've got to think about your career.'

What misconceptions do people have about Wash. U. and Olin?

We've been ranked in the top 10, 11, 12 universities in the country for quite a while. And most people don't know who we are because our footprint is not that large. We're a medium-sized university and a very small business school.

But the companies that recruit here—Goldman Sachs (GS), McKinsey, General Mills, JPMorgan (JPM)—they know the type of talent we have.

How can students use the small size to their advantage?

Well, I've got three full-time advisers. So if you think of it as numbers, whenever they want to see us, they can. I expect my advisers to be at least as good as the teachers that are the tenured faculty members, since they are teaching a course. We're definitely a part of their lives. We're not a job shop. We're part of their overall education in terms of establishing and managing their careers.

How can Olin students compete with graduates of bigger "brand-name" schools such as Wharton (see BusinessWeek.com, 5/9/06, "The Wharton Way to Wall Street")?

Well, they do. Our major hirers this year are Ernst & Young, Deloitte Consulting, General Mills, Goldman Sachs, Banc of America Securities (BAC), JPMorgan Chase (JPM), Teach for America (see BusinessWeek.com, 4/25/06, "Giving Back Before Going Forward")

The fun thing is that rather than just bringing all those companies here, and most of them come here, we teach our students how to figure out what they want through some of these assessments and then training them. And they go out and find them. And that's what we're known for—being very customized and personalized.

You said that students go out and talk to companies that do not recruit at Olin. I feel as if many students wait for recruiters to come to campus. What do you think?

To put it in perspective, we now have 60 companies coming on campus for our undergrads and we have about 140-some students looking for jobs. So there's one company for every three students but fewer than half of the students go to the companies that come on campus.

People this past year went to the NBA—not as a player, but as management. They went to the Peace Corps, the Council of Economic Advisers. So it's pretty broad in terms of what they're interested in.

We do have an interesting program junior year. This year, we expect about half of our juniors to go overseas for their internships in the spring semester. And most of them take place in London or France or Germany, some in Asia. The students go to school but then, after they go to school, they intern in a number of the companies that I just mentioned. Then they come back in the summer and they do an internship. They're very market-savvy.

How does the foreign experience give undergrads an edge and help them understand the global market (see BusinessWeek.com, 8/24/06, "Global Fever")?

I think there's a noticeable change in maturity. We go over and visit them in London and they're up at 6:30, 7 in the morning dressed up in a suit, they get on the tube, they go to work, they come home in the evening. That's not the time that juniors on campus get up and get dressed in suits. And it's like, 'Wow, who are these people?' By the time they come back as seniors, they're changed people.

Does the career center help students find their internships abroad?

The school helps them find the internships. We get them ready and train them for their interviews to get those positions and work with the folks that help get them placed.

Do many schools do this type of internship-based travel and study abroad experience together?

No. Usually, junior year is—if you do go abroad, which is a fabulous experience—it's not a real-world work experience. It's…let me try out another language, culture, food, and understand how to be bicultural, bilingual.

But this is a combination. They go to school and then school ends and then they start working for 12 weeks or something like that.

Do you have any career advice for students who know they want to pursue an MBA in the near future?

Having been in this business for 20 years, as I look back and ask people 5 and 10 years later what was the most important thing about what you learned after you got out of undergrad, it's not that marquee name of the company, it's not the title, it's certainly not the compensation. It's, did you have good mentors, good supervisors?

Were you challenged? Were you stretched? Did you get put in situations where you might fail and grow in that? And if they have—and you can find those situations in great companies that we all know and in no-name companies—but if they've got that experience, it really shows in their applications to business schools.

Say you do work for a startup or small company that most employers have not heard of and you apply for your second job. How can you make your résumé get noticed when the big name isn't on there?

That's a part of what we teach in the class. It's know yourself, know what the company is looking for. What you have is a professional approach that demonstrates the research you've done, your enthusiasm, and how motivated you are to work for that organization. It's been proven that if you are well-matched with your interests and values and what motivates you in a job, you will succeed.

Sometimes it's hard for students to match their interests to a specific career goal. Any advice?

That's why, in establishing careers and managing them, sometimes it's a two-step process. You know, people want to get into investment banking. It's very hard to get into investment banking at the MBA level unless you've had some kind of exposure to Wall Street or some financial analysis. If you've never done it before, the banks today just aren't interested.

But sometimes it's a two-step process where the first step is to get some experience in financial analysis in your internship so that you are valued. And sometimes it takes a couple of years before you demonstrate how good you are in something, because somebody gives a chance and you get to be well known and then you can move more toward what you really want to do.

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