Washington University Careers Q&A

A talk with the career director at the Olin Business School in St. Louis

Karen Heise has served as the career director at Washington University's Olin Business School in St. Louis for the past six years. She studied business education at Eastern Illinois University. Before her current position, she worked in recruiting and human resources management for Capgemini and Towers Perrin.

Among the strengths of the MBA degree at Olin are its customized programs, Heise says, where students take only one semester of required classes. Once the students choose a concentration, in, say, finance or marketing, they are able to personalize the program based on their interests and enter the job market with a set of specific skills that helps them stand out in the job market.

Heise spoke with BusinessWeek's Andrea Castillo about resources for students at Olin and preparing MBAs for the job market. An edited transcript of their interview follows.

What are some of the strengths of the MBA program at Wash U? Are there any special programs or opportunities available to students there?

The strengths of the MBA program are the faculty, the curriculum, which includes critical thinking, innovation, leadership, and some new classes that are industry-specific, like entertainment management and sports management. We have classes that integrate all of the functions of business. Probably the most differentiating factor is that our curriculum is very customized. We only have one semester of required classes. Otherwise, students can take the classes that they want, based on their own interests, or where they feel they need to strengthen some skill gaps.

What are the advantages to specialization in an MBA program?

Everyone in the MBA program identifies a concentration. It gives people an area of depth, a function that they then can offer to the marketplace. In a finance concentration, the curriculum around that concentration will build specific skills relevant to finance, or marketing, or operations. Basically, all of our students concentrate in something, and it gives them a depth of ability in a certain function to offer to the marketplace. Some of our students have two concentration areas. Some choose a concentration called general management, which means they're basically going to be well-rounded and not specifically dive into any one function.

Have there been any changes or improvements to the career center recently?

We have new technology that we're implementing this year, CAREERlink. That is a new tool that supports on-campus recruiting, and it offers employers a one-stop place to post positions and have exposure to a broad population of students. We also have a career course that's not all that new, but some schools don't have it. It's a required career course that all MBAs go through their first semester that specifically helps students create a career action plan.

It's midsummer. What are the job and internship offers looking like this year vs. last year?

Salaries are above last year. Salaries are probably up by a couple thousand dollars as the median. The median last year was probably $86,000, and this year the median is $90,000 for MBAs. [The percentage of students] with offers is down probably by about 5% at the same time last year, so compensation-wise it seems pretty healthy. We don't see any changes, due by the market, in what companies are willing to pay for an MBA, but we do see fewer of them hiring our students in the normal cycle. We've still got some students who are available for employment.

Would you say that is based on the economy, or any other reason for this?

I think the economy is a big factor. We've had several situations where students had an offer and thought they were going to a company and then the company said: "We don't have it in the budget to have this position." I think some of it is in the market conditions, because the people that we still have available are really strong, so it's not because of the quality, it's more about the market being soft.

What are some of the more popular functions and industries that MBAs find jobs in?

Functions would probably be finance, marketing, and consulting. For industries it's probably financial services, still, even though the financial services industry isn't all that healthy, and consumer goods and consulting. Students are much more interested in energy and biofuels, sustainability of the environment. They may gravitate toward an industry or companies that have sustainable values, because students have the same focus on doing good things in the community and in the environment.

What are some of top recruiters at Olin?

Deloitte, Monsanto (MON), ExxonMobil (XOM), Frito-Lay, Nestlé (NESR), Boston Scientific (BSX), Wachovia (WB), Anheuser-Busch (BUD).

What do you do to attract recruiters to campus?

We do road shows, we take students to the market to show [employers] how great our students are, and that really does attract them to come to campus. We actually have events through the year that brings employers and students together, not necessarily for on-campus recruiting. We do six a year: three in the fall and three in the spring.

We also stay very close to our network of alumni. There are a lot of recruiting activities and programs. And then our dean travels the world. We take trips across the year to various markets to meet with companies and give more visibility to Olin. We do a lot of branding and public relations of the school.

What are some of the strengths of Olin students?

Their work ethic, their leadership capabilities, their analytical thinking—they're smart as whips—and their team skills. The whole curriculum is very team-oriented, so I guess those things come to mind immediately to me.

One of the differentiating things about our school is that we truly are a community, all working in the same direction. We're all doing recruiting, we're all talking to alumni, we're all talking to prospective students. I did a prospective student event, and I'm in the career office, so we are very integrated in attracting good talent and matching them with good employers, however we can make that happen.

How does Washington University prepare students to work in a global economy?

In the curriculum we have global cases, a global component embedded across all of the classes. So for example, it may be a marketing class, and it's a case involving a company that's global, like Procter & Gamble. We embed some global business problems into the classroom, and we do that intentionally through the faculty.

What is the percentage of international students that you have?

Typically about 35% of full-time MBA's are international students.

What role does entrepreneurship play at the Olin Business School?

A pretty big one. We have a really strong entrepreneurship program here, and most of the students who are attracted to Olin have some level of entrepreneurship in what they're interested in doing, long-term and short-term.

Tell me about the Skandalaris Center for Entrepreneurial Studies.

We utilize our students to help create business plans for companies in the marketplace.

We have businesses in the community and outside of the community that come to us with an idea and they look to our entrepreneurial program to help them find resources to help these potential companies build business plans, put together strategy.

How do you help students prepare for job interviews?

All of our MBA students go through a required class. The foundation of it is to have a strategy and an action plan around their career, rather than let the market dictate what happens to them. We also have mock interviews. We have staff resources here, and their profession is counseling, coaching, and career management.

We also help our students link into what I call our functional experts in the marketplace. We don't expect our career services department to know everything about industries and functions, but we are able to connect our students into the market and get them connected with people out there, typically alumni, who can give them even a deeper view of a profession.

What is the biggest mistake students make in their job search?

I would say the biggest mistake is they think they have to get it done really fast. They think: "I need my résumé by Friday. I need to be calling people by Saturday," but they haven't really thought through why and what they really want. They haven't been really thoughtful about it, so they kind of race to the finish line. "I've got to get out there and circuit some interviews." But our philosophy is that you have to be really thoughtful about that. I would say one mistake is that they race to the finish line too fast.

Do you see any new trends in the way students are approaching the job search process?

Obviously, they're more technology enabled, so we see more students spending time on LinkedIn or other social networks. I would say their interests seem to be more a little bit holistic. Every year it changes more toward making a difference in the marketplace, not necessarily only getting a good job. Also, how they use technology is how they're becoming more dominant. For example, we're spending more time on some intranet resources so we can get away from newsletters and e-mails and more just to Web sites and technology enablement for information.

Is there anything else MBAs should keep in mind during the job-hunting process?

There are so many resources available to any of our students or any MBA students beyond just the career center or just the alumni. It's a little overwhelming to many. So I would say take a look at the broad landscape of what's available to them. There's a whole lot of things they can choose from.

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