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Careers Q&A August 21, 2008, 9:33AM EST

Career Placement at Vanderbilt

Joyce Rothenberg, director of Owen's Career Management Center, talks about virtual recruiting, international MBA networking, and much more

Vanderbilt's Owen School of Management sees roughly half its graduates move into functional finance careers, while the rest mainly enter the consulting and marketing industries. To get them there, the school's Career Management Center covers a lot of ground, guiding students through selecting and personalizing a career path and doing targeted outreach to companies that don't recruit on campus.

Joyce Rothenberg became director of the Career Management Center two years ago, after two decades spent working first as an independent research consultant, and then in corporate strategy and marketing. A business school graduate herself (Darden '85), Rothenberg had always imagined she'd end up teaching at a business school. Several years back, she inquired at Owen about teaching market research or strategy classes. Instead she was hired for a research project, and after growing in her role, and spending a lot of time learning from and interacting with students, she applied for an open position as head of the center.

In her two years as director, she has found new ways to organize and direct the career-search process for Owen students. Later this year, the center will roll out a new model that organizes what she sees as the essential skills for an MBA job search—résumé preparation, job-search strategy, and interviewing—into logical modules. Recently, she spoke to BusinessWeek's Francesca Levy about what gives Vanderbilt students a career edge.

What does the Career Management Center do for Vanderbilt students?

We work on several dimensions with the students. One is helping them develop their own career strategy: figuring out where their interests lie, what work they're passionate about, and assessing their skills for that work. Then there's the job strategy piece. We think through career maps with them, and we do individual coaching. It's kind of a continuum. You have to start by looking at your own interests and passions and capabilities, and then match yourself up against it. Is it realistic and reasonable? And can an MBA degree, with the right summer internship, get you there? If not, what's an interim goal you can work for, and what's Step 2? It involves a lot of coaching. We do workshops around résumé writing, interviewing, correspondence, and things like how to do a case interview. But it's really more about the one-on-one attention.

What is the career counselor-to-student ratio?

There are roughly 100 students per counselor, including the first- and second-year students. The higher demand is in the first year. Those students are doing an awful lot of self-examination, so the workload is higher. In the second year they're trying to narrow down their job search, or they're sorting through multiple offers. We also use outside career coaches for peak demand periods. First we do the résumé, and then we sign up career coaches to do résumé checks.

It seems as though there's an emphasis at Vanderbilt on targeting very specific areas of industry. How does the Career Management Center use this specialization?

Our role is to support the school's strategy. For example, we added the health-care MBA a few years back. The addition has meant the Career Management Center has done employer development in the health-care space. We've spent a lot of resources, in terms of hours, calls, visiting, and getting to know health-care employers. And we've had to build those relationships almost from scratch. A lot of insurance companies and health-care services companies weren't strong MBA hirers, so we've had to teach them.

How have you done that?

We've done a lot of face-to-face calls, and had a lot of conversations. We've strategized with them. I've put together a how-to guide to internships for health-care employers. We help a company think about, "How might I use an MBA in the summer?" We'll look at a company's project idea and tell them whether they can complete it in their time frame—we actually act as a kind of consultant. The health-care space is still a work in progress but we're having a lot of success at it with the students. In other areas, like human and organizational performance, we have more demand than we have students. The way MBAs are used in that space is not in the classic human resources role. They are much more analytic and strategic than a human resources grad would be.

Your career-services department focuses on clubs and targeted trainings and coursework throughout the MBA experience as a way to prepare students for specific jobs. Describe how that works.

We work with the clubs to help them bring in speakers. A lot of times they'll bring in speakers to talk about careers in specific areas, and we help make that happen. The finance club runs a lot of work sessions for the finance students. Within the structure of a club we have little sub-clubs like private equity, investments, and corporate finance. The students in that sector help the new students understand the technology skills and what you need to know for that sector. Finance is the biggest bulk of our students, so the support of the finance clubs is really critical.

And there will be differences this coming year. We're now thinking about the skill sets students need for MBA interviewing in terms of logical modules. The first big activity set is getting a good MBA-level résumé done. It's not the logical first step, but given how early in the year companies expect résumé books, it's the first thing you have to do. Right off the bat, you have to show demonstrable skill sets for the job you're going after. The next module surrounds job-search strategy. It's a self-assessment, it's talking about needs, what they want to pursue, doing that gap analysis, and getting a strategy in place. The third major module is around interviewing skills. It's a combination of workshops, peer coaching, and working with the CMC staff. It's structured and time-frame oriented. Students are logically working through a sequence.

We also do free Training the Street sessions, and they provide three sessions, in essence. One is on valuation, one's on financial modeling, and one's on leveraged buyouts. Students pay a minor contribution, but we take care of most of the cost. We bring them in before interviewing season, so students have it under their belt before they interview. In October they go to New York for a week for finance jobs, and they get a nice broad brush of finance careers. The consulting club does structured work around case interviewing and around marketing interviewing.

How does the work of the Career Management Center fit into the curriculum?

Some MBA programs require a class in careers; we structure career management outside of the classroom setting. Over the years, CMC has been both in the curriculum and out of it. We're currently in an out-of-curriculum phase. Students at one point complained about having to take classes on careers—they thought they knew everything they needed to know about interviewing for jobs. But the current student leadership is saying career management should be a required part of the curriculum.

We talk about career strategy, and those conversations really have to be one-on-one. We do fairly classic workshops on résumés and correspondence. We talk about how you write a prospecting e-mail versus an e-mail to someone you know. We do MBA interviewing and behavioral interviewing, and we talk about using the STAR format to your advantage. We also do case interviewing, and we bring in outside folks on networking. Networking seems to be something that's hardest for students to grasp. It's particularly hard for international students.

Is that because it's hard to be outgoing and sell yourself, and because doing that is a very American trait?

It's very American, and it's often considered inappropriate behavior in other countries. So we do specific workshops for internationals to acclimate them to American culture. We talk about how to read people, how to chit-chat.

Business schools have been starting the career preparations earlier and earlier in the MBA process (, 6/8/08). Is that true for Vanderbilt?

We started early to begin with. For years we have sent out a summer prep packet to students; it has a whole thing on their résumé, and the Owen template. The other thing they do before they get here is a career leader assessment. They do research on potential careers that have interested them. We counsel them to do as much work as possible on the soul-searching side of things.

Are most Owen students ready to start early, jump into their own career search, or do you ever have to get buy-in from them?

It's a spectrum, from those who know where they want to work and are working on it, to those who wake up after they've graduated, and everything in between. There are always some stragglers you have to prod. But some of our incoming students have already asked for help, so we sent them the summer prep packet early. That didn't happen last year, so there's an urgency that students are feeling, too.

You also identify the key competencies necessary for specific job types. How does Owen help students develop these skills?

A lot of it happens through an early strategy assessment, and then the appointments that happen later. We say, what are the gaps in what you've done, and how do you fill those gaps through class work? Nashville, where Vanderbilt is located, has a robust business economy, so a lot of students who need to fill a gap can do it during the school year by working at a company.

What industries does Vanderbilt tend to place its students in?

Functionally, we put 40% to 45% of students into finance roles, and that's everything from investment banking to real estate to corporate finance. About 20% of the class goes into consulting, also human capital consulting, and supply-chain consulting strategy. It runs the gamut of consulting. Our next biggest area is marketing. That's usually around 20% of the class, including brand management and other corporate relations jobs. The next piece would be the general management role, operations, and human resources. Each of those probably runs 5% to 7%.

Do you think that today's job market has changed in what recruiters are looking for in MBA students?

It's interesting. One of the things we're consistently hearing from recruiters is that they're asking for more experience rather than less. They are looking for three years of job experience, where the old rule used to be two. They're looking for maturity, and to see that the candidate has managed someone. The age they're looking for is creeping up, too, but they don't want someone who's had too much experience.

Another thing companies are talking about is not training, it's an attitude thing. It's flexibility. They want people who are willing to move to another location to advance their career. The current generation are more homebodies. They're friend-oriented and career-oriented. So larger global corporations are having trouble moving talent where they need to move it.

They want more women and more diverse candidates. They want demonstrated leadership capabilities. It's not a big change in the skills they're looking for—it's more the soft side of things.

Do alumni play a big role in your job placement strategy?

Very much so. We depend on alumni for a lot of things. They're our speakers for clubs, and we do mock interview events with them. Also, a lot of our alumni are our key recruiters. They'll lead the recruiting at their companies, and are our best advocates internally at the companies where they work.

From a networking standpoint, our alumni are great. They really help students. If students are not prepared they'll give them tough love if they need it.

How does the career placement office use networking sites and other new technology?

I think in many ways, as a career placement office, we're still struggling with how to use some of the new technology. We do a lot of virtual recruiting work with employers that don't come to campus. They post jobs, we send résumés, and then we do virtual conferences. We can set up a day's worth of interviews without them leaving the office. Amgen (AMGN) did videoconference interviews and extended offers to three students. They went from skeptical, when I visited them last year, to making three offers, and it didn't cost them a penny. I try to also read recruiter blogs to see if it can help my students.

We're a small school, so if they come here, their yield will be low. We're all about cost-effectiveness and trying to harness technology to expand our reach. For example, we did a Webinar with Google (GOOG). We still need to explore and figure how to use social networking.

The students are using all kinds of tools, like job aggregators, and CareerShift, which we provide access to. Say I'm out there looking for internships at Hershey (HSY) foods; with CareerShift, I can find people in the company who have ever been quoted or appeared on the Web. It makes it easier, because then you have a name. It's a great one-stop place for students to find jobs not in the system and find contacts. It allows students to put structure into their job search.

A lot of MBAs do much more independent job searches than in the past, and the Internet is helpful to that.

Besides sending a career assessment and other materials to incoming students, what does the Career Management Center do over the summer?

When students leave, we spend the entire summer visiting employers. Relationships aren't static. They come and go, so every summer we make sure those relationships are strong. We're also trying to develop contacts, so even if a company can't come to campus, there's at least someone students can call if they're interested.

Do you have any career-search advice to prospective MBA students?

The biggest thing to understand is that career management centers don't get them a job. They get themselves a job. We're huge resources, but it's an independent job search. If the expectation is that we'll be a placement service, well, it's not that way at any school, whether it's the best school in the rankings or number 350. What career services offers to students is a set of life skills: how to look for a job, how to negotiate a salary. You have to come into the process with the right attitude. It's your job search, and you need to be in control of it.

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