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Career Services Director Q&A: Jack Oakes of the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business


Our continuing series of interviews with MBA career service directors takes us this week to Charlottesville, Virginia, where Jack Oakes of the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business generously made time to speak with us. Oakes has been assistant dean and director of career management at Darden’s Career Development Center (CDC) since September 2010, leading all of the center’s activities, including developing strategy, managing a global portfolio of recruiting companies and coaching students.

Oakes first joined the CDC in February 2005, but his connection to Darden dates back further, to his own time there as a student. He graduated with an MBA/MA in East Asian Studies in 1989, having come in as a career switcher looking to shift from finance to marketing. Upon graduation, he worked in a range of marketing roles, including in consumer goods at Procter and Gamble, before coming back to Darden and the CDC. “This is really just another version of marketing,” he explained, “because we help students market themselves to prospective employers, we help companies market themselves to students and we help Darden market itself to the world.”

In the interview that follows, he encourages students to come to Darden having taken a close look at their own skills, characteristics and abilities so that they can take advantage right away of the resources the CDC provides to determine the right career path for them. He also gives some advice to prospective applicants preparing to approach the Darden application. “Here at Darden, what is most important is not what a student will learn but what a student will teach other students,” he says. “In the case method students are learning as much from each other as from a faculty member, so show how you will make Darden stronger.”

Clear Admit: How do you view your role as director of the Career Development Center? Is it to administer workshops? Counsel students? Counsel companies? Manage the entire office and oversee its various functions? All of the above?

Jack Oakes: We have a three-point mission that I am deeply involved in every day. The first is student-focused – to help students establish a long-term foundation for career success. The second is a company-focused portion – developing long-term mutually beneficial relationships with companies. I am either on the phone or in meetings with companies that come here to Darden every day with an eye toward building new relationships. And the third focus is aligning student and employer expectations.

I most enjoy making an impact on a student because I have been able to see both the short- and longer-term impact of advising, counseling and helping them along the way. I could spend a lot of time working with students, but the assistant dean director role requires me to be both Mr. Inside and Mr. Outside, so I continue to push myself to focus on being Mr. Outside since I have such a good team of career advisors.

CA: Now, about your team. How many career advisors do you have? Is this a relatively constant figure? If not, how has it changed in recent years? How might it change in the near future?

JO: We are 16 in total, and that is a relatively constant figure. It has changed by one, maybe one and a half, and we are now back up to fuller staff levels post financial crisis. The group is largely organized into primarily student-facing and company-facing groups. The career advisors are meeting more often with individual students and groups and teaching Career Management, a not-for-credit class we have for students. But they also need to enhance relationships with employer partners. They have to have good relationships with companies to understand the demands the companies have.

CA: Can you provide prospective applicants with an overview of the recruitment process at Darden? When does it start? How does it unfold?

JO: It starts quite early, especially for certain groups. Darden has done a real nice job, over the last five years especially, of reaching out to people. Where we may have had just a half dozen events across the United States eight years ago, today we have 120-plus events nationally and internationally where we bring together prospective applicants and alumni to talk about Darden. Unlike many other schools, we do not have a PowerPoint that we share at those gatherings. Rather, we have a senior leader talk about Darden and give an update to alumni and prospective students, then some alums speak and then there’s networking reception time. This gives prospective applicants an opportunity to talk directly with alumni about what their experiences were like. It also helps alums feel more connected, although it’s a very loyal alumni base anyway. And it gives prospective students an unvarnished perspective.

With admitted students we start early, too. We have an admitted student portal website that we work on with admissions, where a lot of career services resources are available to students just as soon as they are admitted. We even have information up there for students who for whatever reason don’t choose Darden after they have been admitted.

Recruiting starts so early. To make an informed decision along the way for a career path, it helps to come in with a little more focus. This focus doesn’t have to be keenly on one or two opportunities early on, but students do need to begin to narrow it down. They need to focus a lot on themselves, too. We believe strongly that some comprehensive self-assessment – of your skills, abilities, characteristics – is going to be critical to determine what is going to be the best fit. So a lot of that work, we hope, is done over the summer. Then, when they get here, we provided them with more resources. And we encourage them to have conversations with students, alums, people at the companies they are targeting.

In terms of recruiters, formally briefings start in mid-September. And there are some companies who are here a little bit earlier for workshops, speaker presentations or something else that gives the companies an opportunity to interact with students. Our first on-campus, on-grounds interviews take place in the second full week of January.

Student clubs play a critically important role, especially here at Darden. Darden is largely student run, so as we talk to companies and help them build their strategies and plans we always tell them to be in touch with relative clubs from a functional and industry standpoint. In fact, I was just meeting with a top-tier investment bank last week with our dean, Bob Bruner, and it has expanded its talent pool by looking at résumés of students in the consulting club as well as finance. So it’s always about the relevant clubs and even looking beyond the directly relevant.

CA: How has the economy impacted recruitment at Darden? How have you and your staff remained flexible or adapted in order to help students navigate a more challenging job market? Have you encouraged flexibility on the part of students themselves?

JO: We saw internship recruiting rebound much more quickly than full time. So many companies look to get their full-time talent from their internship pool. This puts even more pressure on first-year students. With internships they are very often making decisions that may well impact career decisions three to five years down the line. Clearly the industry affected the most was financial services, but it was amazing to watch the wave effect after Lehman imploded in 2008. Another industry not as directly affected and where there continues to be great demand is technology. I remember people saying in 2009, “What a bubble technology has turned out to be.” Maybe there were some small bubbles, but on the whole I don’t see it as a bubble.

We try not to have them silo themselves. And students will say, “Don’t silo us.” That may come from us saying from a fit standpoint we think the major functional areas are the best paths to figuring out fit. Largely our advice has remained the same: Students need to take the time to make a fully informed, comprehensive decision and explore these roles beyond what the title is. Clearly, given corporate changes and the higher number of layoffs, people need to be flexible, adaptable and think through what a given job will do to position them three to five years down the road, what may make the best lily pads, the best jumping off opportunities.

CA: How does your team counsel students regarding the interview? Is there a formal mock interview process? How are interview schedules administered? Is there an established policy regarding how closed and open interviews should be conducted? What facilities are available for interviews?

JO: Companies that are recruiting at Darden need to have 25 percent of their interview slots open to bid. So, for example, they can go ahead and select eight slots of 12 for closed lists, and the other four need to remain open for bid. Students are then given a certain number of bid points to use as they wish, either all for just one company or throughout that interview season.

On-campus interviews take place in one of 12 interview rooms in the Career Development Center or in learning team rooms across Darden. Nearly all interviews take place at Darden.

Mock interviews are critical to what we do. We have a formal mock interview process, and students sign up for formal mock interviews with career advisors. Typically a mock interview will take about 45 minutes. Students will send us a request including a description of the position, and we have a set of questions we can draw from including questions that have been asked in the past of students interviewing for similar positions.

We also encourage students to do mock interview with more than just us. We have a very successful second-year interviewing for-credit class, in which students are assigned seven to eight first-years to work with, according to function. Darden is a very collaborative institution. It is amazing to see how many first-years will be mock interviewing each other as they are getting ready to interview with the same companies. It is much more collaboration than cut-throat competition. I haven’t seen the latter here very much at all.

CA: What kind of role do alumni play in Darden’s recruiting process? How integral are they to your office’s success? Is alumni participation a major part of your students’ job searches?

JO: They are incredibly integral to our success across a wide range of fronts. One role alumni play is to network with students as they seek to learn about companies and roles and get prepared for interviews with those companies. The response rate of alums to networking emails from first-year students is likely in the 80-90 percent range.

And then it is amazing how many alumni come back to Darden as part of interviews – either in a formal interviewing process or as an informal representative for their companies.

Alumni are also important as we build relationships with new companies. The first thing I check to see is if there are Darden alums there – that always makes it a much easier call to make to set up meetings.

CA: Do you have any advice for prospective applicants in terms of what they might do in advance of the MBA program to be better prepared for the job search process? In your experience, do you find that students who have done x, y or z before arriving on campus have a more successful experience with career services and the job search as a whole?

JO: I just spoke with a bunch of our admitted students at Darden Days, and what I said to them is that admission to business school is a wonderful catalyst for having conversations with people you don’t know. I urged them to begin with people within their company and beyond. Say they want to learn more about operations management, product development, whatever. Say, “I’ve just gotten into business school and I want to learn more about _____. Can I spend 15 to 30 minutes learning about what you do?” Through those conversations people get more informed about what is a good fit. And then I encourage doing a deep dive to learn more about specific companies. For any publically traded companies, this means looking at analyst reports, presentations by CEOs, CFOS, these are all great ways to learn.