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Career Services Director Q&A: Sheryle Dirks of Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business


This week we’re learning about career services at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business. We had a great interview with Sheryle Dirks, associate dean of career management, who leads Fuqua’s Career Management Center (CMC).

Dirks has been at Fuqua since 1998 and in her current role as associate dean since 2005. She came to career services from the MBA admissions world, having worked in MBA admissions in the Chicago area. “I loved the intermingling between the corporate world and the education world” that career services offered, she says, so when she landed a job in career management at Fuqua she was thrilled.

Dirks manages the CMC’s 30 full-time staff members, as well as a small group of executive coaches and more than 90 part-time student career counselors. The CMC provides career services to all of the degree programs that go through the business school, which include the full-time MBA program as well as three executive-style programs in which students continue to work while in school and a one-year degree program for slightly younger students.

Read on to learn how the CMC was reorganized last year to better align with the school’s strategy and resources. Dirks also shares her perspective on how the recruiting process has become less linear and more fragmented in the wake of the economic crisis, why passion is one of the most crucial elements of the job search process and more.

CA: What recent or impending development within the Career Management Center are you, your team or Fuqua students most excited about and why?

SD: Last year, Fuqua’s Career Management Center (CMC) went through a significant re-organization as part of a broader effort to better align the school’s strategy, resources and activities. The CMC now consists of 30 staff members operating in three work groups – recruiting and operations, student and alumni career services, and sector (corporate) engagement.

The Recruiting & Operations Group manages the multitude of corporate events, interviews and job postings that constitute campus recruiting and provides supporting technology and data infrastructure. The Student & Alumni Career Services Group ensures that the portfolio of services and resources that we offer to students in all Fuqua programs, as well as to alumni, meets the diverse and changing needs of our job-seeking populations. And the Sector Engagement Group facilitates interaction between employers and students in specific industry sectors (consulting, financial services, technology, health, social impact, etc.), provides sector-specific training such as case interview preparation for consulting and meets regularly with employers to expand Fuqua relationships in key industries.

We also have a small group of executive coaches who serve as adjunct staff and a part-time student staff of more than 90 who provide peer reviews of first-year students’ résumés, cover letters and mock interviews. We’re excited about the new model and the role that each team plays in the student career experience.

The CMC’s primary focus, though, is quite singular and largely unchanging, as our purpose is to enhance Fuqua’s national and global presence as a top-tier business school through delivery of a comprehensive career services and recruiting program for students and alumni. What we do to achieve this objective and how we approach our work evolves with stakeholder needs, which is reflected in this re-organization, and provides more intuitive and relevant linkages to students, employers, alumni and the Fuqua and Duke communities.

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

SD: I think one of the things that is both interesting and challenging to an incoming MBA student is that the answer to that question would have been likely much simpler about five years ago. One of the things that has really changed since the economy turned south, and I don’t think it is necessary going to go back to the “before” state, is that the recruiting process is much more fragmented and much less linear.

You do begin career activities from the moment students land on campus and some begin even before they arrive. Certainly there are traditional recruiting activities that begin in the early- to mid-fall, and that is an opportunity for first-year students to meet companies and attend corporate presentations and recruiting events in preparation for interviews in the January/February/March timeframe.

But there are also some conferences that happen early in the year, so we have some students that will already have offers coming out of those conferences. And then we have a number of spring recruiting events that occur as late as April because many companies have just-in-time hiring. So that means many students will land great jobs after classes have ended.

There is much of the traditional cycle that is still in place, but there are now also many other activities that compete for students’ time and attention.

CA: How has the economy impacted recruitment at Fuqua? 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?

SD: That’s kind of the question of the day. It clearly had the immediate effect of reducing the number of opportunities that are available to students. But I also think that it has heightened the importance of students making really thoughtful and informed decisions about what kinds of paths they want to pursue. This is a process that was competitive to start with and has only gotten more competitive.

One thing you really can’t fake is passion. This might seem counterintuitive to some students who are focused on trying to diversify their job search. Yes, you need to diversify. But you also have to make sure that you diversify into areas that you are passionate about. If you are interviewing in an area that you really aren’t interested in, that lack of passion is going to come through.

One of the things we have tried to do with varying degrees of success is to continue to offer new programs based on student and company feedback. For example, we just launched a series of job search teams for second-year students working closely with our MBA student association. The participation of the student association was tremendously helpful in terms of getting student insight. Basically, we wanted to know what students would need in order to make it worth their time to get involved. Close partnership with the student association has helped make that pilot program really successful so far because it has an ear to the ground in terms of that student voice.

We are also really making sure that we are asking for feedback from companies and acting on that. We ask questions like, “What channels are most convenient to you to recruit? If you are interviewing our students, where are they excelling? Where are they failing?” And then we work what we learn through the companies’ responses back into our coaching.

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?

SD: We have a number of opportunities for students to practice their interview skills. A good amount of our content we deliver to students seeking internships through their first-year leadership communications course. That course is a semester-long course, and we in career services deliver about half of the course content.

All of the first-year students receive that information, and then we have a number of follow-up activities. Obviously there is case interview prep. We have a specialist who comes in for a mock interview week, which is when we have corporate reps come in (mostly alumni) to conduct the mock interviews themselves.

We have what we call a “strongly recommended framework” for the interviews, 50 percent closed and 50 percent open. Open slots are filled through bidding. Students accrue up to 300 points toward bidding through participation in various activities such as mock interviewing.

In the spirit of transparency I will share that company interest in open spots has decreased with the economy. More and more companies are looking to increase the number of closed spots, so that the mix looks more like 65/35. This is less of a concern for companies that are interviewing a large number of students. Basically, we work with each company on a case-by-case basis. It’s not a one-size-fits-all approach, and obviously we want the companies to be happy with their experience.

In terms of our facilities, we are very fortunate in that right on the floor above our offices we have what’s called the recruiting floor. Most of the recruiting is held there throughout the year. There are a few peak periods when we’ll also use team rooms in the student area. We have 19 rooms, a recruiters’ lounge and a space for lunch.

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

SD: Absolutely. Alumni play a critical role. They are involved in both preparing students and facilitating the recruitment of students. We had two days with the first-year students the week before classes started – an MBA Careers 101 and 102. A big part of that was a half day launched by a panel of alumni giving advice. “At this stage of the process here’s what you should be thinking about, things to do, etc.” And then we offered office hours with 65 alumni who spent the afternoon with students. Many of the strong recruiting relationships that we have are really managed and nurtured by Fuqua alumni.

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?

SD: I think at a high level my advice would be to have some sense of yourself as it relates to what you like to do, what you are good at, what kinds of environments you have excelled in in the past. Take stock of yourself in a very honest and candid way.

You get on campus and there is a big group of people following a banking path or a consulting path and it’s very easy to get caught up in that. It may be right for you and it may not be. The person who has a very clear sense of what he or she wants to get out of the MBA is not at risk of heading down the wrong path.

Also, don’t think of the MBA as a magic bullet, but rather as one part of your professional portfolio. Think of it more in terms of how it rounds you out. The MBA degree in and of itself is not going to be the magic trajectory up to the C-suite. Basically, you want to come to Fuqua, or really any MBA program, with some clarity about who you are and what you are hoping to achieve.