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Career Services Director Q&A: Derek Walker of Oxford University’s Saïd Business School

derek walkerDerek Walker has been leading the Oxford MBA Careers Services for the last four and a half years. He came on board a few weeks after the financial crisis, which he says can be viewed as either a terrible or a fantastic time to start. (He views it as the latter.)

Before coming to Oxford, Walker worked in financial services campus recruiting. “It was really a buy-side to a sell-side move,” he explains. His favorite part of his job is working directly with students, particularly when they follow his advice, he shares. Read on to learn how he feels about open versus closed interview schedules, to hear the stories of recent Oxford MBA graduates who landed great jobs (and how they did it) and more.

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

Derek Walker: All of the above. Essentially, the objectives of the department are two-fold. First, it is to build relationships with the employers students want to work for and who want to hire students. We want to make sure we help employers meet their needs by understanding how, when and what they want to hire. Second, it is to prepare students for the job market, which, of course, is very competitive. We do that through one-to-one advising, workshops, panel discussions.

I like to think I’m not a micro-manager, but I need to know what’s going on in the office. I also think it’s important that I am seen to deliver stuff and meet with students in person. Of course, there is a need to balance out the amount of time you spend doing one thing. If you spend too much time meeting students, you don’t spend enough time working with companies and vice versa.

As for my favorite part – it’s nice having a team and it’s good working with employers, but I do particularly enjoy working with students, particularly when they are receptive to advice and they follow your advice, take on what you say, and are successful. That is incredibly rewarding.

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?

DW: I have four career advisors plus me. They are each in different functional or sector areas. So we have somebody who looks after consulting, finance, diversified industries (basically everything that is not consulting or finance) and somebody who faces off with our executive MBA students, alumni and executive search firms. That number has been pretty constant over the last three years. It grew from a small number of three in Careers Service to a total of seven a few years ago, and we doubled the number of career advisors as we grew the team. We intend to hire one more person in the coming year, though not necessarily a career advisor. He or she will add to the capability of the advisory team but may have more of a research focus.

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

DW: In the United States there are some pretty clear windows when employers can recruit on campus and rules that govern how they do things, when, etc. That is not an approach that we take here. To say that we have a peak recruitment season or timetable is not true. We are a one-year MBA program – we start in September and we finish in September. While it is true that some organizations do come on campus before Christmas, they are relatively few because students are just trying to get themselves sorted out and established in those earliest months. They are trying to come to grips with going back into the academic world and dealing with a lot of material delivered very fast and intensively. So many of the stated hirers for the MBA world – finance, consulting, Amazon – don’t come on campus until January, February, March and April. But having said that we had Google here in early June, and we are entertaining job postings and people looking to fill positions every day. Our peak period tends to be the early part of the calendar year, but what that does is trigger off processes that take as long as the employer wants them to take. I should note that today these processes are taking longer and are a lot more involved than they have been in the past several years.

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

DW: I arrived here a few weeks after the financial crisis occurred – which could be viewed as either a terrible or a fantastic time to start. It’s fair to say that before that we didn’t have anywhere near as intensive an on-campus recruitment program as we do now. Part of the reason I was hired was to improve the Careers Service and develop it into something that is better than it was. There is no doubt we as a school are in a better place than we were before the crisis.

But has recruiting returned to pre-crisis levels generally? I think in some sectors, probably. I think in the financial sector, absolutely not. And in the finance sector it is worth pointing out here that while banks in the United States and Wall Street are absolutely wedded to the idea of having relatively large MBA programs and hiring a lot every year, banks elsewhere (including U.S. banks elsewhere) are not wedded to that idea at all. There has been a fall in the class sizes that banks are taking into their summer programs, which is the primary route into full-time jobs. So organizations that were hiring from 40 to 50 MBAs a year in the early 2000s have dropped to barely 10 to 12 now. So that’s a reduction of between a quarter and a third of what they were. And, of course, many employers that were once major hirers aren’t even there anymore. Lehman, gone. Bear Stearns, gone. Barclays, where I came from, in a very different place from where it was. So the numbers of hires are down and the number of players hiring is down as well. So finance is a tricky area.

But we have seen an increase in companies in other areas, such as e-commerce. Amazon has been our biggest hirer for the past two years. That would never have happened five years ago because they just weren’t there. Another major change is that among the biggest recruiters in the financial services industry today are now the regulatory bodies.

So flexibility is crucial for a number of reasons. It is crucial because we are a one-year program and each year is different. While it is easy to think we will just change the things the current year thinks we should change, those aren’t necessarily the things the next year will need.

And yes, we also encourage flexibility on the parts of students themselves. We stress this each year. What you think is your perfect job opportunity might not even exist or might not come along. I do find that some MBA students’ understanding of where the world is is remarkably underdeveloped. They think they are back in ’06.

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?

DW: As to open interviews, that is just a stateside thing. Let me speak here from the heart for a moment as a recruiter who hated the open schedule with a passion. There can be nothing more dumb than allowing a student who has already been rejected by an organization to then sign up in the open schedule. It is a complete waste of everybody’s time. It was such [when I was recruiting] that it drove us away from doing on-campus interviews. We’ll do them in the hotel, thank you very much. Especially when you’re talking about European organizations, it’s costing them a lot of money and to expect them to interview people that they don’t want to interview is naïve.

We have a much more flexible approach to how recruitment takes place involving our students. Yes, companies can come on campus and they will run closed schedules on campus. But we are so close to London that most organizations will ask our students to come to them to interview. There are plenty of great facilities here at Saïd in terms of rooms, of course, for those who do interview on campus.

In terms of preparation, when students are invited for an interview we suggest very strongly that they come and tell us and we will give them mock interview practice ahead of it with an advisor who is appropriate for that interview and process. Also, we run practice interviews for students when they don’t have a scheduled interview, where they video record an interview with me or another career advisor and then they provide peer feedback to one another as part of a two-hour session. That has proven quite popular. We will also do quite a bit of one-on-one prep. I spent some time today with a student on that. I did the same with that student a week ago, and he really wasn’t where he needed to be, so I sent him away to practice and he came back much more prepared today.

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

DW: The answer to that is that some play a very important role. We are a relative young school and we have only about 4,000 alumni – and all at different places in their career. Some alumni are absolutely crucial – particularly those in consulting, who are active in the recruiting process. At many of the big consultancy firms some of our alumni spearhead their firms’ recruiting at our campus. So they’ll come in and do a case study, identify students they are interested in, conduct interviews. Could they do more? Always. We feel they could always do more. And that’s something we look to develop as we know more people and our alumni grow in their own careers. Keep in mind that the average age of a Saïd alum when I got here was 35 or 36. So they were not hugely influential in their organizations. But now they are beginning to be more senior and can make more things happen. We have a dedicated alumni careers person here to send a message that we are here to help them and they therefore want to help us.

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?

DW: First, they really need to do some thinking around a number of things. What are the range of things they might wish to do? This is a one-year program, and it is very intensive. Many when they arrive won’t have any time to do anything other than eat, get a little bit of sleep, and do their work.

That doesn’t mean they need to arrive knowing they want to be a management consultant for McKinsey in the Boston office. But they need to have an idea of some of the things they may want to do, they need to have researched potential industries and employers. What do the people who do the work they think they want to do actually do? What does it look like day to day?

They also need to understand how the organizations they think they may want to work for go about hiring. Some employers don’t have specific MBA entry points but will hire MBAs and put them into lateral positions. And others run a program and have a very defined entry point. Knowing that can help you define a strategy for each of those employers. And if you don’t know that, you are already at a disadvantage when you arrive.

If we are talking to somebody who is really interested in going into management consultancy, what they ought to have done is put together a 10-page deck on management consultants, the landscape of all the firms, how they hire, the types of people they hire, the type of work they do. That little process is kind of what management consultants do – if they can’t do that for themselves then they have kind of answered their own question. So my advice is to get some thinking done. That will help them get some focus and understand the kind of things they do and don’t want to do.

There was a guy in this year’s class who is going to work for McKinsey in Canada. He first contacted me by phone in the January before he started, and then in the April, and then he arrived in September and did all the things we suggested – case study prep, mocks – but he was already in a really good place before he got here because he started thinking well ahead.

There was another guy in the year before who is now doing equity research in Hong Kong. He was a sports teacher in a South London school before he got here. He was already doing a lot of thinking before he arrived. He bagged four weeks free work experience in a research department in a bank in London before he started the program. He knew when he got here he needed to tool himself with every financial technique known to mankind, and so he did. And then he went back to the place where he volunteered and got the internship. He was one of six who interned and the only one that got converted. Now he is in Hong Kong with his family and having a blast. If he had knocked up in October and said I’m a P.E. teacher and want to go into equity research he would be in a very different place today.

I like to tell prospective applicants to think of it as though you are going to run a marathon. If, when you get here, you can already run 10 miles, it’s going to be a lot easier than when you turn up saying, “OK, where do I buy a pair of trainers?”

That is not to say that it is impossible for career changers. Far from it. But it does require quite a lot of focus from very early on. Whereas in a two-year program, students can spend quite a lot of time thinking about it, we don’t have a year one. Our year one is before you get here. For precisely this reason we are doing a series of webinars for accepted students to get them thinking and doing some research before the MBA program begins.

Posted in: Career Services Director Q&A

Schools: Oxford / Saïd

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