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Career Services Director Q&A: Cynthia Saunders-Cheatham of Cornell’s Johnson Graduate School of Management

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In our continuing series of interviews with career services directors at leading business schools, we connected earlier this month with Cynthia Saunders-Cheathem, who heads the Career Management Center (CMC) at Cornell’s Johnson Graduate School of Business. Saunders-Cheathem joined the CMC eight years ago and was promoted to executive director in 2014. Before Johnson, she worked in corporate marketing for 15 years at a range of companies including Hanes Underwear, Valvoline and United Technology.

Saunders-Cheatham was generous with her time and went into great detail regarding Johnson’s career management offerings, trends in hiring and student career goals and how incoming students can prepare for the job search even before arriving on campus. She also shared some of the things she is most focused on as head of the CMC, including ensuring that there are ample opportunities for Johnson’s international students.

If Johnson is among your list of target schools, don’t miss this chance to learn more about the career management offerings MBA students at the school benefit from straight from the source.

Clear Admit:
How do you view your role as executive director of the Career Management Center at Johnson? Is it to administer workshops? Counsel students? Counsel companies? Manage the entire office and oversee its various functions? All of the above? What do you love most about it?

Cynthia Saunders-CheathamCynthia Saunders-Cheatham: All of the above. I really view my job as managing the team so we can provide the best career search possible for our students and make it as easy as possible for our recruiters to connect to our students. I have been in this role for two years and at the Career Management Center at Johnson for eight.

One of the big things I have done since becoming executive director has been to execute an organizational change, including hiring a number of new career advisors. There has been a lot of change, but it’s brought a lot of new ideas and a lot of great energy.

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?

CSC: I have about 17 on my team total, which includes seven career advisors. I also have executive MBA and alumni career management under my umbrella, although those are managed by a separate director.

One of the things I looked at with our org change was whether to have some team members work exclusively with students and others exclusively with recruiters. In the end, our advisors have a dual role. This means that they work directly with the students—having one-on-one meetings, providing programming through the center and going on treks—but they also have a corporate outreach component to their jobs that makes up roughly 20 to 30 percent of the role.

I know a lot of schools split those roles, but we decided to keep them together. I find it can be really valuable for advisors working with students to be able to say, “I met with this company last month, this is what they are looking for in new hires, this is what their headquarters are like…” I think it helps us provide a more holistic offering to our students. Most of our advisors do come from the corporate world and they advise in the area where they have experience, so they are definitely able to talk the talk with companies.

CA: Can you provide prospective applicants with an overview of the recruitment process at Johnson? When does it start? How does it unfold? How has this changed in recent years, if at all?

It has changed a lot. Recruiters want to get access as soon as possible. I know some schools try to stop that and put barriers around it, but we don’t. We want companies to allow students enough time to make the decision about whether or not to take the position, but we are not opposed to early offers. We are part of the Consortium and Forté, both of which hold conferences in June. A number of students will have internship offers before they start classes in August through Consortium. We do a lot of work with those students starting in April, reviewing resumés, working on pitches, helping them talk the language of a marketer or a banker.

Consortium’s Orientation Program (OP) just took place a couple of weeks ago, and students are receiving internship offers from that experience. There are also a lot of other brand and summer camps in investment banking and consulting and marketing that take place over the summer, and we do prep with students who plan to apply with those companies.

In terms of the advantages of coming into the MBA program with an internship offer in hand, I think it gives students a chance to focus more on school work and club activities. They have a little bit less recruiting pressure. Even if students decide not to take the internships offer—and many of them decide not to—they are much more comfortable with the recruiting process. They know how to network, they have good resumés and they are comfortable with the interview process. They have a leg up in prep versus their peers. But very often we see that these students will help their peers through their process as part of regular recruiting. Because they have already interviewed with these companies, they can help fellow students do interview prep and connect with companies.

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?

CSC: We are trying a new process this year in terms of interview prep. In the past we had a company come in and do small group mock interviews, videotape them and provide feedback to students. Though we’re still working out the exact details, the process this year is likely to be a week of mock interviews conducted by alumni, second-year students, CMC advisors and consultants.

One really nice thing at Johnson is our career work groups. As part of these groups, seven first-year students work with two second-year students weekly during the fall semester. A lot of the career prep is done as part of those work groups, which are aligned by industry and function. Students work on networking, resumés, mock interviews and pitch. There is also programming through the CMC as well. That program was pioneered 15 years ago and has endured, and it consistently gets the highest ratings from our students.

Our culture is very collaborative because we are a relatively small school and located not close to a major city. It really is a community—the first-years, second-years, faculty and staff. The second-years enjoy helping the first-years and feel that is part of the community, and the first-years really appreciate the help they get from the second-years. The second-year students have interviewed with these companies, and some are going back to these companies, so they know the process and are willing to help the first-years prep.

Our advisors also do mock interviews, and there is a lot that happens around interviewing within the student clubs. Sometimes they’ll bring in corporate partners or alumni to do mock interviews, especially for marketing and consulting. So there really are lots of ways that we give our students opportunities to prepare for interviews.

I think Johnson’s location really helps with the community aspect of our students’ experience. Students also really benefit from the connection to greater Cornell, including the engineering school, the hotel school and the schools of human ecology and industrial labor relations. There are all these other places at Cornell where our students frequently take classes. I think Johnson’s location really helps to encourage that interaction. Even though Ithaca is not as easy to get to as New York City, the alumni do love coming back and the recruiters don’t mind because there is a great talent pool here.