Fall 2003 Career Services Update With Matt Merrick

As the Fall company presentations kicked off last week, suit-clad students milled through the halls of Aldrich considering and re-considering their career options. With the economy not yet yielding clear signs of a job recovery, many students found themselves spending more time jump-starting their job searches than reading their cases, leading many to wonder how to balance it all. With the class of 2003 safely graduated and embarking on diverse post-HBS directions, the Harbus caught up with Matt Merrick, Director of MBA Career Services, to discuss the market outlook, career options and search strategies for the classes of 2004 and 2005.

Harbus: Can you give us a review of the final placement numbers for the class of 2003? What percentage of the class of 2003 is employed today and what percentage remains unemployed?

Merrick: Last year was a really good year. 88% of the class of 2003 had an offer by graduation day, which is up from 81% the year before with the class of 2002. This is also substantially better than any other top business school. As a point of reference, in the really good years – ’99 and ’00 – when the economy was quite different – that number was typically 95%, which is our base line of comparison.

Now why is that the case? Well, the class of 2003 – and I think the same is holding true for the class of 2004 quite frankly – did a great job in looking for a job. They worked really, really hard. They were reasonably focused and they were reasonable about what kind of job they were going to get and what type of transition they were going to make pre-and-post business school. So the students did a great job and that’s the biggest reason by far why we had such a great year.

Secondly, I do think that our office and the school did a much better job this last year. Our marketing efforts have kicked in to a higher gear. The career coaching program has grown in a number of ways. We added additional career coaches and gave the coaches higher quality training.

These improvements were made with the support of Dean Clark and Dean Kester, who have been willing to put their money with their mouths are.

All of these efforts together I believe resulted in the success we witnessed with last year’s class.

Harbus: How many career coaches do we have today?

Merrick: There are a dozen non-full-time coaches in addition to another eight or nine full-time coaches. There are different degrees of being an official coach or just being an industry expert. Of the dozen that are non-staff we have weekly and monthly training sessions with them, most of them have MBAs and most of them have their MBAs from HBS. And we are continuing to add people – for example we just added an industry specialist – Hilary Caplan Somorjai – an HBS alum who has a really strong retail and technology background and she is on the West Coast. We are really excited about having her on board because she helps us to round out expertise on our coaching staff that we don’t have as much of. We are continuing to add coaches like that who we believe will help us assist a broader number of students.

Harbus: How has the economic environment changed in the last year for HBS students looking for full-time and summer internship opportunities?

Merrick: I don’t see any substantial changes. That being said, this summer we traveled to our top 30 recruiters – we met with them all face to face, which was one of our new initiatives. We did this because we wanted to let them know that we care, because we wanted to find out how our students were doing over the summer. We also wanted to encourage them to recruit more and ask them what we need to do to help them hire more of our students.

The feedback on the summer interns of the class of 2004 was exceptional. The feedback you know is always good – but in this case they went out of their way to talk about how good the summer class of 2004 was. So I think we have a really strong class of 2004 and you guys did really well last spring looking for a job for the summer. The class of 2004 has momentum and a good knowledge and experience base to build from to get a job, but the actual market itself – I wouldn’t expect any differences from what the class of 2003 experienced.

Harbus: How many companies do you expect to recruit at HBS this year? How does that compare to years past?

Merrick: It’s a difficult question to answer because companies participate in recruiting HBS students in many different ways. There are some companies that come and do presentations and others that come and recruit during hell week. Those that do come during hell week are a lot easier to track, and the number this year is the same as last year and not much different than the year before. Where we have seen an increase is in job postings for summer internships. Summer postings for the class of 2004 went up 32%. In contrast, EC postings were flat. We essentially expect that the postings this year will be the same. I have no evidence that says the postings will go up or down. There is some anecdotal evidence however, that the volume of hiring that the top recruiters – the professional service firms – might be slightly higher. If X consulting firm posts one single job, in a bad year they hire 20 students, and in a good year they hire 40 students. So I think we might see some swing in the professional services firms and other early recruiters – they might hire a few more students this year than they did last year – at least they are sounding more optimistic than they were last year.

Harbus: Last year when we spoke we discussed that the Dean had just sent out several letters to alumni soliciting their help in hiring and placing HBS students during this tough recruiting period. How did that initiative work out and do you plan to continue a similar effort?

Merrick: We will continue Dean Clark’s involvement in reaching out to alums formally and informally – this is a commitment he has made and will continue to make. It’s frankly difficult to tangibly track the results of those efforts. However, if we look at the increase in job postings for RCs, one of the reasons we believe that that happened is because we have had a more aggressive outreach initiative to alums. If you look at most of the companies that hire our students, there are alums in those companies.

Many to most of our recruiters – formal or informal – have an alumni connection. For example, it’s no coincidence that GE and eBay are hiring more HBS students – there are very strong alumni communities in both of those companies. Our alumni are our strongest influence in hiring.

Harbus: HBS students finding jobs are increasingly relying on the network job search in addition to using the Career Services available on campus to conduct a successful job search. What do you think are the critical elements to making a networked job search a success?

Merrick: From our perspective at the career office we actually think they are completely linked and don’t view them as being separate. Even when you are applying to an on-campus job, you need to network them. If you apply to a brand-name consulting firm you should still be networking – whether it be to talk to someone at the company informally, make sure someone is coaching you on interviewing, or whether you find someone to sponsor you internally. Any job search is going to have a networking component to it.

Any student also needs to think about during the course of their job search whether the things they are trying to do are reasonable. For example, a significant percentage of our students want to get into private equity. Only 6% of the class of 2003 actually got into private equity although 40% indicated that private equity was one of their top employment choices. It’s also important to note that of that of the 6% that got into private equity, 5% had already been in private equity, meaning that 1% of the class who had not been in private equity prior to HBS managed to get into priva
te equity post graduation.

So whatever you are networking for should be something that is a reasonable transition – you need to be leveraging one of the three – either your industry, location or functional background into a new opportunity.

You also need to work hard – don’t worry about it, don’t stress about it, just start networking. Have a strategy that works, that makes sense, and then execute it. I know it sounds simple but the people who did best are the people who had a reasonable plan and they executed it weekly and monthly.

Harbus: In year’s past it’s no secret that there were some technical challenges with the career offices online services that have largely been overcome in the last two years. Can you tell us the latest on the Career Services platform and where you see it evolving?

Merrick: The Job Bank worked really well for RC recruiting – the class of 2004 – last spring. We have since made a handful of enhancements to it since – the most noticeable to students is the career bucket on “My HBS” – which sends you a search agent and gives you a count of the jobs that have been added to the job bank. What we are most excited about is that it works. Feedback from students has been overall very good. And because our technology platform works, our people can spend time on value-added activities such as marketing, relationship-developing with companies, counseling students and answering questions. We are significantly more productive because we have an operating system that works.

Harbus: What is your advice to students who are initially met with low demand through the Job Bank, who are frustrated, and perhaps a little scared, by this whole job search process?

Merrick: It is important to remember that there are two markets for jobs. There is the early market for jobs – which for ECs is the early part of November and for RCs is early February. And then there is the rest of the market – which is the late winter, spring and early summer. Just as many people get jobs later on in the year versus in the early market. We see no difference in satisfaction levels – and if anything we have some anecdotal evidence that the people who are sourcing their job later in the year are happier with the position they eventually take. So the biggest thing is to be patient. Don’t worry. Last year we saw tremendous jobs get posted to the job bank later in the year and we are confident that we are going to see the same this year.

Harbus: International students at HBS continue to clearly face additional challenges that domestic citizens do not face. What is the Career Services office doing differently this year to assist those students?

Merrick: There is no doubt about it that this is our biggest issue. I also think it’s one of the most difficult issues to tackle. What we are doing now is we have just reached out to all the international students in the first year class by proactively contacting them to arrange for an introductory coaching session to help them just get comfortable with the job process.

Whether we are talking to them about their resume, or whatever – our goal is to get to them early on to help orientate them. We are getting a response from about 80-90% of those first years who are saying “yes – I would like to sit and talk about my career options” – which is an astronomically high number and an unbelievably high response rate. It reflects interest, angst, it reflects a bunch of things – but the feedback has been exceptional.

We are also continuing to target and outreach to international companies, to non-U.S. companies, and to international divisions of U.S. companies. We have had some success – we still have a long way to go. We have had some immediate success for example at Bayer – the career office recently met with them in Europe and they have just posted an international management training program in our job bank. So they are an example of a company we have been reaching out to and have been able to get more opportunity for the students. GE Medical Systems was also a great opportunity this last summer for a lot of international students. There are certain large global companies that have a good perspective on hiring, and GE is one of them. We have also seen some of the domestic companies hiring both in the US and abroad – eBay would be an example.

We still have a lot more to do. But when you actually look at the class of 2003 – 86% of international students had an offer by graduation, as compared to 88% of all students who had an offer by graduation. Now that number should be the same – and we need to keep working towards that – but it wasn’t as bad as we would have expected.

Harbus: Are most of these international students getting offers abroad or in the U.S.?

Merrick: About half of the international students took jobs outside of the U.S. and about half took jobs in the U.S. Their compensation level, whether it was in the U.S. or abroad, was the same as the average for the entire class of 2003. The data points for the class of 2003 are better than we thought they were going to be. That being said, that doesn’t take into account what is clear, which is the amount of frustration and the legitimate challenges that international students have versus domestic students. It is a lot harder for international students and that is very, very clear. Another interesting data point is that about 62% of the current second-year job postings are available to non-U.S. students. That number again should be a 100% and to that regard we will continue to encourage more companies to be open to hiring our international students.

Harbus: As we somewhat touched on earlier, a large percentage of students are very interested in finding jobs in the private equity. What is your advice for these students? Do you expect the majority of students to continue to encounter difficulty entering those industries during these times?

Merrick: This is probably the most difficult industry to get into – because there are so few of those jobs and there are so many students who want to get into that industry. Especially the first-years – a lot of the first-years right now have their eyes set on private equity. But I would not expect – given that 6% of last year’s class went into private equity – that number will change much in the near future.

Harbus: What percentage of the class went into private equity/venture capital in ’99 and ’00 years?

Merrick: Then it was really focused on venture capital – it was in the double digits. If you look at 30 years of hiring out of HBS, there was a three year blip where venture capital and private equity firms hired more people – but before that they hired far fewer students – and now they are hiring slightly more than before the bubble, but not that much more. It’s never been a big recruiting area – it’s always been a niche area.

Harbus: Last time we spoke we discussed the Key Account Program – what is the current status and how is that going?

Merrick: We have a target list of about 150 companies that we are trying to get involved somewhat or more involved than they have been in the past. We have a key account list – we segment the market and we have different categories of companies that we have created. We have one category of companies that do a moderate amount of recruiting with us that probably don’t have the potential to recruit much more – and they are in the retain mode. We have another category of horizon companies that don’t recruit at all and they don’t really recruit MBAs anywhere – they are great companies and we know that students want to work there – but realistically it’s going to take a while to get them on board. Then we have companies in the harvest category who need some relationship management but because they have a lot of alums or they might recruit at other schools, we think will be easier to bring to HBS and get on board.

We spend most of our time with companies in the harvest category because these are companies tha
t we believe, with a little bit of effort, we can likely get to post a job, or come to campus and start recruiting. They are usually already doing a little bit of something and we are working on getting them to the next level. That’s the strategy behind our marketing plan – incremental accomplishment – if we can get them from nothing to posting an internship, or from posting to coming to campus, then we are
moving in the right direction.

Harbus: Does the career services office work with executive search firms?

Merrick: We have been in a lot of conversations with executive search firms – but no, we don’t. 1-2% of our students get jobs through executive search firms each year. If you look at the current labor market, executive search firms are interested in people who have incredibly deep, deep experience in certain areas, and basically our students don’t profile for the executive search market. Period – they just don’t. We don’t think that is a good use of our time – I would rather spend that time targeting someone on our Key Account list than talking to executive recruiters. In addition, many executive recruiters have treated our students badly and I wouldn’t want to be endorsing any executive recruiters because they don’t have a reputation of treating our students well.

Harbus: What is the update on the initiative to hire MBAs as full-time employees at HBS, the last I heard the goal was 10 MBAs per year?

Merrick: I don’t have the specific numbers, but we did hire in the career services office an 2003 grad – Kristen Fitzpatrick – who is now full-time in our office. Kristen is an assistant director in marketing and is very much involved in the Key Account Program and partnering with clubs and treks more aggressively. The school hired a lot more students this last year as RAs and into staff positions. That was because of Dean Clark’s support – I don’t have the exact numbers – but a substantially greater number of students were hired last year by HBS. The school in general employs a lot of alumni and I think the school is very much interested in continuing to do that. If students are interested in doing that there are going to be some opportunities for them, both in the short term and the long term. It’s a great place to work and I would encourage them to do that if that’s something they are interested in.

Harbus: I have had several alum comment to me that the hardest job search an HBS student faces is right as they are graduating from HBS – their basic argument is that it’s often harder when all 900 of us are all lined up next to each other all basically competing for the same jobs, whereas as we begin to extend into our careers and are not surrounded by 900 other HBS students, it gets easier to stand out and distinguish oneself?

Merrick: That’s an interesting perspective. I would say that there is probably some truth to that. It’s as much about the pressure that is imposed and self-imposed by your classmates as anything else. If you do think there is some truth to that, what that perhaps means is to avoid the herd mentality. The idea of going into locations and functions and industries where there are fewer MBAs, or fewer HBS MBAs, is perhaps a good move because in theory there will be less competition. However, you will never get as much support for a job search as you do now with the school with you. But there is a lot of self-imposed pressure that can make it difficult. In addition, most of our students are only beginning to build networks – in the future your jobs will be almost exclusively through your own networks. The next job you get after HBS will be through networking – you are not going to be sitting at home waiting for an email to drop into you inbox from the job bank and you just apply to it – that’s not going to happen. Today, many of our students don’t have established networks yet, so it’s harder to network and get a job search off the ground. But in five years from now, our students will have a much stronger network that they can leverage and they will know more people. And they will be a lot more experienced and thus more qualified than they are right now which will make the whole process easier.

Harbus: With almost two years at the helm of career services at HBS, what are the important lessons you have learned during this time period?

Merrick: I am much more an advocate now, and this applies to my own career as well, that you have to have focus. The people who focus do by far the best. I am surprised also by how much this job is like other jobs I have had even though this is a different environment. This is a general management job. Related to that, the biggest lesson I have learned is knowing what you can control, and what you can’t. Focus on what you can control, and accept what you can’t control – which is probably true for any leadership job.

Finally, the class of 2004 is a great class – you did really well last summer. The market is going to be about the same – I would expect the same relative degree of success for the class of 2005. But it’s important to remember that it is a long year. Don’t put a two month horizon on your strategy – put an eight month horizon on your strategy. You should be looking between now and June/July of 2004 as your window to get a job. The window doesn’t close on November 7th if you haven’t been called back for a second-round interview. It’s actually just the beginning.

October 6, 2003
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