Preparing Students to Lead
Graduate business schools typically treat admissions and career management as separate, siloed units. That was the case at SMU Cox until Jason Rife (Senior Assistant Dean of the SMU Cox Career Management Center and Graduate Admissions) blended the two in 2021. This collaboration of graduate school admissions and career management is key to preparing graduate business students for successful careers upon graduation.
“The ultimate goal is having a holistic experience for our students,” Rife says. “The vast majority of students who return to school for graduate business education do so for career purposes. They want to advance in their existing field and take on increased responsibilities, pivot into a new functional area or completely jump into a new industry. Regardless, their motives are career-driven. The same can be said for our undergraduate business students. They’re coming to Cox with their sights set on some type of business role, whether it’s consulting, investment banking or marketing — and our faculty and staff are aligned in supporting those goals.”
The Cox School has implemented a model in which business education is influenced by career aspirations.
“Career is integral to the overall processes at Cox,” Rife says. “By combining career and graduate admissions, we’re acknowledging and aligning with our students’ priorities. From the moment someone considers a Cox degree until it’s time to walk across that stage and use their new degree to advance, career management has been a factor.”
To start, that process now includes blended career and graduate admissions teams with multiple viewpoints assessing graduate candidates at the interview stage. From an internal perspective, that means the career team now understands more about the admissions process and the graduate admissions team now understands more about how to assess talent and career options.
“It helps us gauge students holistically, not just on their academic background, but taking a deeper dive into their work experience goals,” Rife says. “How well-thought-out are their objectives? Have they thought about how they’re going to connect the dots between where they are now and where they want to be — and what it takes to get there? And do they have the necessary skill set to be successful in their target field?”
Building this relationship with the student is something the Cox Career Management Center has long prided itself on. The Cox School’s dedicated career coaches fully get to know their students so they can better help their students craft more meaningful and actionable plans for their futures. It’s a depth chart of personal consultants that offer support and guidance based on their own competitive career backgrounds.
Rife says the majority of the Cox Career Management Center’s coaches also have private sector experience. “They were practitioners themselves in fields like finance or marketing, served in HR as recruiters or assessed talent as part of the graduate admissions team. Regardless, all have experience on the other side of the table in some way, shape or form — it’s not theoretical for them. Our coaches know how a candidate can come across on paper, in person or on video, and they can use that experience to guide the student effectively to tell his or her story. Not every other school has that type of team, and very few involve those teams in the graduate admissions and strategic planning processes. This is something I feel is innovative about Cox.”
Students on Track for Career Success
The feedback the Cox School has received on the novel combination of graduate admissions and career management has been nothing but positive.
“We’ve had a number of students,” Rife says, “who already accepted for the next class and say, ‘You’re the only school that had me talk to the career office as part of the process, and I really appreciate how thoughtful that is. It shows me that you take our careers seriously, and that’s the program I want to be a part of.’”
If prospects recognize the value of this holistic approach, Rife says that is one sign the program is on the right track. But Rife and his colleagues are also measuring success from several other standpoints.
“Our mission is to recruit talented students and help them achieve positive career outcomes,” Rife says. “Numerous metrics go into that: on the graduate admissions side, work experience, diversity, test scores, GPA and EQ; on the career side, students’ ability to secure improved roles after graduation, diversity of companies and roles and starting salaries. But really, the ultimate question we ask about any candidate is: Can we help this person get where he or she wants to be?”
It’s too early to assess those outcomes at this point, but Shane Goodwin (Associate Dean of Executive Education and Graduate Programs at the Cox School) is excited about some of the changes already taking shape. “We do know anecdotally, as we are doing this with our students and talking with them,” Goodwin says, “that we are getting better students, if you will. It’s not so much that they’re just “better.” They’re just better for our school because the expectations are better aligned with what we’re trying to accomplish.”
Making sure everyone — the student, the graduate admissions team, the career-management team — is on the same page from the get-go should be a no-brainer. As Goodwin says, it’s a “natural synergistic fit” and is typical in the corporate world. But within the halls of higher education, it’s not the default mode.
“Sometimes it’s very challenging, particularly in academia,” Goodwin says. “It’s been very slow to evolve. But I give credit to bringing people in with different ideas and allowing us to test this. And the reality is, testing it has been fantastic.”
A Vision Realized
Goodwin praises Matthew B. Myers (the ninth dean of the Cox School) for bringing together forward thinkers who foster helpful, meaningful, student-focused solutions. It’s Myers’ vision that has allowed business-minded initiatives to unfold in recent years, in adapting a curriculum for the next generation of leaders as well as in merging graduate admissions and career management.
One example of this cooperative effort is the MBA Direct program that launched in the summer of 2020.
“That was the brainchild of the graduate admissions team and the career team working together, understanding that we have a lot of talented prospective students who have applied but don’t necessarily have the work experience that we require for our other MBAs,” Rife says. The MBA Direct program is a tailored program — a slower, three-year-minimum pace during which students could perform well in their jobs while studying — that gives MBA students the work experience needed to qualify them for MBA-level positions. “That benefits them on the academic side,” he says, “and it benefits them on the career side.”
This attitude toward collaborative improvements has set the Cox School apart from other academic institutions. And when the pandemic began in 2020, SMU Cox was in a position to react quickly and effectively as a team.
The pandemic has unquestionably forced change upon the academic world, and those at the Cox School are transparent about the transformation currently underway. “I don’t think [career management] will ever go back to where it was, 100%,” Rife says. “COVID has permanently changed the way people will recruit and think about education.”
What other disruptions are on the horizon? Where is the market headed? And when will the next opportunity arise? The Cox Career Management Center is here to help students answer those very questions and pave a career path forward using its connections to recruiters, companies, and industry leaders.
“What we do academically for all Cox students is provide the skills and insights to be that next-level leader,” Rife says. “What we do on the career side is provide them training to structure their past experiences and classroom learning into a compelling narrative about how they will drive positive impact within their target company and role.”
Preparing Tomorrow’s Leaders
Combining career management and graduate admissions will foster valuable relationships with the business community and enable the Cox School to adapt to recruiting trends, meet employers where they are and recognize gaps in the market — all of which poise students at Cox for success. The key again is collaboration, and thanks to SMU’s Dallas location, business connections are never too far away.
“I’m very excited about the future,” Goodwin says of this new collaboration. “I think the universities that are ultimately going to be the long-term survivors in business education are the ones that are really interconnected with the industry. Research is going to be very important, there’s no doubt, but it’s going to be the university that has very close relationships with its corporate partners. And that’s something that we’ve changed a lot since 2018. We didn’t have a group that actually focused on our corporate partners. Now we have a whole team that is dedicated to just working with them.”
Assembling this graduate admissions and career management team under one roof is just one part of the Cox School’s plan to produce a generation of independent, forward-thinking business leaders at both the undergraduate and graduate levels, and it’s the fruit of this collective effort that will take Cox into its second century and beyond.
“Instead of trying to follow the crowd, we focus on doing the right thing for our stakeholders,” Rife says. “Our decisions are based on what we’re hearing from employers, faculty and our students — they are the real compass for us.”
Jason Rife is the Senior Assistant Dean of the Career Management Center & Graduate Admissions at SMU Cox School of Business. Prior to joining SMU Cox, Jason graduated with his BBA from Texas Tech University, earned his MBA at Duke University, and served as the Director of Graduate Business Career Services at the University of Florida. In his current role at SMU Cox, Jason leads career services for 3,500+ undergraduate and graduate business students and oversees the admissions team driving the portfolio of graduate business programs.