Meet the matchmakers

When it comes to helping students navigate the path from school to work, Megan Lynam and Bill Brady say it’s all about finding the right fit.

Our general rule is that students’ job searches begin the day they’re admitted to our school.

- Bill Brady

In today’s challenging economic climate, many college students worry about whether they’ll find a job after graduating. But if anyone is well positioned to step straight from commencement ceremonies into a promising career, it’s business and accounting students. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that employment of accountants and auditors will grow by 279,000 jobs (an increase of 22%) between 2008 and 2018. The Graduate Management Admission Council 2011 Corporate Recruiters Survey reported that the median starting salary for new MBA hires in 2011 was $90,000—that’s $30,000 higher than that of other master’s-level hires. Perhaps that explains why business was the most popular major among bachelor’s degree recipients in 2009.

Other than a steady paycheck, what are today’s business and accounting students hoping to achieve with their degrees—and what opportunities are they finding when they graduate? How are top business schools preparing students for current workforce demands? And given fierce competition for spots in top programs, how are admissions committees deciding who makes the cut?

PwC alumni Megan Lynam and Bill Brady have answers. As director of admissions at the Fuqua School of Business at Duke University, Lynam is responsible for recruiting—one might say curating— the best possible entering class for each of five graduate- level business administration programs operated by the top-ranked business school. Brady, director of career services for the accountancy program at Brigham Young University’s Marriott School of Management, works with students at the other end of the educational arc, helping future business professionals at both the undergraduate and graduate levels find jobs and internships that will move their careers forward. Lynam and Brady paint a textured portrait of the challenges and opportunities business and accounting students face on their way into, and out of, college.

A career-search case study

You really need to think about who you are and the environments in which you flourish.

- Megan Lynam

A psychology major at Cornell University in the late 1990s, Lynam knew she wanted to eventually pursue an MBA, but she wasn’t sure what her first step after college would be. Then, in her senior year, she learned that Price Waterhouse was hiring nontechnically trained people to do IT consulting for clients. The theory was that while computer programmers couldn’t always be easily taught the art of client interaction, people who had good interpersonal and communication skills—and a propensity for understanding technical problems—could excel in an IT consulting role.

Lynam applied, received an offer and soon found herself racing through a three-month crash course in coding fundamentals. She went on to help a Bostonbased consumer products company choose and implement enterprise solution systems to support its global financial operations. The experience made a deep impression on Lynam. “I learned there that if you’re smart and willing to learn, and the people around you are willing to support you and help you grow, then you will be able to try totally new things and still have great opportunities,” she says.

Following a stint in IT consulting with Deloitte & Touche and a brief assignment with a small marketing strategy consulting firm, Lynam enrolled in the Daytime MBA program at Duke’s Fuqua School of Business. After graduating, she tried a couple of roles in corporate branding and management, and then she experienced what she calls “a midlife crisis at the age of 29.”

“I wanted to do something I was passionate about and that truly made a difference,” Lynam says, but she wasn’t sure what it was. Reaching out to friends and former colleagues, she received a piece of helpful advice: Stop thinking about your future career in terms of a specific job or industry, said one friend. Ask yourself how you want to fill your day. What gives you energy? What makes you feel like you’ve really accomplished something?

Lynam knew the answer. Helping people explore their options gave her energy. She explains, “It’s having a personal relationship with someone who says, ‘I wouldn’t have known that was an option for me if I hadn’t met you.’” Lynam called Fuqua’s admissions department to see if the school had an opening.

Know thyself

Variety is an essential feature of Lynam’s job. Her responsibilities include evaluating applications, counseling prospective students, marketing Fuqua’s programs to groups ranging from college undergrads to CEOs and, of course, meetings with other college administrators. “I spend a significant amount of time out on the road,” Lynam says, “but I also spend a lot of time at home in my pajamas reading applications.”

Fuqua’s five programs target students and professionals in all phases of career development. The oneyear Master of Management Studies program provides recent college graduates the business foundation courses they need to jump-start their careers. Duke’s Global Executive MBA students, on the other hand, are senior executives from all over the world. The program spans seven international locations, where students are immersed in the local culture and business environment. Students focus on cultivating global competency, expanding their personal and professional networks and becoming stronger leaders— all while enabling them to provide immediate value to their companies. Fuqua also offers two more MBA programs designed for midcareer professionals who work while studying, as well as a traditional two-year, full-time MBA. Lynam works with candidates in all of these programs, fielding questions and offering advice via phone and email, through in-person interviews and at events around the country and even in cities abroad.

No matter the applicant, Lynam offers advice garnered from her own journey of professional self-discovery: The road to satisfaction starts with knowing what you want. “You really need to think about who you are and the environments in which you flourish,” Lynam says, “and what you want to get out of it—as well as being really honest with yourself about what you have to contribute.”

Next, students need to be aware of their options—and how they’re evolving. “There’s been a pretty big change in the interests of our students and what they want to do when they graduate,” Lynam says. In her own days at Fuqua, she and most of her classmates focused on a few career options: marketing, finance and consulting. “What has been wonderful about the last decade,” Lynam says, “is the social conscience that has come into the field, and the idea that MBA talent is needed in all different areas. In fact, it’s needed more in some of the nontraditional areas.”

These nontraditional areas include nonprofit organizations and other mission-driven endeavors, such as sustainable energy development. Over the past decade, Fuqua has established specialized training programs in each. At Fuqua and elsewhere, business students can also focus on other burgeoning areas, from healthcare administration to information technology. Given this expanding range of opportunities, Lynam urges prospective MBAs to thoroughly research available programs, rather than make the common mistake of submitting applications only to programs with strong name recognition, and those that colleagues and family suggest.

Making the cut

Fuqua’s applicant pool is brimming with people who have stellar academic credentials and ambitious professional goals, Lynam says. What sets successful candidates apart is, in part, an ability to fit in with Fuqua’s distinct campus environment.

“It’s a very collaborative environment,” Lynam says of Fuqua. “We think you need to learn through the diversity of others and capitalize on that strength, and we think people need to be strong leaders as well as team players.” As Lynam learned at PwC, collaboration and versatility are critical not only in school, but also in the professional world. With that in mind, Lynam tries to assemble a diverse group of students—people who bring a broad range of experiences to the classroom and who will push one another to think differently. One of Fuqua’s driving principles is “teach as much as you learn,” and Lynam looks for candidates who have the capacity to contribute in multiple arenas, from classroom conversations to clubs and activities.

But Lynam isn’t just looking for a well-rounded group of intelligent team players. She’s looking for people with another quality: “We call them ‘leaders of consequence,’” Lynam explains. “They’re the leaders who are actually going to make a difference in the world. They’re going to seize opportunities to change things.”

Put it all together, and Lynam and her colleagues base a good part of their admission decisions on a few gut-level questions. As Lynam puts it, “How will this person, when they’re here at Fuqua, make this place different? How will they leave their mark? What will their legacy be? What do we think they’re going to do when they graduate, and what will their legacy be there?” When a candidate inspires clear answers to these questions and appears a good fit with Fuqua’s collaborative culture, “then we get really excited about them,” Lynam says.

Applying experience

In one way or another, Bill Brady has spent much of his career helping college students find jobs. Previously chief people officer and vice president of human resources for Park City Solutions, he worked for 12 years for the Bechtel Group in college recruitment and human resources before joining Price Waterhouse in 1985. As manager of administration and college recruiting for the firm’s Management Consulting Services office in San Francisco, Brady recalls the fast pace and high expectations his employer set. “No one knew how to recruit on college campuses better than the major firms,” Brady says, “and PwC’s attention to the smallest details made it effective.”

Brady returned to Bechtel a few years later, answering a call to manage human resources for one of the company’s many subsidiaries. Six years later, the division had grown into a 50,000-employee, independent company, and Brady was serving as head of human resources. Then his career took a sharp turn. Through his involvement in a family foundation that contributed to the Marriott School of Management, Brady had met the school’s dean, Fred Skousen. “I basically told him that some day, when I retired, I thought it would be fun to come to his college and help out its Career Services Office,” Brady says. Four years later, he was surprised by a phone call from Skousen. “He said, ‘Bill, how serious are you about doing this?’”

Skousen needed to fill the position of director of career services for the college and six months later, Bill and his wife moved to Provo, Utah. Later when roughly 40 people applied for career director of the School of Accountancy, most came from counseling backgrounds, and the school’s director believed that Brady, an experienced professional who’d worked for a major accounting firm, could make an important contribution to the school. Brady agreed and assumed his current position.

Who am I?

When Brady talks about the process he goes through to place students, he, like Lynam, emphasizes that successful outcomes start with a thorough process of self-reflection. “Our general rule is that students’ job searches begin the day they’re admitted to our school,” Brady says. The school’s three-part program, Career Search ABCs, guides students through a series of 10 questions, starting with the basics: Who am I? What do I want to do? How do I focus my interests? Students then identify and research employers that align with their interests—all the while reassessing and prioritizing what’s most important to them in a job, from salary to learning opportunities. “What we’ve found is that ultimately, you may only need to send resumés to 10 employers instead of 1,000,” Brady says.

Finally, students work on making contacts, writing resumés, rehearsing interview techniques—and, of course, applying for actual positions. During this time, each is assigned to a counselor who specializes in his or her area of interest, be it accounting, supply chain management, organizational behavior or something else. Once offers are extended, counselors even help students negotiate the best possible deal. Placement rates for the school’s accountancy graduates in 2011 were an impressively high 96% for master’s students and 81% for undergrads.

Students aren’t the only ones engaged in continuous self-evaluation at the Marriott School of Management, however. So are their instructors and counselors. Advisory boards representing different industries regularly examine the curriculum and provide recommendations to ensure students’ training is current and cutting edge, and faculty are known for making quick adjustments, Brady says. Brady attends lectures and meets with faculty and department leadership to make sure the information loop between employers, career services and the classroom is closed, and he keeps his eye on broader occupational trends—such as increased demand for IT expertise.

Navigating the network

Students completing their accountancy coursework at Marriott tell Brady they are concerned with finding work that includes certain subjective qualities. They want to be challenged in their jobs, as well as rewarded and appreciated for good performance. They want flexibility, with an opportunity to work with different clients and try out different roles, rather than follow the same routine every day. They want opportunities to travel, to collaborate with engaged colleagues and to feel excited by their work—while also enjoying a sense of stability. And, echoing Lynam’s students at Duke, they increasingly express an interest in joining companies that demonstrate a strong social and environmental conscience.

According to recent placement statistics, the bulk of the Marriott School’s accountancy students land at the Big Four—68% of master’s graduates and 38% of bachelor’s graduates in 2011. Other CPA firms represent the next largest category of employers (hiring 16% of graduates at both the master’s and bachelor’s levels), with the remainder of graduates moving on to other private companies, government agencies or further education.

What Brady considers distinct about the current moment is how students are gathering and sharing information as they search for work. “These students are very media savvy,” Brady says. “They’ll go out and surf for information and job opportunities. They’re very involved in social media networking.” The benefits of this increasingly rich and accessible digital sphere are obvious: It’s easier than ever for students to learn about companies, find job openings and even make direct contact with decision makers.

In fact, after PwC’s US chairman visited the campus, a student later sent him an email directly to inquire about working with the firm and eventually landed a job. To that end, Brady urges students to go deeper with their networking. “I’m trying to teach them how to talk to alumni who are working at firms they’re applying to—to not just send a text, but to hold a conversation and communicate verbally.”

The right fit

Whether the goal is to find a spot in the right training program or secure an offer from the perfect firm, both Lynam and Brady are adamant that right and perfect mean something different for every student and job seeker. Now more than ever, with accounting and business training in high demand in a growing number of fields, students have the responsibility—and the opportunity—to chart their own course toward professional satisfaction, even if it means navigating outside traditional routes.

Fortunately, people like Lynam and Brady are there to help. “I meet a lot of people, and I help them figure out who they are, what they want and if Fuqua’s a good choice for them,” Lynam says, boiling down her job description to a few plain words. “And if it’s not, then hopefully I’m helping them ask the right questions to figure out what school is.”

As for Brady, he’s pretty sure that every accounting student’s job search is based on the same basic desire, whether the end point is a job as CFO of a global corporation or a practice as a small-town CPA: “More than anything, they want a good fit,” he says. And in today’s promising market, if they follow some basic steps, they’re sure to find one.