In an era where many schools are encouraging graduate students to acquire an incredible array of work experience before applying, Dean of the Simon School of Business Mark Zupan thinks students should start earlier.

Zupan, whose career path to the Dean of the Simon School started off at the University of Southern California, sat down with the Campus Times to discuss the future of Simon graduates and the appeal to entering graduate school early.

How did you get your job?
I ended up in administration almost by accident. I’ve been at it now for close to 20 years. Part of the appeal is that you get to work with a lot of motivated, bright people and no day is really the same.

With a thin job market for those entering the financial field, what sort of challenges are you seeing for Simon graduates?
I think they are still doing reasonably well. It’s the toughest job market we’ve seen since 1981. Looking back [at the] most successful alums, difficult times like these have a way of shaping your character and making [you] learn how to be more of an effective, creative force.

[Students should] have a broader portfolio, not just necessarily focused on investment banking because some industries go through significant changes, like investment banking. [They should know] how to be versatile and how to be open to opportunities in a new field and then maybe take a circuitous route to your field of choice.

What alternatives to investment banking are you seeing Simon students go to?
Finance and even elements of how you administer stimulus money effectively. Learning how to do that effectively can be a wonderful skill set for returning to the private sector. Finding things that people have done in their former careers that they are passionate about.

What about job recruiters? Are they showing up in smaller numbers?
It’s been slightly smaller but we have started to do more stuff in places like New York City or Washington D.C. We’re relying on Skype more. We’ve had a number of very effective, recent presentations along those lines.

They’ve [recruiters] also struggled, too, before and I think have some tolerance, too, for getting the next generation off on the right foot. It’s not just a one-shot deal but a longer-run proposition for their companies to acquire talent.

We’re assuming that the job market is going to be as tough this year as it was last year.

We hope to be pleasantly surprised in that regard.

Could you broadly describe the mechanism for Simon students to connect with alumni?

The biggest thing is to first understand what they want, to have their materials up to snuff, to know what their value proposition is. The second is taking the initiative to say, “I’m interested in going from A to B. Can I meet with you over a cup of coffee or can I talk with you over the phone to get your advice?’

With each alum, the common advice is if the conversation has gone well, ask him or her for five additional leads so you keep building your network. You only need one to be a hit.

So it sounds like that initial conversation with Simon alumni is key to opening the door?
It’s part of a broader family. UR has 110,000 alums. You’re part of more than just the Simon family. Just like Simon alums will help College alums when it comes to jobs, it works both ways. People have been amazingly supportive as alumni.

If you ask, most people will be willing to help. But you have to be willing to ask.

Where do you personally think the economy is going?
I think, in general, we’ve bottomed out. My worry is the extent to which we are adding to our debt burden. It’s well-intentioned to try and stimulate the economy; it’s just that the dollars don’t come out of thin air. My worry, as an economist, is to what extent is it going to be your generation, and the generation after that, because politicians typically are in office two to eight years. They don’t always have to be around when the bills come due.

Can you talk a bit about the idea of taking earlier M.B.A. candidates?
The norm has been to look for M.B.A. candidates four to six years out of college.

I ran into one of our senior accounting faculty here who said that the most important traits are smarts, drive, character, entrepreneurial zeal and, if you had to make a trade off, you would rather admit somebody straight out of college with those traits even though he or she may not have four to six years of experience. The other traits are harder to replicate.

So we’ve become more open to the idea of candidates three years [out of college] or less and of college students from UR.

There was a recent study published in an academic journal showing from a net present value perspective. It’s an incredibly attractive option to go earlier as opposed to later. When you get older, you give up more of a job prospect for two years. You also have higher switching costs if you are married and have kids.

Are there any new initiatives in the pipeline?
A big puzzle has been getting more people from the College. Thirty years ago, we were drawing twice as many students directly from UR. It could be because the conventional wisdom now is to wait four to six years, so how do we get the word out better on a college campus that that is counter intuitive? It may make all the sense in the world to pursue the M.B.A. now versus later.

So the general trend nationwide is to encourage M.B.A. students to start later, and you’re saying ‘No, let’s start earlier”?

We were the first school to start the reverse [on accepting younger students]. We’ve been on the innovative edge. We’ve historically tried to take out ads in college papers and hold information sessions.

We’re even experimenting with new technologies like YouTube and MySpace. How do we more effectively do the viral marketing to a generation that maybe doesn’t read the Wall Street Journal or the New York Times?

Willis is a member of
the class of 2011.

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