Professional development at HKS: A missed opportunity?


cartoon1Both the school and the students need to focus on professional development to make the most of the Kennedy School experience

By Varun Bhandari

It’s a cold February and recruitment season is underway at HKS. Students are burnishing their resumes, attending presentations, networking furiously, all hoping to land an internship or a job at their dream organization. For many students, this is one of the main reasons they attend graduate school.

But is the school doing enough to help them achieve their objectives? In a survey conducted by the school in 2011, nearly 50 percent of students polled reported that they were dissatisfied with the career services offered by the school. The consequences are stark: Nearly 40 percent of HKS students graduate without a job. For those with student debt, it can be an even more overwhelming proposition.

While the MBA attracts a different profile of students, it provides a helpful comparison – after all, it also is a professional graduate degree for people with a few years of work experience. As a cross-registered student at Harvard Business School (HBS), I have observed how differently the school conducts its recruitment process. The results are striking: 80 percent of HBS graduates seeking a job have secured one by graduation.

How do they do it? First and foremost, professional development is placed at the heart of the MBA curriculum at HBS. Students are encouraged to think constructively about their future career paths and tailor their coursework appropriately. Staying true to its DNA as a professional school, the course offerings are designed to endow students with practical tools that they can use in the workplace.

Regular one-on-one sessions with career counselors help students crystallize their thoughts and plan a holistic strategy for their career. The Career & Professional Development team at HBS is well staffed and specialized across industry verticals. They have extensive contacts with industry and in-depth information about the various career opportunities, depending on the students’ area of interest.

Now, contrast this with HKS. The career counselor ratio for HBS is approximately 30 students to 1 counselor, while at HKS it is 60 to 1. A well-resourced and staffed recruitment system should not be underestimated. Staff contact recruiters and alumni market HKS students to organizations, and help guide students find the right job for them.

Besides providing these resources, the administration also aligns the academic schedule with recruiting – second-year MBA students get a week off in October, where hundreds of companies fly in to recruit students. The tension in the air during that week is palpable. Recruitment is taken seriously. By comparison, the atmosphere at HKS is remarkably tranquil, barring impending midterm papers or exams.

This comes at a cost, though. While many of their peers at HBS have secured a job by November, HKS students look forward to a second year burdened by the hassle of searching for jobs, while juggling packed academic and extracurricular schedules. The message seems to be: “Enjoy now, regret later.”

While HKS should consider tinkering with the academic schedule and expanding career resources, the onus of finding the right job also lies with the student.

Sarah Glavey, a final-year MPA student agrees that students “need to work hard to create [their] own opportunities.” She illustrates by her own example, “A contact I made on the ‘HKS goes to Washington’ trip shared additional contacts…and after a lot of following up on my side, I secured an internship.”

The Harvard name opens many doors and proactive students find a plethora of opportunities through the much-maligned networking process. For many, especially international students, the very thought of networking triggers feelings of anxiety or diffidence. This is cultural adjustment that would serve them well. NGOs and international organizations can be opaque in their hiring, so it helps to be tapped into these networks via LinkedIn, the alumni database, or networking events.

Another advantage of HKS is the diverse and accomplished student body. Many students have worked in organizations at which their fellow students aspire to work. Midcareer students especially can provide a useful sounding board as well as contacts, given their relative experience. One of the election promises of this year’s student government officers is to facilitate networking between programs. The networking database launched last week is a useful starting point.

The system clearly needs work, but it will need to be a partnership between the administration and the students. At HKS we draw strength from an impressive and highly accomplished student body. With a focused approach on career building from the outset, and additional support from the administration, there is no reason we cannot do better to ensure all students leave with an opportunity that allows them an opportunity to “ask what they can do.”