The Career Management Center is a critical facet of a well-rounded experience within SMU Cox School of Business. The center serves all Cox students, from BBA and MS students to full-time and professional MBA candidates. There’s even a dedicated coach for alumni.

The center is more than curated job postings — it’s personified by the hardworking, loyal career coaches who help guide students through their SMU Cox journey, from admission to graduation to job offer. “You get to change people’s lives here,” says Jason Rife, senior assistant dean of Cox’s career center and graduate admissions. “That’s why I got into this business.”

Career Expertise on Demand

SMU career coach brandy dalton
Brandy Dalton leads BBA/MS Career Programs in the Cox Career Management Center.

Career centers are a key feature of top business schools, but what elevates the SMU Cox experience is high-touch, one-on-one training and experienced, versatile career coaches and their relationships with recruiters and employers. Rife, who previously helped the University of Florida’s Hough Graduate School of Business earn its first Top 25 ranking, is supported by coaches and administrators who have worked in government, the nonprofit sector, education and commercial real estate. These professionals have held roles ranging from private, executive-level trainers to former corporate recruiters. Rife looks for three things in a career coach: interviewing experience, the ability to teach and connect with students and passion.

In their pursuit of guiding students, coaches stay up to date on current recruitment trends, preferred interview types and the various methods and tools employers are using to assess candidates, says Brandy Dalton, director of the center’s Bachelor of Business Administration (BBA)/Master of Science (MS) career programs. Coaches and administrators also maintain amiable relationships with recruiters and employers, which gives them valuable insight into student performance and the ability to assess any skills gaps.

“Changing our program to meet those new trends and those new needs every year has been helpful for us in preparing the students to have an advantage during that recruitment process,” Dalton says. “It’s so important for us to be able to pick up the phone and chat with our employer partners and understand how well our students did in the [interview] process and what they are liking from what they see of Cox grads or students going through their process.”

The center’s staff members know what students want and what recruiters need. “I’ve been fortunate to see just about every angle of the recruiting process,” says Rife, who’s worked in marketing, finance, recruiting and consulting at companies such as ExxonMobil and McKinsey & Company. “I’ve been a candidate for MBA roles, sat on the other side of the table as an interviewer and served as a career coach. Those experiences enable me to help others tell their stories and connect the dots between where they’ve been and where they want to go.”

(From left): Full-time staffers Briana Baker Hart and Briann Stegall, with a team of contract coaches, work with Full-Time MBAs. Full-time staffers Anne Cadigan Dunlap and Katherine Hearty, with a team of contract coaches, work with Working Professional MBAs.

An Intentional Approach

There are dedicated coaches for Cox students at every level. From admission to graduation, a student’s assigned career coach helps them determine career goals, establish a personal branding strategy and identify their strengths and weaknesses, says Briana Baker Hart, director of Full-Time MBA Career programs.

Whether coaching BBA students or MBA candidates, the center is about results-driven functionality and practicality. Coaches help students translate classroom learnings into networking and interviewing settings. Coaches also help students recognize one of the most overlooked aspects: viable options. “Sometimes when students come into the program, they’re not aware of all the opportunities that are out there in the marketplace for their skill set,” says Anne Cadigan Dunlap, director of Working Professional MBA Career programs. “One of the things we try to impart during our programming and during our classes is how to translate your skills into the job opportunities that are out there.”

There are two predominant ways the Career Management Center supports MBA candidates who are working professionals: helping them maintain full-time employment throughout the program and assisting them in achieving their MBA-driven career goals. “In certain times, the economy shifts,” Dunlap says. “We work as a coaching staff to support full employment in the program.”

Should a candidate lose their job during their tenure in the program, Career Management Center staff assist them in finding a position that fits into their desired career trajectory, whether it’s a similar role or something new. “We work with them throughout the program to network into the industry or the roles they want to pivot into so that at the end of their program, they’re well-set up for achieving those goals,” Dunlap says.

Another unique feature is the center’s virtual Cox alumni career coach, whose job is centered on alumni needs. This coach dedicates her time to alumni who are in different stages of the job search. In addition to reviewing résumés and cover letters, the alumni career coach connects alumni with potential opportunities and helps guide them through difficult salary negotiations.

Plentiful resources aside, the center is known for the one-on-one connections formed between students and coaches. “You go through a lot of the emotions with the students because you get so invested in the relationship,” Dalton says. “You almost feel like their losses are your losses and their wins are your wins because you’ve walked through the journey with them and have seen their troubles and have tried to help.”

Simulating the Real World

In addition to traditional resources, the center takes an elevated approach to preparing students for the job market by providing interview simulations. “You have to have realistic simulations of what you’re actually going to face,” Rife says. “The expression we use is ‘train like you fight.’”

In that vein, coaches help students practice everything from panel interviews to boardroom presentations — complete with constructive criticism and insider-level advice from people who have been on the other side of the table.

Recently, the center helped an MBA candidate prepare for an interview with one of the “biggest retailers in the world,” Rife says. Tasked with conducting an analysis and presenting recommendations, the student simulated his presentation in front of Career Management Center coaches, who provided insightful feedback. Although pitted against candidates from Top 10 business schools such as Wharton, the student got the job — and a compliment from a senior vice president who said the presentation was the best he’d seen from any candidate he’d ever hired.

Paying It Forward

One of the most notable and attractive characteristics of an SMU Cox education is the tight-knit, invaluable alumni network. There’s a strong pay-it-forward mentality throughout the Cox community that has aided the center’s coaching efforts.

“I don’t think our students would be so successful without having those partnerships already in place,” Dalton says. “I think that’s one of the things that really sets SMU Cox specifically apart: those relationships and that giving-back mentality.”

To foster these critical connections, the center works to incorporate alumni into their programming in an effort to give students valuable networking opportunities. Dalton and Dunlap shared anecdotes of alumni helping open their employers’ doors to Cox students. “They learn how the [alumni] support has helped them, and they are very willing and very helpful in supporting other students who are in the process,” Dunlap says.

Pivoting to Meet Evolving Needs

Last year, COVID-19 ushered in a general economic slowdown, sidelining prominent industries such as hospitality and aviation. The center’s efforts haven’t been insulated from the pandemic’s lingering impact, but the staff’s teamwork and ability to quickly pivot have helped shepherd students through the fray.

In the spring of 2020, as recruiting and hiring processes slowed, coaches guided and assisted students who had been forced back to square one of their job search after internship and full-time offers were rescinded, Rife says. Another challenge was bridging the communication gap between Cox students and employers. “The biggest thing that has happened over the past year is we’ve had to impart virtual networking and interviewing skills to students who potentially didn’t realize how critical those were going to be in our new economy,” Dunlap says.

The Career Management Center team worked quickly to develop programming and interview simulations tailored to a virtual environment, allowing students practice before performance. The center also shifted its approach with employers, establishing and organizing virtual career fairs, panels and “coffee chats” with students.

On the career development side, Broderick was busier than usual this past March through May due to pandemic-related job losses. The function of her job has remained the same. “I’m helping people with résumés and interview prep no matter what the economy is,” she says. “All those core things are the same.” But Broderick has also become a safe space for job seekers. “What I have found has been different is that some people just need to vent more or have an ear to listen that’s an objective outsider,” she says. Thankfully, in the early months of this year, she’s seeing a growing number of interviews and job acceptances.

Challenges aside, the center has found a silver lining to pandemic-induced distance: increased engagement. “Our accessibility has actually increased; our appointment volume went up 85% between 2019 and 2020,” Rife says. “So, we were actually able to see more students more often by switching and becoming adaptive in this virtual environment.”

Guiding Students into the Future

The CMC will have a prominent location within the new Cox School of Business building once it opens. Rife has strategic plans for growth and expansion, including strengthening peer coaching programs and increasing the School’s involvement in case competitions, which helps build students’ presentation skills.

A predominant goal is bridging the gap between admissions and the Career Management Center. “[We will continue] to strengthen those ties and make sure we are bringing in and developing top-tier students to give our employers strong talent from which to draw,” Rife says.