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Articles > School Advancement Q&A > Engaged alumni can provide the best careers support

Engaged alumni can provide the best careers support

The strength and level of engagement of a school’s alumni network can make the biggest difference to the success of their students. So says Mark Davies, Careers Manager for the Michael Smurfit Graduate Business School at University College Dublin in Ireland. Previously, he spent 10 years in a similar role a top UK university. 
In this interview, Davies shares his top tips for alumni engagement. 
What is your role, and how long have you been in it?

I have been doing this since January 2018 but I had previously worked in a business school careers service in London for 10 years. I don’t just advise students. I also plan budget spend, launch and maintain online resources or applications, build relationships with alumni and employers, research the job market, gather and draw insights from employment data for rankings or marketing, provide expertise to internal strategic working groups or committees, and liaise with experts who can deliver workshops to complement our internal capacity. I’m also involved in marketing the programmes and admitting students.

What does a typical week look like for you? 

It might include one day meeting individual students to discuss their career plans, two or three admissions interviews and an admissions committee meeting, calling a recruiter about a role they are trying to hire for, attending a meeting to review our MBA programme, messaging alumni to ask them to speak at a networking event, agreeing content with an external consultant who is delivering a workshop, updating a presentation I have to deliver, and writing an email communication to students.

I’m also addicted to LinkedIn, which is incredibly useful in my job, but I’ll freely admit I probably spend too many hours per week looking at it! 
What projects are you currently working on?

I have just completed research into the skills that employers most frequently demand from MBA graduates and those that are likely to remain important in the future. It’s no surprise that communication, analytical skills and complex problem solving come out on top. The results will feed into the review of our MBA programmes, to inform what and how we teach our students, but also into the activities we ask our employer partners to support us with. 
I’m looking at how alumni and companies can provide more short ‘consulting-like’ experiences and ‘hackathons’. Students could be set complex challenges by companies and then have to solve them creatively and present back their ideas. This not only builds these key skills, but gives potential employers the ability to see how they perform.

At the moment we’re also gearing up for the new academic year. For example, I’m having to learn a three-hour induction workshop, which will be tailored and delivered by the team over 20 times to each of our master’s programmes. I’m also setting up ‘VMock’, machine learning technology that provides automated feedback to students on their CV, enabling them to produce a good CV before seeing us face to face in the careers service – this is a huge time saver and the tip of the iceberg in terms of high volume ‘manual’ activities that are likely to be replaced with technology over the coming years. 

Finally, I’m identifying and contacting alumni to take part in networking events and panel discussions. 

Any examples of past successes?

I won’t put a number on it, but I’ve made substantial savings this past year by cutting down on duplication, increasing attendance and bringing certain activities in-house. This has allowed us to reinvest in new technology, additional activities and resources.

I’ve also taken a more planned, prioritised and proactive approach to employer and alumni engagement. I don’t have time to be out with companies as much as I would like, but I’ve managed to meet face-to-face with 30 this past year, which is a great start and critically important because I am still relatively new to the Irish employment market, so needed to build my knowledge and network quickly.

Any surprises?

I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how helpful our UCD Smurfit alumni have been. I don’t ask for money, but I ask for time and in the majority of cases the answer is ‘yes’. The strength and level of engagement of the alumni network can make the biggest difference to the success of our students. It’s absolutely critical to careers services.

What are your goals for the next academic year?

To increase student participation and engagement. We have some great initiatives, but not always high levels of use/attendance. I’m always spinning plates, so there’s a danger that while I focus on one thing, something else drops. While I engaged with alumni and recruiters these past few months, I took my eye off the students,so I need to find a balance.

What advice they have for people who are new to the sector?

I personally love working in a business school. For me, it’s the perfect balance between commercial and public sector. We have the stability and support of a large university, but our students pay high fees, are only here for a year and our competitors are international, so there is rightly some ‘commercial’ pressure to deliver an excellent service to keep students choosing us over other schools around the world. Here at UCD Smurfit, we’re trusted experts who are given a relatively high degree of autonomy to make that happen.

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