How Katz Is Changing The MBA Experience

Katz Dean Arjang Assad

Katz Dean Arjang Assad

Ever wonder what MBA recruiters are really looking for? According to the 2016 Bloomberg Job Skills Report, they aren’t chasing after Excel ninjas or all-knowing oracles. Their needs are more bread-and-butter than surf-and-turf. These days, MBA recruiters cite “communication skills” as the least common and most desired trait – with intangibles like teamwork and leadership trailing closely behind.

In other words, the old priorities – expertise and experience – are giving way to new ones – adaptability and soft skills. Landing a job is less about what you know as much as who you are. Now, recruiters are seeking people who can work collaboratively and build rapport and consensus with little oversight…and even less drama.

Such a shift plays into the strengths of the University of Pittsburgh’s Katz Graduate School of Business. Here, the focus is on learning by doing and developing interpersonal skills. And the term “Katz Ready” – translated to mean being ready to immediately add value out of the gate – is the brand promise.


This mindset has made Katz popular with employers. Exhibit A: The school has consistently produced placement rates over 90%, peaking at 96% with the 2014 Class. Exhibit B: Starting salaries for the 2015 Class jumped from $80,096 to $88,027 in just one year (with average signing bonuses climbing from $8,727 to $12,019 to boot). In the process, the school has become an increasingly popular hiring ground for firms like Amazon, Texas Instruments, and Nationwide Insurance. The numbers go to show the value of going to a school that isn’t among the Top 25 in rankings.

And these figures are no accident, says Dean Arjang A. Assad, who replaced outgoing Dean John Delaney last July. He cites the program’s experiential-based learning model, featuring field projects, global trips, fellowships, and simulations, as its hallmark. Such a curriculum has become increasingly tempting to employers looking for something beyond pedigree.

“They are coming back to tell us that they actually see a difference in our students because they’ve been through this kind of program, which emphasizes hands on involvement and teamwork and pays a lot of attention to soft skills,” explains Assad. “Those things are seen by our employers as making a difference and that’s why they prefer to hire from Pitt.”

University of Pittsburgh's Katz Graduate School of Business is ranked 64th among the top 100 business schools in the U.S. by Poets&Quants.

University of Pittsburgh’s Katz Graduate School of Business


In the process, Katz has risen in the rankings, most strikingly with Bloomberg Businessweek, where it has leaped from 84th to 44th domestically over the past five years. One reason: The program is very selective in who it admits, resulting in a 22% acceptance rate for the full-time MBA Class of 2017. In doing so, the program deliberately remains small, with just 80 admits for the fall class. However, this strategy also makes Katz grads highly coveted by employers. “Employers have understood that we essentially do the screening and selection for them,” Assad reasons. “At the point of even admission, we will only admit students that we think will be good employees and ultimately great business leaders.”

The intimate nature of the Katz experience is also attractive to students. Assad paints a picture of a program where “everybody is recognized by name” and students receive “personalized service.” In such a snug environment, diversity is amplified, with the Class of 2017 boasting 44% international students, 36% women, and 20% underrepresented American minorities.

For Assad, such a tight-knit, personalized culture can only flourish in a small setting. “That requires a lot of time that you need to spend with your students, poring over their records and capabilities so you can provide the right kind of advice and hook them up with the right kind of firms,” Assad admits.

In an interview with Poets&Quants, Assad goes into further detail on these issues, as well as opening up about strategic plan and the unique benefits of its Pittsburgh locale. And you won’t want to miss his surprising answer to whether he would recommend an MBA to a stranger on the street.

Last summer, you became dean at Katz after a successful seven year run as dean of the University of Buffalo’s business school. What attracted you to Katz, particularly the MBA program, when you were interviewing to head the business program?

What attracted me to Pittsburgh was basically the entire school. By that, I mean not only the graduate school (Katz), but also our undergraduate program. I found the totality of what I saw, particularly what I saw with faculty and staff, very appealing.

With respect to the MBA program, I had some previous exposure to it when I visited the school in 2010 as part of the AACSB team. And I’ve kept watch on that program from Buffalo and comparing notes every now-and-then with my predecessor, Dean Delaney. I was impressed by the additional steps they’d taken since my visit. A lot of these steps were really reflective in how the MBA program rose in the rankings as well as the things that I care about, which is the nature of the instruction and what we’re doing for our students in terms of making them “Katz Ready” (as we call it).

Katz Students

Katz reported a 22% acceptance rate for the Class of 2017

Compared to other full-time MBA programs, what differentiates Katz both in terms of philosophy and (by extension) the programs that you offer students? What are some key advantages you have?

One factor that we’ve really emphasized in the last few years – and have increased our emphasis on it every year that goes by – is this whole notion of experiential-based learning. I know everyone talks about it, but we’ve taken a lot of time to see what it means for us and how we can do innovative things in that area.

Our cue for doing all of that comes from the employers who are hiring our students. They  are coming back to tell us that they actually see a difference in our students because they’ve been through this kind of program, which emphasizes hands-on involvement and teamwork and pays a lot of attention to soft skills. Those things are seen by our employers as making a difference and that’s why they prefer to hire from Pitt. When you get that kind of [feedback], you’re obviously motivated to do more. So that’s really the keystone of our approach in the MBA program.

Specifically, as far as what employers tell us about graduates, it ranges from being more confident in presentations to being more confident in working in unstructured environments where they have to define the problem before they can even work through and solve it. Many students thrown by those kinds of environments; they’re not familiar with being challenged to take a question where they don’t exactly know what the question might mean or what is the best way to translate that question into a knowledge base that they can draw upon. With experiential learning, you’re exposed to a variety of challenges that are given to you not just by faculty but also by corporate executives that we involve in our program (like executives in residence). As a result, over time, you develop this additional capability of being able to roll with the punches.

That’s what employers are remarking about. They say, ‘We know they’re well-trained. We’ve tested them on that. Their knowledge base is good too. But they also have this additional layer of skills that ultimately is about the ability to work in different challenging environments.’

Questions about this article? Email us or leave a comment below.