Thursday, May 16, 2013


Career Services as Educational Appetizers

I have to confess some bias when it comes to career services, since my Mom directs the career services office for the MBA program at Drexel.  

That said, I was a little disappointed in this piece from IHE about recommended changes for career services offices on campus.  As provocative as the title was, the content struck me as, if anything, tame.

The traditional model for career services offices involves a few counselors who see students on a drop-in basis, usually at the end of their academic careers, and who try to coach the soon-to-be grads on search and interview skills.  In more progressive places -- hi, Mom! -- they’re involved in co-ops and internships.  

The idea behind the traditional model is that soon-to-be grads are already pretty much good to go; they just need to learn some etiquette points to get past the initial interview.  It’s assumed that students will figure out for themselves that they need the help, so just run a few workshops on resume writing and interview basics and call it good.

Over the past few years, I’ve seen a welcome trend take hold.  Instead of waiting until the end of a student’s program and then trying to retrofit a student for what’s out there, now some colleges are building career counseling into the first semester.  The idea is to help students identify their own interests early on, with the goal of improving motivation for degree completion.  Students with clear goals are likelier to stick around through the hard times than are students who are just drifting through.  “Interest inventories” and the like are supposed to help students figure out where their particular strengths and passions are, the better to find the right fit.

Going farther, I would love to see a more thoughtful discussion between the career services folk and the future starving artists.  You want to be a painter/photographer/artisan furniture maker?  Okay.  You should probably take a course on how to start your own business.  How, exactly, do freelancers handle marketing, taxes, and budgeting?  For people who want to make a living with their art, these are not trivial matters.  In this case, arts education and business education aren’t oppositional; the latter enables the former.  Some perfectly wonderful artists have come to grief because they did not know how to handle those things, so they wound up either not handling them, or being taken advantage of by the people to whom they turned for help.  And while local employers aren’t necessarily clamoring for more artists, people with passion have a way of making their own breaks.  As Richard Florida has documented, a thriving arts community has a way of paying off for everyone else.  If students with a passion for music learn how the economics of it work, they’ll stand a much better chance of being able to make music for a long time.

Early exposure to career services can also help in some of the more traditional academic disciplines.  When I taught at DeVry, students who saw themselves as future LAN technicians used to ask me why they had to take my gen ed classes.  I told them that their tech skills would get them their first job, but their communication skills would get them promoted.  Hearing that same message early on from the career services people would have helped.

And it’s not just rhetoric.  I go to plenty of employer advisory boards, in a host of fields, and I always hear the same thing.  Yes, technical skills matter, but so do the “soft skills” of deriving meaning from ambiguity, communicating clearly, and knowing the difference between making an argument and having an argument.  (I know educated adults who struggle with that one.)  If students could hear that early, from people who don’t have an obvious vested interest -- which is to say, the instructor of the course in question -- it could save a lot of unnecessary struggle.

I suspect that the “afterthought” status of career services, on many campuses, is a holdover from the time when it was assumed that college-educated people already had the cultural capital upon arrival to navigate the work world; all they might need would be a few last-minute pointers.  But that’s just not true anymore, if it ever was.  For students who really don’t know the score upon arrival, waiting until they’re leaving is just too late.  Better to get to them early, so they can appreciate what the academic side of the college can offer before it’s gone.

Career Services offices are nice, but we faculty have to take the lead, especially on early, pro-active things. I'm telling my freshmen from day 1 "Hey, there's a seminar speaker from such-and-such place next week, if you're smart you'll show up with resumes." Or "I go to a monthly networking event for professionals in my area of science, and a lot of students show up and eventually build relationships that lead to internships." Or "Think you're interested in this sub-field of science? Here are some trade magazines that people in the industry read. Maybe you should read those to start building the vocabulary and get a feel for the possible opportunities."

If we aren't passing this on to freshmen, if we aren't letting students know about careers relevant to their majors, telling the stories of alumni who went into different paths, and pointing out ways to prepare (e.g. telling artists to learn about marketing) then we're doing it very wrong.
I'd say you should be able to use more internships for units in various majors. That's the one wrinkle for most people - internships don't count for anything so they're work on top of school and it's hard for most people to pull that off.

Most faculty are not able to give this kind of help to students and most students don't know they need the help. But interships are the key to employement in ANY field after graduation. You have to have connections and a network.
I've had a long career in career counseling, so a lot of this rings true for me. Career Services IS something of an afterthought, sometimes especially in "elite" places where the degree is a signal to prospective employers. You are correct that this is changing in many places (and arguably should be in all of them). As someone in the trenches, here is the problem as I see it: So long as career services is optional, students will by and large opt out unless they see both an immediate and compelling need. ("I have an interview tomorrow, can I do a mock interview?")

Alex is correct that faculty can help, but in my experience, many (most?) students don't do things because they should, they do them for grades and/or requirements. If you really want students to take advantage of career services, career services must be brought into the classroom, and internships (or other experiential opportunities) should be a requirement for graduation, if they aren't part of an academic major as Ivory suggests.

The single most frustrating part of career services work is getting students to follow through (I suspect we share this with our faculty colleagues in great measure). However without the backing of credit/curricular requirement, all we have is carrot and no stick when it comes to student career accountability.
In the interest of being helpful (and not just crabby), I thought I'd offer this link, given your "future starving artists" scenario:

They offer resources, advice, workshops, and consulting (I think they will come to your campus) for the current and future artist community. Or, perhaps you could find something more local?

I think it needs to go further than having students identify interests and get internships. You can do those things, and still wind up confused about how the job market itself works, which can make it hard to find jobs you're qualified for. This is an area where students don't necessarily know the extent of their ignorance, too, which makes it harder for them to fix it.

Focusing on interests and skills translates very well to writing resumes and cover letters for publicly listed jobs with easy to understand titles. But that approach doesn't translate well to finding job openings that aren't listed on the internet, understanding how your skills might fit a job that doesn't have clear content (e.g. "coordinator"), or what it actually means to "network" as a verb.

It's not self-evident at all. For example, I'd never heard of an informational interview until late in graduate school, but it turns out you're supposed to do lots of them to learn what kind of jobs you might look for! For another example, if you're a student attending a "networking event," how do you start conversations and what do you talk about? How do you maintain those ephemeral connections afterward, if at all? If you do an internship at an organization where there are no openings after graduation, how do you find out whether the people you worked for can help you more generally, or does it just count as past work experience?

Probably this is all cultural capital stuff, and people who have it think it's common sense, whereas people who don't wouldn't even imagine it matters. But that might be somewhere colleges can make a difference.
Quite the timely post. I was informally advising a student who had asked about how to prepare to get an internship and letters of recommendation for same (yes, we can all dream, right?) and I told him to be sure to share his "goals" statement with the letter writer.

Then I asked him what his goals were, and what came back was probably what I would have said at his age. Four different majors that touch only at about 3 or 4 common pre-reqs! He needs an internship just to find out what the real world is like. Fortunately, we do have a career center that will help him with all of the above.
The work of Richard Florida has been the target of some heavy, and documented, critique. I'm not sure I'd base my economic life around his largely discredited ideas.
In the undergraduate business program from which I recently retired, we required two courses totalling 3 credit hours, related to this. The first, to be taken as a first or second year student is called "Career Perspectives," which is described as follows:

"A course designed to assist students in developing career and related academic goals and skills relative to professional employment in business administration; to assist students in making sound, informed choices regarding potential career paths and attendant academic options within the business administration degree program; to develop a more sophisticated understanding of the professional realm, the changing nature of work, and those tools and knowledge critical to developing effective career management skills."

The second is "Business Career Planning and Placement," taken near the end:

"Assists students in obtaining positions consistent with career goals. Career planning, organized employment campaign, job-application methods, interview, initial conduct on job. Includes addresses by prominent executives."

The business school has suggested that non-business students might enefit from these courses, but people in other programs (particularly Arts & Sciences) had no interest. If anyone wants more detaill about either of these two courses, you could contact Helen Harmon, who is the School's assistant director for undergraduate programs, at
Incidentally, while I agree with what everyone has said about the value of internships, there's abundant evidence that the internships that deliver these things are largely *paid* internships. Unpaid interns are generally valued by their "employers" at, essentially zero, and are generally not assigned "real" tasks.
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