A Considered Life: Helping students make deliberate career choices
October 3, 2008
Howard and Matthew Greene
Two years ago, in writing about career planning for college students in "The [Next] Real World" (University Business, April and August 2006), we advised colleges to bring administrators, faculty, and students together to focus on finding paths to the right academic major and career. In our recently completed book — titled (as of press time) Ariadne's Thread: How a College Graduate Negotiates Life's Labyrinth (St. Martin's Press, 2009) — we encourage young, educated students and graduates to lead a considered life by looking for the thread or threads that have tied their lives together, or that they have followed from their early years through their college education.
Many college students and graduates we meet have never accessed the career planning and counseling resources provided by their college. There's a need to reach out proactively to students to bring them into the offices physically or online. Here is what we have written for student readers, in adapted form, which we hope will help administrators as they help prepare students for their work lives.
HAVE YOU EVER VISITED your college's career services office, spoken with its counselors, or looked at its website? In our discussions with current college students and graduates, we find that many students have never set foot in the office of their career and graduate school planning office. They don't seem to know such a resource exists, even as they complain about the lack of good counseling and mentoring on campus.
These days, career offices are not placement services that match students with employers. Rather, they can facilitate exploration. "We teach [students] how to make effective and thoughtful and deliberate decisions," said Kathy Sims, director of the career center at UCLA, in a May 16, 2008, Chronicle of Higher Education article.
Paradoxically, as desperate as most of you are for career help and advising, most of you avoid taking advantage of this major resource available both during college and after graduation. Are all career offices excellent in terms of their staff, knowledge base, facilities, and contacts? Of course not. But there are many good offices and counselors out there who can serve as coaches, allies, and sounding boards for you.
These offices play many roles today. They facilitate graduate school planning — for example, by coordinating with a premed advising program, the registrar (who is responsible for sending official transcripts), and the faculty (who write your recommendation letters, which may be kept on file at the office). Career offices typically maintain an alumni networking database to help you search for jobs and internships with graduates working in your fields of interest. They may coordinate this function with your college's alumni relations office.
Counselors host corporate, military, public service, and nonprofit recruiting fairs and individual visits. Many counselors actively promote your college's name and programs to attract recruiters to campus. Counselors can also help facilitate applications for competitive programs, such as the Fulbright, Rhodes, and Udall scholarships.
Some career services offices have extensive websites with the college's own self-evaluation and career matching tools. For example, with the Individualized Coaching Action Plan (ICAP), Vanderbilt University (Tenn.) students can complete an online questionnaire prior to their first visit to the office and have a plan created based on responses. The process helps students consider initial career interests and what they have accomplished to date, which they then discuss with a career counselor.
As Jim Bellar, senior assistant director of the career center, explains in the January 2008 Campus Career Counselor newsletter, "Activities are written on the ICAP as action plan steps. The coach also makes a copy of the plan for the student, and it is recorded in case notes." Following an initial visit, students can participate in events such as mock interviews, résumé and cover-letter writing workshops, and programs related to employment trends.
Some materials might be limited to a college's own students and graduates. Other colleges make their information available to the general public. There are also offices offering blogs with tips, trends, links, and strategies. Regardless of your career center office's offerings, make sure to visit.
TAKEAWAYS FOR ADMINISTRATORS
We hope this advice for students will trigger some thoughts on what your college or university can and should be doing to help them. As our book points out, liberal arts graduates need a lot of support in understanding the many skills and abilities they bring to the employment table. So do graduates with business, communications, education, nursing, or engineering degrees, but these "pre-professionals" might have a clearer sense of where their strengths lie, and what jobs suit their education, than do art history, environmental science, or political science majors.
Nearly every graduate needs prodding to define interests, abilities, strengths, talents, and threads. And everyone can use very practical work on résumé writing, interviewing skills, networking, etiquette in the workplace, multicultural understanding, and so on. Colleges are in a unique position to catch smart young people in a crucial formative stage of their lives and to help them see beyond obvious jobs to new careers in public service, at nonprofits, within global companies, or in education, bioinformatics, or information technology fields, to name just a few.
Today's students see their lives much more holistically, seeking a work-life balance different from that of their parents or grandparents. Yet they're concerned about security and income, paying off student loans, finding happiness, and making a difference. First-generation students and those whose first language is not English need specific kinds of assistance to utilize their skills in the marketplace.
As we wrote in the past, and believe is ever more important today, coaching college students and graduates through their career planning process is an essential, campuswide, ongoing task that requires the attention and commitment of administrators at all levels, including the highest levels of any institution.