Aligning Employer Needs with Student Learning in College

In President Obama’s 2014 speech at Knox College, he called the “undisciplined system where costs just keep on going up and up and up” in colleges and universities unsustainable, and said he would lay out an aggressive strategy to shake up higher education. A better approach would be for higher education to take the lead and accelerate the pace at which it re-invents itself, while making more effective use of institutional funds.

Re-thinking College to Career

A key place for higher education to start is in re-thinking how students can be better prepared to find work. Most colleges would agree that the perception of job success after graduation from a particular institution is a key driver of matriculation, and that more successful graduates eventually lead to greater philanthropy. But too much of the attention paid to the goal of career preparation is simply lip service, with the blame going to Career Services offices when results are poor. Career Services certainly need to be part of the re-invention process, and take a much more data-driven approach to their work. But they can’t solve their students’ career problems without broad institutional support on the front end.

What Employers Want

All the career assistance in the world is not going to help the student who isn’t qualified. Yet how many of our institutions have any sense of what employers are expecting of students and graduates when they hire them for internships and full time work? According to the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) Job Outlook 2013 Spring Update, employers rank the most desired skills and characteristics as follows:

#1 Ability to verbally communicate with persons inside and outside the organization
#2 Ability to make decisions and solve problems
#3 Ability to obtain and process information
#4 Ability to plan, organize, and prioritize work
#5 Ability to analyze quantitative data
#6 Technical knowledge related to the job
#7 Proficiency with computer software programs
#8 Ability to create and/or edit written reports
#9 Ability to sell or influence others

Mapping how students can acquire the necessary skills

During the time a student is in college, he or she typically has four ways through which to develop the skills required by employers: The classroom; co-curricular or extracurricular activities; internships or other experiential education; and, the Career Center. The easiest way to become competent in any of these areas is through internships. But that doesn’t mean we can’t significantly boost many the student’s skill sets and desired characteristics while they are on campus.The following chart illustrates the opportunities:

2013 Skills Employers Seek NACE, AACU

The graduate skills deficit

As the above chart indicates, there are multiple ways during the time students are in college to help them acquire practical skills. But cross referencing the NACE employer data with data from the Hart Research Associates’ survey of employers conducted for the American Association of Colleges and Universities (AACU) illustrates that there is much work still to be done. Of the nine top skill sets identified as important in the NACE survey, six were highlighted in the AACU survey as areas to which higher education should pay more attention.

The three top areas in which employers found students deficient were:
1) verbal communications
2) written communications
3) problem solving and decision making

What can colleges and universities do?

What stands out from a review of employer needs and college graduate deficits is that a new way of preparation from college to career is required. If we want students to acquire the skills sought by employers, we must be clear how, where and why they need to develop them. We can’t just say “go to the Career Center and go there early”. The fact is, skills required by employers take time to develop. Staff in the Career Center don’t have that time, or even, perhaps, the expertise. They are better positioned to concentrate on teaching students the job search strategies and skills they need to be successful in their applications for employment.

One argument against building skill development into classes is that it will somehow diminish the quality of the education. But, integrating such skills into a course is totally consistent with a highly rigorous education–even a liberal arts education. There are plenty of ways, for example, that opportunities to do oral presentations can be built into humanities classes, or white papers required in classes on pressing social issues. Even statistics classes can require students to develop problem solving skills using real world examples, like analyzing baseball scores.

The key is to help students understand what they need to learn, advise them how to learn it, and help them reflect on how to practice and enhance skills in and out of the classroom. There are roles for faculty, administrators, alumni, coaches and career professionals to play. When the entire institution is involved in preparing students for post-graduation success in a very targeted way, we have a much greater chance of making that success happen.

What Can You Do With a Degree in Archeology?

The current national focus on the cost of a college education and loan default rates has caused many to debate the value of a liberal arts degree.

On one side of the debate are the naysayers, who assume that if the title of your major is not also the name of a career, the degree must be of little use in the real world. On the other side are the educators, who highlight the high-level skills learned through a liberal arts education, but provide no evidence that employers of entry-level graduates actually demand those skills.

Absent from the discussion are voices of alumni, who have found ways to connect both subject matter and skill sets developed in college to a wide variety of careers. Many of these careers do not show up on the “typical career path” resource sheet.

In our book Smart Moves for Liberal Arts Grads: Finding a Path to Your Perfect Career, we profiled 23 liberal arts grads from 19 different schools, with 23 different careers. Not one would have traded their liberal arts degree for a “more practical” major. The reason? They ended up being able to make a decent living at work they loved.

Prospective liberal arts grads need to hear the career stories of successful graduates, but they also benefit from an in-depth look at how a liberal arts education can be used.

Graeme Davis, an archeology graduate, who is currently a successful writer and designer of video games, gives an excellent account of how he uses his education every day in his work:

Math: Math is a good grounding for anything computer-ish, but as a game designer rather than a programmer I still found algebra and probability indispensible in designing statistical systems for games. The state of the art in game design is getting more technical with every year that passes, making these even more important. On the soft-skill side, any mathematical subject (and I’d include physics there) teaches the kind of organized thinking that is vital for game development. It also gives me at least a chance of understanding what the programmers on my projects are talking about – sometimes it can sound like Martian to me – and good communication between disciplines (design, programming, art) is vital on a big, expensive project like an AAA video game!

English: Writing is at the core of what I do, so much so that I now call myself a game writer with design experience rather than a game writer/designer. I despised English literature when I was in high school, arrogantly thinking that I wanted to be a writer, not to obsess over the work of other writers. I was young and foolish, what can I say? I have come to recognize that as with painters, one’s own technique and understanding of the medium is immeasurably enhanced by studying the work of the masters. Story is a huge part of what makes a good game into a great game, and there is a surprising amount of dialogue and narration in most games – I’ve heard 60 hours (that’s 20-30 Hollywood movies’ worth) in a top-line MMORPG like World of Warcraft.

History: I came to history later in life, but quite apart from the work I’ve done on historical games (like the BAFTA-winning Total War strategy game series) it’s been tremendously important for doing things like creating fantasy settings for games. Understand how history and mythology work, and you can create fake histories and mythologies that ring true. Tolkien couldn’t have created The Lord of the Rings without his academic background in Anglo-Saxon literature. Oh, and enough Latin stuck with me that I was the go-to guy for fake-Latin Space Marine mottos in Warhammer 40,000, during my four years at Games Workshop.

Modern Languages: I studied French and German. They’ve come in handy on trips, such as the handful of visits I made to Paris for a project with Ubisoft. And as with history and mythology, an understanding of how languages work helps you construct fake ones for a fantasy game. For example, when I was writing for Warhammer Fantasy products, I twisted Welsh and Gaelic words for the Elven languages, while the Dwarf tongue was based on slightly mangled words from Scandinavian languages.

Geography: Like history, geography has come in useful in creating fantasy worlds. Knowing how landforms, climates, and so on all work helps create a more convincing world.
Biology: Once again, knowing about basic processes, anatomy, and ecology in this world helps create others that ring true.

Archeology: Fantasy worlds tend to be at a medieval level of technology, often with iron-age or dark-age barbarians nibbling at their frontiers. I’ve also written historical sourcebooks (Vikings, iron-age Celts, Rome, medieval England, and most recently the Thirteen Colonies up to the Revolutionary War) for Dungeons & Dragons and similar games.”

Most students have a very narrow frame of reference when it comes to careers. And, their parents often reinforce the myth that your major dictates how you will ultimately earn your living. Too often, relatives who hear that a student is majoring in history, philosophy or English will ask “what are you going to do with that”, reinforcing the idea that a liberal arts degree is a fast path to unemployment.

What students need to hear are stories of graduates, like Graeme Davis, whose education, inside and outside the classroom, has enabled him to follow his passion. The examples of these graduates will inspire students to make informed educational decisions, rather than following the crowd. And faculty may find a few more students in their archeology classes.

Advice for the Parents of Liberal Arts Freshmen

When students return to college, or set foot on campus for the first time, it’s normal for parents to have conflicting emotions. One of those emotions is frequently anxiety about the cost of education and the value of that education in the real world. But such concerns are likely to be brushed away by the assumption that as long as their sons and daughters take it easy on the partying and pay attention to their studies, they’ll be rewarded with a good job at graduation. At a time when the unemployment rate for recent bachelor’s grads is at an all-time high (13.1%) it’s essential to question this assumption. The path from college to a good career is not automatic; it takes considerable work on the student’s part, starting early in their time at college. Follow the ten lessons below and today’s college students will not only be better prepared for life after college; they will also gain maximum advantage and enjoyment from their education.

  • A college education happens everywhere—in the classroom, through extracurricular activities, on the athletic field, through internships and beyond. Learning outside, as well as inside, the classroom may prove to be more important to your career than the subject of your degree. Take responsibility for, and engage with all aspects of your education. It will make your college experience more meaningful and it will be helpful to your career.
  • When you matriculate at a college, you’re not expected to know what you want to do after you leave that college. Abandon preconceived notions of acceptable career directions. Make the decision yours—not your parents, nor your peers! To explore potential avenues of interest, take advantage of opportunities such as becoming a leader of a campus group or doing research with faculty, and weigh the value of internships versus other summer options.
  • Recognize that confusion and discomfort is not only normal, it’s expected and it’s a good thing. Give yourself permission to not be perfect. Allow yourself to fail. But make sure you learn from failure. You can recover from a “D”. Colleges typically have many resources available to students. Taking early advantage of the academic advising and academic resource centers, for example, can get you back on track and help you make the most of your education.
  • Don’t choose your major too early, or decide on a major because you think you need it for a particular career. (You may not!) While you should be strategic about choosing some of your early courses if you’re leaning in a particular direction (e.g., economics, biology, pre-health, public policy), it’s much more important to study what you love than to follow a path that may be more common but doesn’t interest you. For most students, the subject matter of your degree will not determine your career. Most careers can be pursued with any major. Resist the temptation to build academic credentials at the expense of exploring new horizons. And do not double major for the sake of a credential. Few employers believe double-majoring confers a career advantage.
  • A high GPA may be necessary for a good graduate school, professional school or fellowships/scholarships, but a very high GPA is not essential for most positions and employers rarely consider GPA for second jobs. Students with a stellar academic record aren’t necessarily the best candidates for employment. Employers want to see transferable skills, which can be drawn from any part of your education.
  • Further education can be a great idea, but may not be as necessary as you think. Only go to graduate school or professional school if you are convinced you need that type of education for what you want to do. Increasingly students are working for a while before going on to further education, providing the opportunity to consider the value and need for graduate and professional school.
  • Study abroad can be very helpful to your career. But it can only give you a real career advantage if you step outside your comfort zone and learn skills like linguistic fluency, cross-cultural competency, flexibility, resilience, and decision making/problem solving. Avoid having an American experience abroad, rather than a true international experience. It is through different and difficult experiences that you are most likely to find answers to one of the most important career questions “Who are you and what do you want to do with your life?”.
  • You’re missing the boat if you don’t build relationships with faculty, staff and advisors early, and throughout your time at college: they can be your biggest allies and guides.
  • Define success for yourself, even if it means you’ll be temporarily unemployed at graduation and won’t be making the highest salary. Being employed at graduation has more to do with the type of employer you seek than with your value to the work world. Most employers of college grads do “just in time” hiring, so that you can only be hired when an employee has left. Prepare for the job search while at college, but recognize the actual application process may happen after finals.
  • Careers don’t happen over night: they take time. Build a partnership with counselors in your Career Center and with other trusted advisors, so that you learn the realities of life after graduation, and understand how you can best prepare yourself through education for life.

A Liberal Arts Education: Not Only Relevant, but Critical to Career Success

When the employment situation is bleak, thousands of students gravitate towards subjects like business, communications, or economics, turning their backs on liberal arts subjects. Many do so because they perceive it to be the safest way to avoid unemployment at graduation. Few have made the case to students that the pursuit of a broad academic education may be a more effective strategy to achieve the desired result. So it was with great interest that I read a discussion of this topic on my alma mater’s LinkedIn site (Durham University Alumni). The specific question asked was how graduates used subjects like history, science or languages in their day-to-day work.

I found one answer particularly helpful, because it clearly articulated how the author’s knowledge of multiple subjects influenced his success in writing and designing video games. Graeme Davis moved into the games industry after graduating with a degree in archeology. This is an edited version of Graeme’s account, describing how he has used his educational background:

Math: Math is a good grounding for anything computer-ish, but as a game designer rather than a programmer I still found algebra and probability indispensible in designing statistical systems for games. The state of the art in game design is getting more technical with every year that passes, making these even more important. On the soft-skill side, any mathematical subject (and I’d include physics there) teaches the kind of organized thinking that is vital for game development. It also gives me at least a chance of understanding what the programmers on my projects are talking about – sometimes it can sound like Martian to me – and good communication between disciplines (design, programming, art) is vital on a big, expensive project like an AAA video game!

English: Writing is at the core of what I do, so much so that I now call myself a game writer with design experience rather than a game writer/designer. I despised English literature when I was in high school, arrogantly thinking that I wanted to be a writer, not to obsess over the work of other writers. I was young and foolish, what can I say? I have come to recognize that as with painters, one’s own technique and understanding of the medium is immeasurably enhanced by studying the work of the masters. Story is a huge part of what makes a good game into a great game, and there is a surprising amount of dialogue and narration in most games – I’ve heard 60 hours (that’s 20-30 Hollywood movies’ worth) in a top-line MMORPG like World of Warcraft.

History: I came to history later in life, but quite apart from the work I’ve done on historical games (like the BAFTA-winning Total War strategy game series) it’s been tremendously important for doing things like creating fantasy settings for games. Understand how history and mythology work, and you can create fake histories and mythologies that ring true. Tolkien couldn’t have created The Lord of the Rings without his academic background in Anglo-Saxon literature. Oh, and enough Latin stuck with me that I was the go-to guy for fake-Latin Space Marine mottos in Warhammer 40,000, during my four years at Games Workshop.

Modern Languages: I studied French and German. They’ve come in handy on trips, such as the handful of visits I made to Paris for a project with Ubisoft. And as with history and mythology, an understanding of how languages work helps you construct fake ones for a fantasy game. For example, when I was writing for Warhammer Fantasy products, I twisted Welsh and Gaelic words for the Elven languages, while the Dwarf tongue was based on slightly mangled words from Scandinavian languages.

Geography: Like history, geography has come in useful in creating fantasy worlds. Knowing how landforms, climates, and so on all work helps create a more convincing world.

Biology: Once again, knowing about basic processes, anatomy, and ecology in this world helps create others that ring true.

Archeology: Fantasy worlds tend to be at a medieval level of technology, often with iron-age or dark-age barbarians nibbling at their frontiers. I’ve also written historical sourcebooks (Vikings, iron-age Celts, Rome, medieval England, and most recently the Thirteen Colonies up to the Revolutionary War) for Dungeons & Dragons and similar games.”

Most students have a very narrow frame of reference when it comes to careers. And, their parents often reinforce the myth that your major dictates how you will ultimately earn your living. Too often, relatives who hear that a student is majoring in history, philosophy or English will ask “what are you going to do with that”, reinforcing the idea that a liberal arts degree is a fast path to unemployment. What students need to hear are stories of graduates, like Graeme Davis, whose education, inside and outside the classroom, has enabled him to follow his passion. The examples of these graduates will inspire students to make informed educational decisions, rather than following the crowd. And faculty may find a few more students in their archeology classes.

Higher Education: Don’t Ignore Your Liberal Arts Majors

In an Interfolio blog article on November 5, Mike Lovell makes the case that careers offices should pay more attention to their liberal arts majors. He cites a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education by Katharine Brooks. I applaud Ms. Brooks’ idea of partnering with faculty. I also like the idea of offering students a course through which they identify their transferable skills, whether through a credit or a not-for-credit program. But I’d like to go much further. In the 21st century, when an economic return on tuition investment is so important to both students and parents, it is incumbent upon everyone in a college or university—from the President on down—to be talking about education and graduate success in the same breath, and to do so from the first year on. Because if talking about a student’s future is confined to the upper-class classroom and the occasional visit to the careers office, we will still end up with graduates who can’t make the connection between college and career.

What liberal arts students need is universal support to explore different career fields; stories about alumni and how they found paths to work they love; a great deal of experiential education; and, strategies to make their education relevant to the hiring managers who are considering their applications for employment. Students can’t just jump from a college career course to a job. There is much work that needs to go on in between those two milestones, and it will take the collaboration of university administration as well as alumni, faculty and the careers office to make that happen.

The Association of American Colleges and Universities is engaged in a very interesting initiative called LEAP (Liberal Education and America’s Promise), which “champions the value of a liberal education for economic creativity and democratic vitality”. Its Liberal Education Outcomes Report, produced in 2005, does a great job of identifying the intellectual and practical skills obtained through a good liberal arts education. Intuitively, it makes sense that a liberal education would promote quantitative and information literacy, but a student telling the employer that she has these skills is likely to be met with blank stares. We need a different language to help students communicate the value of their education to an employer, and we need to be honest: most employers of entry level graduates don’t really care about a student’s education (as long as he has the educational qualification they seek); they care about whether he can do the job the employer needs to have done, and to do so with very little training. With a pre-professional degree, it is clear what a graduate can do; a liberal arts grad has to work much harder to demonstrate that she has the knowledge and skills to do the job. Almost always, she will need to supplement her education with related work experience.

In Smart Moves for Liberal Arts Grads, a book I coauthored in 2006, we illustrated through the stories of 23 liberal arts grads that the education they received was often extremely useful—but only when they were well on in their career. And, of the top Fortune 100 CEOs, for whom undergraduate degree is known, 35% have degrees in the liberal arts. Clearly a liberal education has value in higher level positions. But what about the 2010 grad whose career aspiration does not coincide with the title of his degree? No amount of fancy language or learning outcomes are going to help him find employment in this market. In fact his liberal arts education may seem totally irrelevant. We need to make our new graduates feel comfortable with the fact that their liberal arts skills and knowledge will not be wasted. Almost certainly, liberal arts grads will find themselves utilizing their liberal arts knowledge and skill sets for decades into the future. But for now, higher education–not just the careers office– must help liberal arts majors simply find a job.

Do You Need An Ivy League Degree to Rise to the Top in Business?

Thousands of high school seniors will apply to Ivy League universities this fall. For most, receiving a fat acceptance package is considered equivalent to winning the financial and career lottery. Rejection, however nicely expressed, is cause for huge disappointment—even despair. But how important is it to get into an Ivy if you want to reach the highest echelons of business? A new survey of the educational background of Fortune 100 CEOs suggests it may be much less important than you might think.

Consider the following data points from the Fortune 100 CEO survey:

  • Thirteen CEOs received their undergraduate degrees from Ivy League institutions. But fourteen received their degrees from international colleges and universities. Not one Fortune 100 CEO graduated from Brown, Columbia or Princeton.
  • Five CEOs graduated from Harvard, but another five graduated with an undergraduate degree from a British university.
  • Ten Fortune 100 CEOs did receive a graduate degree from Harvard. No other institution came close.

Given the data, it is hard to make the case for going to any particular undergraduate college or university. So do the Fortune 100 CEOs have any educational characteristics in common? Unfortunately, there is no information available about activities while in college, or GPA. What we do know, however, is that 85% of the Fortune 100 CEOs for whom information is available, majored at the undergraduate level in one of four areas: Engineering, Business Administration, Economics/Finance and Accounting. All these areas have a strong quantitative bias. The remaining 15%, studied in a wide variety of areas from history to geology or biology. Two thirds of the CEOs obtained an advanced degree, with about a third of the Fortune 100 choosing to complete an MBA.

Does the quality of education make a difference to someone’s ability to become a CEO of a Fortune 100 company? Absolutely. But the data suggests that a smart person can get a quality education just about anywhere. Perhaps the secret to success is both simpler, but also more difficult to achieve: To reach the top, you obviously need to be a great leader, with vision and drive. But you also need good mentors and the foresight to be in the right place at the right time. What you don’t have to have is an Ivy League degree.

Getting out of Law

Q. I’m a lawyer who’s never taken to the legal profession. Can I look forward to other career options?

A. What your question does not tell me is if you’ve “gone off” the law entirely, or simply don’t want to work in a law firm, where you have to bill in excess of 2,000 hours a year and never see your family.

Let’s assume for the moment, that the mere thought of having “lawyer” or “attorney” in your title (or, for that matter, partner or judge) makes you break out in hives. Are there other options? Absolutely. By definition, you’re smart, you know how to think and reason, and can write well. The trick now is to convince someone to hire you and pay you enough to satisfy the student loan collectors or mortgage company.

Lawyers who are looking for jobs outside the law often believe that they can do anything, if only given a chance. They also tend to look for equivalent salaries to those they would have made in private practice. Here’s where you often have to eat some humble pie. To get your foot in the door, you must convince an employer that you can do the job they need to have done. Sometimes, that means you’ll be promoting skills, such as your marketing ability, that require far fewer brain cells than your legal studies. You may also have to consider a salary substantially lower than your peers in the legal world. Ultimately, your educational background may help you do your work better or more efficiently – and many law-trained graduates reach the pinnacles of industry — but there’s no guarantee that you’ll move ahead more quickly than your peers with bachelor’s degrees or MBAs. The good news is that if you really don’t want to be a lawyer, you’ll be much happier in your chosen profession.

The trend now is for students to take off a year or two before attending law school. Given the numbers of lawyers who’d prefer to be doing something other than the law, having time to reflect on what you want to do before jumping into the next stage of education is a great idea!

Careers & The College Grad: What’s a Liberal Education Got To Do With It?

Written for the First National Career Summit, hosted by Sheila Curran at Duke University, March, 2006

Introduction

Seventy-two percent of high school seniors perceive professional preparation as a key
driver of educational value. This is according to research conducted by Eduventures, a
Boston-based consulting company. When choosing colleges, these students assess access
to internships, placement record and the quality of the career office. Given these
statistics, it is likely that colleges and universities will increasingly view the careers
office as a strategic partner in attracting students, leading to increased visibility and
funding. However, before those of us in the careers field start cheering too loudly, it’s
worth evaluating whether we think this emphasis on pre-professionalism is a good idea,
particularly in a predominantly liberal arts institution. This paper explores the role of a
top college or university in preparing its graduates for the future, and issues that must be
addressed by those responsible for the academic program and careers offices.

The Consumer View

First, let’s look at what’s driving student opinion. There are good reasons for students and
their parents to be concerned about the future, given the high cost of education and
average debt at graduation of around $11,000. But what the Eduventures information also
suggests is that a significant proportion of students–and, no doubt, their families–are
viewing education primarily as a means to an end. In other words, students and their
families are buying a “brand” which provides a quid pro quo for their financial
investment. This investment is expected to lead to a high-paying job after graduation, or
access to a top medical, law, or graduate education.

The attitude of incoming freshmen is troubling on a number of fronts. Consider the
assumptions that appear to lie buried in the statistics, and are borne out in anecdotal
information from students:
• The end result of education is more important that the education itself
• Education that does not appear to have immediate pre-professional relevance is perceived as a luxury
• Success is defined by having a high-paying job at graduation

At a recent conference at Duke for high school guidance counselors, participants echoed
the research about student and parental attitude towards the college search. They also
pointed out that little information is available about what graduates really do after a
liberal arts education, and how they might best use a liberal arts education to their career
benefit. My coauthored book, published in May 2006 and titled Smart Moves for Liberal Arts Grads: Finding a Path to Your Perfect Career, was written to address some of the
prevailing myths and assumptions.

Education and Preparation for a Lifetime of Changing Careers

While students and their parents typically look to student success immediately after
graduation as a test of whether an institution is providing a return on investment, these
results are not a true measure of the value of education. The fact is, most entry-level jobs
don’t require the kind of advanced abilities that can be developed through a good college
education. A better metric for success is the degree to which our institutions help students
develop the ability to progress throughout their careers, and ultimately to make a
difference in the world.

To illustrate this point, Appendix A identifies the basic skill sets that students need at
graduation. They are listed in order of importance as identified in the National
Association of Colleges and Employers’ 2007 employer survey. Appendix B identifies
the vastly more complex characteristics anticipated for success in 2020. I chose the year
2020 because I like the idea of 2020 foresight rather than hindsight. Plus, after thirteen
years in the work world, 2007 graduates will be poised for the kinds of positions
requiring broad responsibility. More important than the success characteristics
themselves is the identification on the chart of the ways in which a student can use his or
her college education to develop these attributes. It is clear that our view of education
needs to include all learning that takes place during the time the individual is a student:
classroom learning, extra-curricular activities, and work-related experiences.

Success Characteristics in the Work World of 2020

As indicated above, a strong liberal arts education prepares students best not for their first
jobs, but for jobs at mid management level and above. Clearly career centers need to
help students find employment immediately after graduation, but if they simply
accomplish that task, they will have missed the opportunity to prepare students for a
lifetime of changing work and careers. More important, they may neglect the task of
educating students about how they can best use skills developed in college as they
progress in their careers.

In 2020, it is likely that the most successful people will need the following skills:
• Leadership and management (encompasses need for emotional intelligence; vision; communication and human relations skills; persuasion)
• Motivation and initiative (encompasses need for tenacity and focus)
• Ability to move swiftly to capitalize on opportunity—both business and personal (encompasses flexibility; adaptability; ability to learn from experience; initiative, entrepreneurial spirit; sense of responsibility for self)
• Ability to leverage resources—people and things (encompasses ability to communicate; political savvy; human relations skills; an understanding of the way things work)
• Willingness to continually learn, reflect and change course (encompasses need for on-going analysis and reflection)
• Cross-cultural understanding and appreciation for difference (encompasses communications skills; ability to see things from different points of view; ability to synthesize and interpret information and create cogent arguments; foreign language skill)
• Honesty, integrity and strong work ethic (encompasses leadership and empathy)

Being aware of success characteristics for 2020 is important. But achieving them is
difficult unless career professionals and academic advisors give a consistent message
from the time of matriculation about how we view the relationship between education
and career. To promote the kind of graduate success that reflects well on colleges and
universities, there should be expectations for both institutions and students.

Recommendations for Academia

Increase opportunities for true immersion experiences through which students can
tackle thorny societal problems. (Duke Engage is a good example.) Recognize
that student initiative is critical to getting the most out of these experiences, and
ensure that mentoring, guidance, and reflection opportunities are available.

Improve advising. Few colleges or universities—particularly research
universities—would receive an “A” for advising services. Yet trained advisors
early in a student’s career can be instrumental in helping students make the most
of their education from a career perspective.

Build into the curriculum opportunities to practice communication skills,
particularly those that encourage listening, hearing and being able to articulate
different points of view. Support the debate team. Teach rhetoric!

Assess and evaluate programs, especially those like Study Abroad, that involve a
significant percentage of students. Consider introducing an area studies
requirement and a foreign language requirement so that students can gain the most
from their experience abroad. Don’t take it for granted that students will step out
of their comfort zones. Make it an expectation.

Encourage and support students who take responsibility for their own education,
and who seek out opportunities and resources. Support faculty and staff who
engage with students on an intellectual and personal level.

Encourage interdisciplinary work and the application of knowledge in real world
situations. Service learning is the ideal opportunity to integrate learning in and
out of the classroom. However, other areas could also lend themselves well to
working on projects that relate to classroom learning. Thus, a history course on
the holocaust could lead to helping to plan and promote a holocaust exhibit.

We cannot expect that students will know how important it is to take full advantage
of education, broadly defined. Therefore it is incumbent upon careers offices and
academic administration to reinforce the same message: that success after college is
dependent not just on the accumulation of knowledge, but also on the development of
attitudes and behaviors. It is also important that we educate students from the time
they set foot on campus about the purposes of a college education, and its relationship
to what they do once they graduate.

The Ideal: A Message to Incoming First Years

  1. A college education is the sum total of your student experiences. You can
learn in the classroom, through extracurricular activities, on the athletic field,
through internships and beyond. Learning outside the classroom may prove to
be more important to your career than the subject of your degree. The quality
of your education is determined—at least in part—by the degree to which you
immerse yourself in learning. Take responsibility for, and engage with all
aspects of your education.
  2. When you matriculate at college, you’re not expected to know what you want
to do after you graduate. Abandon preconceived notions of acceptable career
directions. Make the decision yours!
  3. Recognize that confusion and discomfort is not only normal, it’s expected and
it’s a good thing. Give yourself permission to not be perfect. Allow yourself
to fail. But make sure you learn from failure. You can recover from a “D”.
  4. Don’t choose your major too early, or decide on a major because you’re close
to completing the requirements, or you think you need it for a particular
career. (You may not!) It’s much more important to study what you love than
to follow a path that may be more common but doesn’t interest you. You can
pursue most career paths with any major. Major doesn’t equal career, and
more majors doesn’t equal better careers. Resist the temptation to build
academic credentials at the expense of exploring new horizons.
  5. A high GPA may be necessary for a good graduate school, professional school
fellowships/scholarships, or for employment in investment banks/consulting
firms, but most positions do not require a GPA above a 3.0. Employers rarely
consider GPA for second jobs. Students with the best academic records aren’t
necessarily the best candidates for employment. Employers want to see
transferable skills, which can be drawn from any part of your education.
  6. Graduate school may not be as necessary as you think. Only go to graduate
school or professional school if you are convinced you need that type of
education for what you want to do.
  7. Study abroad can be a career boost or a career bust. Almost all students enjoy
their study abroad experience, but it can only give you a real career advantage
if you step outside your comfort zone and learn skills like linguistic fluency,
cross-cultural competency, flexibility, resilience, and decision
making/problem solving. To obtain a career advantage, you need to have a
true international experience, not an American experience abroad.
  8. You’re missing the boat if you don’t build relationships with faculty, staff and
advisors early in your time at college: they can be your biggest allies and
guides.
  9. Define success for yourself, even if it means you’ll be unemployed at
graduation and won’t be making the highest salary. Being employed at
graduation has more to do with the type of employer you seek than with your
value to the work world. Most employers of top college grads do “just in
time” hiring, so that you can only be hired when an employee has left.
Prepare for the job search while at college, but recognize the actual
application process may happen after finals.
  10. Careers don’t happen over night: they take time. Build a partnership with
counselors in the Career Center and/or with trusted advisors, so that you learn
the realities of life after graduation, and understand how you can best prepare
yourself through your college education.

Conclusion

Education and career preparation are symbiotic. The more a student learns in college,
and takes advantage of work and internship opportunities, the more likely it is that he or
she will be considered a compelling candidate for employment. However, to make this
connection happen requires a partnership between academic administration, student
affairs and the careers office.

Some universities, like Duke, have already made progress by coding courses to identify
what attributes or skills will be developed through the class. But we need to go further.
Now is the time to make the connection between classroom learning, extracurricular
learning, and career. Once that connection is made, students will come to understand that
they can reach their professional goals while gaining something infinitely more valuable:
a true education.

Appendix A and B are available by emailing Sheila Curran at curranoncareers@gmail.com.

Liberal Arts Grads Meet the Real World

I met my first helicopter parent in September, 1995.  He called demanding specialized career services for his son. No matter that the young man had only just matriculated at Brown University.  His problem?  The son had met some fellow students who had convinced him to study philosophy instead of computer science.  It wasn’t necessary for the parent to tell me what was really on his mind:  “What on earth can you do with a degree in philosophy?”

When it comes to liberal arts and careers, there’s a black hole of ignorance that is often filled with myths and assumptions. One of the biggest assumptions is that you can’t possibly find employment unless you supplement your liberal arts degree with a more practical second major like Economics.  But look around.  Contrary to what you might believe, there are few cultural anthropology grads driving cabs.  And, there are no support groups, to my knowledge, for unemployed history majors.  Salary and position after graduation are influenced more by the interests of the liberal arts grad than the subject matter of her degree.

Regardless of actual post-graduation results, it’s a rare liberal arts grad who doesn’t have some trepidation about the future. I had my own encounter with reality when I immigrated to the United States.  The temporary agency I approached took one look at my newly-minted degree in Russian and Persian and advised that they might be able to find me a minimum wage job—if I learned to type. Luckily, as experience proves, where you start off bears little relation to where you can end up. The question is, “how do you get from a liberal arts degree to work you love?”


The “Easy” Way

The easiest way for liberal arts grads to find high paying, high prestige jobs is to impress recruiters from the investment banks and consulting companies that recruit on campus at top colleges.  But there’s a catch:  you have to possess not only a high GPA but also a demonstrated interest in–and talent for–the kind of work you’re pursuing. In addition, you’ll need something that sets you apart from other candidates. The way you distinguish yourself may not necessarily relate to the content of the job. Christina, a history grad from Stanford University, was hired as associate consultant by the consulting firm Bain, Inc. because her work founding an HIV/AIDS organization allowed her to demonstrate creativity, passion and a drive for results.


The “Normal” Way

The on-campus recruiting route usually accounts for fewer than a quarter of the graduating class.  Many of their liberal arts peers would have you believe that they had everything figured out—often in the form of more school.  They talk convincingly of becoming doctors, lawyers, architects, psychologists.  But behind their eloquent certainty often lies a deep insecurity about the future.  Even at graduation, most liberal arts students are unsure what they really want to do. And if, many years after graduation, you’re still not clear about your direction, you’re not alone.

You may find solace and the advice you need through “Smart Moves for Liberal Arts Grads: Finding a Path to Your Perfect Career”, a book which I co-authored with a colleague, Suzanne Greenwald.  Smart Moves illuminates real career paths through the stories of twenty-three liberal arts graduates from nineteen different schools. Their examples serve as powerful inspiration to anyone who wants to discover a path to career success.

The Smartest Moves to Career Success for Liberal Arts Grads

How do you get from a liberal arts degree to finding work you love? Through the stories of the graduates we interviewed, we discovered five “smartest moves” that were a key factor in everyone’s success:
-Figure out who you are and where you want to go
-Get experience
-Build social and networking relationships
-Identify and fill your competence gap
-Find your “hook”

Figure out who you are and where you want to go

Easier said than done.  And it’s more rare than you might think.  In Smart Moves, only Ally identified her passion at an early age.  Ironically, she chose a particularly difficult career—actress and director.  But the strength of her passion helped her overcome the bumps in her path to success. You can certainly find direction from assessment instruments such as the Strong Interest Inventory or the Myers Briggs Type Indicator.  But if you don’t identify an ideal career position through your assessments—and you probably won’t—don’t despair.  You’re more likely to find the work you love by starting with smartest move number

.

Get experience

Liberal arts grads can follow just about any career they want to. Unfortunately, the multitude of options can be overwhelming. The solution? Trial runs.  It can save time later on if you experience different types of work while you’re still in college.  Cara, a University of Pennsylvania graduate, laid the groundwork for her career in marketing by working on the school radio station. Sharon discovered her passion in fashion through internships. Others try on careers by proxy—conducting informational interviews with alumni, parents, friends, or anyone else who will share both smart moves and dumb moves.  Luckily, there’s no time limitation on getting experience.  If you didn’t explore different career options in college, build time into your schedule to do so now.


Build social and networking relationships

Conventional wisdom says that connections are the best way to find work. But what happens when the career footsteps of family members lead you in an undesirable direction, and you’ve exhausted your external fan base? Don’t balk at talking with people outside your immediate social circle.  Sure, you’re most likely to find good connections among the colleagues in your professional association.  But you can often find help in the most unlikely places. Ray ultimately found his way to a position as Indiana Jones stunt double through his hair stylist.  She didn’t personally know the man who was running the auditions. But she was, in Malcolm Gladwell’s vernacular, a “connector”.


Identify your competence gaps

One of the best ways to get ahead in your career is to look not just one step, but several steps, ahead.   Find your ideal job and work backwards.  Assess what required skills, abilities and attitudes you already have, and identify the areas in which you need to develop.  After seeing a teenage friend die of leukemia, Brad knew he wanted to alleviate unnecessary suffering on a world-wide scale.  A lofty goal, indeed.  With a degree in biology Brad had a good academic background.  But he needed practical experience in a number of areas.  Since graduation, Brad has systematically identified and eliminated his competence gaps by working in the pharmaceutical and financial industries, and volunteering in a Foundation that awards funds for health-related projects.

Find your hook

Once you’ve found your ideal position how do you stand out from the crowd?  Sometimes simple things will make the difference, like sending handwritten thank you letters immediately after an interview, or researching your interviewer’s background on the Web. Other times, your strategy needs to be a little more creative.
All graduates, no matter what their educational background, can benefit from studying the career success of others.  But when career direction and the paths to success are less clear, stories take on additional significance.  If you’re a liberal arts grad, find stories that have meaning for you.  The more you know about the career paths of those you admire, the better able you will be to find your own direction.

First published in BusinessWeek.com

 

Smart Moves for Liberal Arts Grads: Foreword for Parents


“Career is not what it used to be; it’s much more interesting”

One week into a new term.  The message on my voicemail was from a distraught father, claiming that his student son needed intensive career counseling.  Returning the call, I inquired, “What year is he?” “Well, actually, he’s a freshman,” replied the father. “In fact he’s still in orientation.  But I need your help.  You see he’s always loved computer science.  He came to Brown because he knows you have a great computer science department.  Trouble is, he’s met some wonderful people and now he’s convinced that he should study philosophy instead.”  There followed a pause, and then the father said what was really on his mind. “But what can you do with a degree in philosophy?

Actually, you can do just about anything with a liberal arts degree as the  stories in this book so vividly attest.

But if you’re like most “millennial” parents, you won’t be satisfied by such vague pronouncements, and maybe not even by statements from Fortune 500 CEOs who say “we love liberal arts graduates.” Wanting the best for your children, you’re eager to know how you can help them make the most of their liberal arts education—while also preparing them to get off the family payroll!

Identifying and happily settling into a career that matches a heartfelt passion isn’t easy for anyone. Think back:  how quickly did you identify your own passion? How long thereafter until you brought your career and your passion in synch?  Have you yet?

In a recent Duke University survey of its soon-to-graduate seniors, over half claimed that their primary source of career advice after graduation would be their families. But most families are ill-equipped to help with post-graduate career decisions. Your own college or work experiences no longer provide a good enough compass to guide your son or daughter from point A (graduation) to point B (career success). Why?  Because in recent years the career landscape has changed dramatically.  Choice has exploded, new careers—like “usability specialist” —have been invented, and the Internet has changed everything about the way people look for jobs.  Examine the myths in chapter one. Did you think they were true? The reality for today’s liberal arts graduates may be very different from what you expect.

Suzanne Greenwald and I wrote Smart Moves because there’s a black hole of ignorance between graduation and career success. You’ve read in the media what’s “out”: commitment to a single career, a continuous upward financial trajectory, and lifetime employment. You probably even know what’s “in”: managing your career, moving frequently, seizing opportunities.  Much less clear is how a liberal arts graduate actually identifies and follows his or her passion. With so much personal happiness riding on this seldom studied but quintessential career imperative, we thought we’d search for answers by looking in depth at the lives of a small but very diverse group of liberal arts graduates.

The stories and voices of these twenty-three graduates fill most of this book. Their lessons are not prescriptive, and don’t come with a money-back guarantee. We can’t tell you a fail-safe formula to conjure up career readiness or a six-figure salary.  There isn’t one. So much depends on interests, talent, personality—and luck.  But the collective smart moves of our graduates, which we’ve gathered into seven career lessons, do provide a framework for success. As you consider career realities in the twenty-first century, you may be surprised to learn that:
•Major doesn’t equal career.
•Graduate or professional school may not be the best choice immediately after graduation – if ever.
•Your son will probably not get his first job through on-campus recruiting, but he may still benefit greatly from career office resources.
•Internships may prove more valuable than a second major, or summer school—and often the most valuable internships are unenjoyable ones.
•What happens outside the classroom is just as important as what happens inside.
•The best first job after graduation doesn’t have to be the most prestigious, or the most lucrative; ditto the second job and the third.
•There truly is a career value to a liberal arts education.

The final chapters of Smart Moves are devoted to stories from some of the most interesting liberal arts graduates you’ll ever meet. Liz, an American studies and art history major, is now the cheese buyer at one of America’s most celebrated cheese shops. Theresa, a philosophy majors, runs her own small non-profit, providing technical support to other non-profits that can’t otherwise afford it. Brad is a human biology major, who’s combining his work in finance with his interest in third world health issues.

If you’re looking for a quick rundown on which colleges and universities our graduates hail from, what undergraduate majors they pursued, and their current position, just turn to the story chart at the back of the book. Perhaps we’ve profiled someone from the college or university that you attended.

And speaking of you, perhaps now, a generation out of college, you’ll discover this book helpful to you as well as your children.  We strongly believe that you’re never too old to learn – or to change jobs.  You may not be able to go back and re-live your college years, doing everything right this time around.  But there are plenty of tips and insight in these stories to inspire you to action—whether you’re contemplating a mid-life job or career change, or battling a full-blown mid-life crisis

Perhaps you intend to give Smart Moves to a son or daughter in need of career direction.  Or, you may discover like me, that your wonderfully smart and charming second son has no intention of reading this or any such book until after he’s made his post-graduate career mistakes.  If that’s the case, recognize that the best you can probably do for now is to ask the right questions and steer him in the appropriate direction for advice, support and knowledge.

Career planning is like learning to walk and talk.  Everyone does it in his or her own time. Those who walk first don’t necessarily grow up to be dancers and sprinters. And those who talk late–well, some of them grow up to be actors and newscasters and virtuoso mezzo-sopranos.    Read Smart Moves for your sons and daughters and read it for yourself. There’s enough inspiration to go around.