Tag Archive for: ROI on College Education

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.

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The Big Disconnect Between College and Career

Students and parents want a college education to lead to a better job. Recent surveys from Inside Higher Ed and Gallup suggest that almost all college presidents and senior academic officers agree with them.

Sadly, however, there is a big disconnect between the perception of higher education and the perception of employers when it comes to the employability of new college grads. Colleges and universities think they’re already doing a good job of preparing students for the job search. Fewer than a third of employers concur.

And, according to a 2012 survey conducted by The Chronicle of Higher Education and American Public Media’s Marketplace, only 16% of employers considered applicants to be “very prepared” with the knowledge and skills they would need for the job.

How could colleges and universities think they are preparing students well, while employers pan their efforts? What could be the cause for this disconnect?

Why is there a disconnect between college and career?

  • First, many academic leaders—particularly in institutions with a broad focus on the liberal arts—fear that paying more attention to the career needs of students will be the first step on a slippery slope to “vocationalism” and a less academic approach to education.
  • Second, most of those who are currently in senior academic leadership positions graduated at a time when the rules governing how to find a job were much clearer—and stresses of loan repayment less onerous. They may not know what it takes to be successful in the modern job search or for what they can hold a Career Services office accountable.
  • Third, few colleges and universities are aware of new integrated models of career preparation, which use a “Career Community” concept to broaden opportunities and advising. These models encourage students to reflect and build on their learning in and outside the classroom from the first year on. They also ensure the involvement of alumni, parents and employers, helping students connect the dots between their talents, interests and opportunities.

Engaging Career Centers in institutional plans for career preparation

Possibly the biggest reason for the disconnect between career preparation rhetoric and reality was revealed in a recent session on career preparation at the American Association of Colleges and Universities’ annual conference. Not once during the presentation was there any mention of university career services offices.

In fact, career center leaders and senior administrators rarely, if ever, come together to strategize about how an institution can create a comprehensive plan to improve career preparation and graduate career outcomes. Rare is the institution like Augustana College (Rock Island, IL), that views the enhancement of career and graduate school success as a key institutional priority, and engaged all interested Augustana faculty and staff in its planning process.

At many colleges and universities, the Career Center is perceived as nothing more than the place where students go to get their resumes and cover letters critiqued. While many career services offices are excellent, it is true that others have changed little in the past few decades, employing a more operational than strategic approach to their work.

But things are changing in the careers world: A new breed of career director is emerging who understands both the work world and the academic world, and is committed to bringing the two together for the benefit of students.

Higher education should be able to trust Career Centers to orchestrate institutional career initiatives, and accept accountability for results.

Impact of the recession on institutional responsibility for career preparation

At the beginning of the most recent recession, few realized the employment impact would last as long as it has: For the past five years, the unemployment rate for 20-24 year old bachelor’s degree graduates has decreased by only a percentage point—from just over 9% to 8%. At the same time, over a third of young college grads are believed to be mal-employed—employed either part-time or in jobs that do not require a college degree.

Parents worry about their sons and daughters not getting jobs commensurate with their college education. They also worry about the rising cost of higher education. It now costs an average of almost $40,000 a year to attend a private college—a rate that has risen 2.3% a year above the rate of inflation for the past decade.

Given unemployment rates and the cost of college, there is no reason to believe college students and their families will cease their concerns about employment prospects any time soon, and every reason to believe that the college that does nothing will lose good potential applicants.

Instituting an integrated approach

Students clearly need help transitioning from college to career. Our current system is not working, and senior administrators in colleges and universities must play a much greater role in ensuring that students are prepared.

But, career preparation is not something that happens overnight, or in a senior year counseling session at the Career Center. It is part of a process that begins with exploration in the first year, and ends after the student has found success in her bid for a job, fellowship, or a place on a post-graduate course.

And, responsibility for improving career preparation cannot be solely the responsibility of either the academic side of the house, or the Career Center. It requires all those with a stake in student success to work together.

What we need is an integrated approach to helping students develop the skills, characteristics and knowledge that will change employers’ minds about the potential of our students, and make graduates job ready on day one. This doesn’t mean changing the nature of education; it just means being more intentional about connecting the dots for students between college and career.

Now is the time for organizations like AAC&U, NASPA and NACE to step up to the plate and lead a national conversation with higher education leaders and Career Centers about their roles and responsibilities in preparing students for the next stage of their lives.

We owe it to our students and graduates.

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.

A Reality Check for Law School Students

Law school represents a significant commitment of time and money. For decades, the perceived benefits have outweighed the costs, but in the second decade of the 21st century, the answer to the question “should I go to law school” is less clear.

Not so long ago, law school was the career of choice for a large number of liberal arts grads. The field favored those with strong critical thinking skills, and acquiring legal skills was deemed an advantage for any graduate—regardless of whether the law student ever intended to become a lawyer.

But rising costs, sky-rocketing debt, a changing legal field, and continued economic challenges, have changed the ROI equation.

For students with top grades, excellent LSAT scores, and a passion for becoming a lawyer, going to law school can still be an great choice. These are likely the students who will go to top twenty schools, or be awarded full merit scholarships. But, without the guarantee of a highly-paid law job at the end of three years of law school, most prospective law students need to carefully weigh whether the investment is worthwhile.

Reality check #1: How much debt will you have?

Borrowing for law school was high, but relatively stable, for many years. In 2004, according to a recent New America Policy Brief , the typical indebted law student owed $88,634 at graduation (expressed in 2012 dollars). But, thanks to a 2006 federal government decision that now allows borrowing up to the full amount of attendance, the median debt load of law students in 2012 soared to over $140,000—a 58% increase.

Reality check #2: How much do you have to earn, to be able to afford a median debt of $140,616?

Most students will expect pay off their debt over 15 years. Using the median debt, that means a payment of $1,248 a month, according to calculators on the website FinAid.org. FinAid! estimates you will need a salary of almost $150,000 a year to afford this level of monthly payment. Depending on your loan, there may be “extended” or “graduated” repayment options, but for many this feels like getting a mortgage without building equity.

Reality check #3: How likely is it that you will get a job paying more than $150K?

Nine metro markets have mean wages for lawyers above $150,000; the highest—in Silicon Valley—has a mean salary of $192,000, according to the American Bar Association Journal. In fact, six of the nine most lucrative legal markets are in California, which also doubles as one of the most expensive places to live. To even come close to the $150K salary, most graduates will need to find a job in large law firms, so-called “biglaw”—those employing over 100 lawyers in major metropolitan areas. An excellent article on “biglaw”, and its culture can be found at Top-Law-Schools.com.

Reality check #4: Can you find a job in “biglaw” from any law school?

If you are in the top 10% of your class, on Law Review at any good law school, and geographically mobile, you may have an excellent chance of finding a well-paid position as an associate in a large law firm. Your chances increase substantially if you can bring business to a firm, or if you have additional experience prior to law school that is of interest to the firm. But, the lower the ranking of the law school, the more likely your job will pay under 100K. Lower pay is also likely if you accept a job where a law degree may be an advantage, but which does not require you to pass the Bar.

If a law school has a US News ranking over 50 for example, you may find that fewer than 20% of the graduates are employed full-time in law firms with over 100 lawyers within 9 months of graduation. American Bar Association rules nowe require disclosure of career outcomes on law school websites, so search the school’s site under terms “employment statistics” or “required ABA disclosures”.

Another excellent source of comparative information can be found at Educating Tomorrow’s Lawyers. On this site, you can not only compare the career outcomes and rankings of different law schools, you can also check the Above the Law rankings, which compare schools solely based on the number of graduates employed full-time, long term, in positions requiring Bar passage. Above the Law excludes School-funded positions–an increasingly popular way for law schools to help students find employment (usually for up to a year) while simultaneously increasing their standing in US News rankings.

The decision whether to go to law school is very different for the student without debt than it is for someone who will be paying back large loans for over a decade. Similarly, a student who intends to pursue a legal career in public service and apply for the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program may view law school as an excellent investment.

Regardless of individual circumstances, all prospective law students owe it to themselves to do due diligence and research before signing on the dotted line of a loan agreement. Given current debt to potential income ratios, your future may depend on it.

New Grads Left Behind in Jobs Recovery of 2013

When the Bureau of Labor Statistics recently released its annual unemployment statistics for 2013, there was good news for every major cohort except one: Bachelor’s degree grads aged 20-24.

Since the peak unemployment years of 2009/2010. College grads over 25 experienced a 24% decrease (blue bar). But the unemployment rate for young college grads only declined by 13%–from a high of 9.2% to a 2013 average of 8% (red bar).

Despite the high expectations of employers for increased hiring of new college grads, the unemployment rate of this group between 2012 and 2013 completely stalled.

Typically, young grads have had an easier time finding work than the general population. Not so in 2013. While the overall unemployment rate for everyone in the civilian population over the age of 16 was 7.35%, 8% of college grads aged 20-24 were unable to find any employment—let alone employment that was full time and required a college degree.

This has clearly been a frustrating time for new college grads. Faced with the daunting prospect of trying to find work commensurate with their college education, many have settled for employment they could have secured without a college degree. And that has almost certainly negatively impacted their ability to repay college loans.

Andrew Sum, director of the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University, estimates that the number of recent grads who have taken lower level positions has jumped from around 27% in 2007 to 37% in 2013–a poor return on the student’s tuition investment.

Why have young grads not benefitted from general improvements in the economy and a soaring stock market? No one knows for sure, but there may be a clue in the study released in October 2013 by Chegg, the Student Hub and Harris Interactive, that identified a big gap in the skills graduates thought they possessed, and the skills employers want.

If young graduates are not ready for the workforce, employers may reject them in favor of their older, more experienced peers.

Given the cost of education, and the increasing demand for a return on the tuition investment, it is in everyone’s best interest to address the problems associated with young graduate unemployment and underemployment.

No longer can colleges and universities sit on the sidelines and wait for the economy to improve. The economy has improved, but new grads have still been left behind.

This situation has repercussions for higher education: Unemployed and mal-employed college grads are, for example, less likely than those who are employed to recommend their college to prospective students, or to contribute to its coffers.

The smart colleges and universities will be those that recognize they can gain a strategic advantage by investing in the career preparation of their students, and giving them a greater helping hand in finding their initial positions.

Career Deceptions

We can all recite the message: Do well at school, load up on extra-curriculars, go to a good college, graduate, get a well-paying job. It sounds easy. Well worth the tuition investment and the second mortgage. Sadly, as any investment prospectus will tell you, past performance should not be seen as an indicator of futureperformance. Nowhere is that more true than in the careers world, where unemployment rates for young grads have been at historic highs for several years. Our students are floundering, but many careers offices are ill-equipped, and insufficiently resourced to provide the kind of help they need. And, students haven’t been told that success requires their active involvement. It’s time for a new message. It’s time for a new model of Career Services.

On January 7, 2014, from 11:30-12:30pm EST, Sheila Curran will present the opening keynote address for the InternBridge Career Services Online Conference: Career Deceptions: How We Are Failing Our College Grads, and What We Must Do About It. Use code word Curran for a 10% discount through the link www.internbridgecsc.com The brief presentation will be followed by an extensive discussion with the online audience.

Re-thinking Career Services in Times of Employment Uncertainty

In the spring, all eyes are on new college graduates and their future plans. Current indications are that the employment situation is easing, but bachelor’s graduates aged 20-24 still face plenty of challenges. Average annual unemployment rates for this cohort have remained stubbornly around 9%, and underemployment is rampant. So who has been helping these students and grads get a leg up, especially if they don’t have well-connected parents or a stellar GPA?

This monumental task has, in the eyes of parents and the public at least, been assigned to College Career Services offices. But few have held higher education accountable for making this service work. And, if parents are expecting any kind of personal attention for their sons and daughters, they will frequently be sorely disappointed.

According to the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) 2012 survey of over 800 colleges and universities, there is an average of one careers professional for every 1645 students served. Staffing ratios are substantially worse at large public institutions and correspondingly better at small liberal arts colleges. Some colleges—even relatively small ones—spend as little as $50 per student per year on career-related services. Over the past three, economically challenging, years, the budget situation for careers offices has actually deteriorated. NACE data shows that nationwide, the median operating budget for careers offices shrank 8% between 2010 and 2012, from $34,000 to $31,000.

At a time when we should be expecting colleges to enhance their career services to students, many have taken a defeatist approach, lacking confidence to believe that anything they do could make their graduates more attractive to employers. To many in higher education, careers offices are cost centers that deserve to receive the same reductions as every other administrative office. And, career leaders have too often been complicit in their own marginalization, unwilling to challenge the status quo on behalf of students.

Connecting College to Career in 2012

In the midst of this bleak picture, a recent conference at Wake Forest University, titled Re-thinking Success: From the Liberal Arts to Careers in the 21st Century offers a glimmer of hope. The Conference drew a crowd of over 200 presidents, faculty, high-ranking college administrators, and career directors for an inaugural three-day discussion.

The brainchild of President Nathan Hatch, and Vice President for Personal and Professional Development, Andy Chan, Re-thinking Success brought together leaders from academia, industry, the media, and careers, in a forum designed to start a national conversation about how students can best navigate from college to career.

The Conference provided plenty of compelling reasons why colleges—particularly those where student majors don’t automatically equate to specific careers—need to provide a better ROI for families. And, schools like Wake Forest, the University of Chicago and Washington University, provided eloquent testimony on the potential impact of careers offices, when they have institutional support.

But there’s the rub. Despite the evidence that successful career initiatives can encourage matriculation, enhance alumni engagement, and even contribute to fundraising goals, the majority of colleges and universities are stuck in an old paradigm, oblivious to the opportunity for institutional differentiation through graduate success. Sadly, most career leaders have been unsuccessful at conveying the potential value of their initiatives.

Leading from Below

The Re-thinking Success Conference illustrated the importance of senior leadership in enhancing career outcomes. High visibility, large budgets, internship funding, and presidential support send a strong message that work experience and career preparation are an important part of an institution’s enduring value to students. But when budgets are tight, and there are multiple pressing problems to address, elevating graduate success to the top of the agenda is difficult. The careers message can often get lost, obscured by more immediate issues relating to faculty, admissions, and fundraising.

The answer is to lead from below. Career directors have often shied away from greater visibility and accountability. But if change is going to happen, and the marginalization of careers offices stopped, those closest to the career success of graduates will need to take responsibility for moving the agenda.

Key Strategies for Moving the Careers Agenda: A Plan for Career Directors

  • Know what results you intend to achieve, craft a compelling story, and become visible. Getting other people excited about your vision for graduate career success is critical.
  • Don’t ask for money—at least, not yet. Show what you can do by a critical review of your operations in light of your new vision. Get data to identify what services, functions and programs create the best results. When you’re not getting real value for money, cut the activity.
  • Redistribute your discretionary money, for example, corporate donations or career fair fees. Use the money to get some quick, high-impact, wins. Try a few pilot programs to show what you can do with limited funds.
  • Partner with faculty. Educate them about what their graduates are doing and encourage them to share career stories that were influenced by the student’s choice of academic study. Support their desire to attract more students to their major. And, if the Romance Language faculty plan to offer a seminar on careers using languages, offer to co-sponsor and promote the program.
  • Build systems to capture and nurture contacts who can be helpful in advising students on their careers or promoting their career success. Faculty and administrators will be happy to provide you with names when they trust the information will be wisely used.
  • Identify how career outcomes and your new initiatives can help other departments achieve their goals. Admissions offices need career success stories. Alumni Relations professionals appreciate the opportunity to partner on successful programs involving alumni. And, plenty of schools have discovered that careers professionals can help pave the way for discussions with donors on multiple institutional fundraising priorities.
  • Build a career community of alumni, parents and friends, all of whom have a vested interest in the career success of students and graduates.
  • Engage students, early and often, and make them partners in their own success. One reason why students are often disappointed with Career Services is that they don’t understand their own roles and responsibilities. Students typically don’t listen to adults, but their parents listen to university messages, and students do listen to each other. Make sure students play a leadership role within the careers office as peer advisors and program directors. When students have ownership of initiatives, they are much more likely to encourage the involvement of their peers than when they are simply “consumers” of career services.
  • Find opportunities to talk to senior leaders and trustees. Be the resident expert on careers. These meetings are wasted if you simply talk about what services and programs you offer. Instead, paint the national picture, using data and anecdotes. Then relate what’s going on outside the academy to what is happening to your students. Finally, explain what you have been able to accomplish with your current budget and the impact additional resources would have on your students’ potential for success.

When senior leaders have no experience with careers, getting them to ease up on the purse strings is a challenge. But, your energy, excitement and vision can go a long way to convincing them that a new approach to careers can be as good for the institution as it will undoubtedly be for students, especially when your success is backed up by verifiable metrics.

Unemployment of Recent College Grads a Key Threat to Higher Education

With the skyrocketing cost of education, families increasingly make matriculation decisions based on the perception that a particular college’s students get good jobs. Until recently, the ability to verify those perceptions has been limited. But now, there is a push for greater transparency, as illustrated by the introduction of the College Scorecard.

Are colleges ready and prepared to provide the information families need? And, how will prospective students react to comprehensive data on the real career outcomes of recent college grads? Colleges and universities need to embrace the new transparency, and where they identify unsatisfactory results, take measures to enhance career preparation.

The national situation for recent college grads

In February, unemployment statistics hit a milestone. The 7.7% overall unemployment rate, as measured by the Bureau of Labor Statistics was the lowest in four years. This unemployment rate covers everyone in the civilian population, regardless of educational attainment. Sadly, not all populations have been affected equally by the good unemployment news. Bachelor’s degree graduates under the age of 25 were among those groups hardest hit by the Great Recession; and, even as the economy recovers, 8.3% of this cohort who want work have been unable to find anything at all.

Career outcomes affect matriculation

The poor job prospects of a large number of new graduates has become a key threat to success for many colleges, impacting them where it hurts most: the decision whether or not to matriculate at a particular school.

Today’s students look at college in a very different way than their parents. In 1976, two thirds of incoming freshmen claimed that getting a better job was a prime reason for getting a college education. At that time, there was an unquestioned assumption that a college education was a leg up on the career ladder.

The Higher Education Research Institute’s 2012 survey of college freshmen shows how much has changed in the past few decades: now, almost 88% of students select their college because they perceive its graduates get good jobs. Students know college costs have risen dramatically, particularly in the past ten years, and they and their parents want to know whether the investment is worth the price.

Until now, the decision to matriculate has often been made based on blind faith that the chosen college or university will lead to a good job. Few prospective families evaluate the strength of the career preparation provided, or the resources devoted to helping students gain access to job and internship opportunities. Higher education should be concerned that when the bill-payers start to scrutinize career outcomes the way they would an investment in stocks or a new house, they will be not be impressed.

College Scorecard encourages investigation of career outcomes

The College Scorecard, introduced by the Department of Education in February 2013 is intended to make it much easier for families to get the answers they need about individual colleges and universities, and compare costs, student debt, and employment prospects for the school’s graduates.

Once students and their parents become used to comparing information about the colleges in which they are interested, they will be more likely to demand detailed statistics on employment. At present, the College Scorecard has not started to post employment information. Instead, it advises families to contact the relevant college or university for more information on how many students get jobs, what kinds of jobs they get and how much those graduates typically earn.
Higher education is not ready for the kind of scrutiny on career outcomes that the College Scorecard recommends.

Career outcomes data hard to find, and even harder to interpret

Most families who ask colleges about careers ask very generic questions, for example “how many Fortune 500 companies recruit on campus”, or “how many students get into law school or medical school”. Since the majority of parents have little knowledge about what it takes for new graduates to successfully find employment in the 21st century, they are blissfully unaware of the kinds of questions they should be asking. Most are simply reassured by answers that imply that a college’s graduates do very well—no matter that there is no comprehensive data to back up the claims.

When parents try to find career information on college websites or in Viewbooks, they are often thwarted in their efforts. An electronic search on career outcomes or career statistics at a particular college often generates no results, or results that are misleading. Sometimes the response rate–if even mentioned–is less than 25%; salary information is hard to find; and there is no indication of what steps graduates took to secure their success. There are, however, a number of institutions that can serve as models: A prime example of a school that is serious about data collection is the University of Pennsylvania. U Penn received a survey response rate of 71% from the Class of 2011, and provides a full picture of each graduating class’ career outcomes that is easily accessible to both internal and external audiences.

Later this year, the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) is expected to produce guidelines for data collection on career outcomes, so that schools can standardize their procedures and facilitate comparisons. However, standardization is only part of the problem. Schools will need to change their cultures so that students are expected and even incentivized to provide career-related information. They will also need to devote time and personnel to analyzing data and using it to guide services and initiatives.

Career outcomes information may not paint a positive picture

An important consideration for colleges and universities, as they commit to greater transparency about career outcomes, is that the results may not be as good as their rhetoric. According to a 2013 report titled “Why Are Recent College Graduates Underemployed” conducted by the Center for College Affordability and Productivity, almost half of all employed U.S. college graduates are in jobs that the Bureau of Labor Statistics classifies as not requiring a four-year education.

Given the impact of the recession and the difficulty in finding any job, the situation for recent graduates is undoubtedly much worse than for their older peers. When a bachelor’s degree from a particular college is not perceived to lead to more money and a better position, families will increasingly question the value of that institution.

Taking action based on data

It is likely that private institutions will have some breathing room before being required to provide employment and salary information on their graduates. The pressure from families, however, may be sufficient to prod institutions towards transparency long before the advent of regulations. If colleges and universities truly want to make careers an institutional advantage that encourages matriculation, they need to think about obtaining good baseline data starting with the Class of 2013. Only then can they see where an investment in career preparation or the enhancement of opportunities can pay the greatest dividends.

From College to Career in 2012: No Bright Light at the End of the Tunnel

In July, 2011, newly minted young college grads faced an unwelcome pinnacle: at 13.1%, the unemployment rate for bachelor’s degree graduates under the age of 25 was the highest on record.

Since the past summer, Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) data show several months of relative improvement in the job outlook for young grads. But, statistics from 2007-2011 provide plenty of reasons why optimism should be tempered with caution.

Average unemployment rates

The average unemployment figures for the past four years paint a gloomy picture. Rates started inching up between 2007 and 2008, but then jumped 54% between 2008 and 2009, when the economy took a dramatic turn for the worse. For the past three years, the average unemployment rate for bachelor’s degree grads under 25 has remained stubbornly rooted around 9%.

Why job creation doesn’t lower the unemployment rate

New jobs are being created that are suitable for college graduates, but at nowhere near the rate necessary to bring the unemployment rate down. Between 2007 and 2011, the number of employed college grads increased by 1.8%, but the number of unemployed grads increased by 75%. Part of the problem is the ever-increasing number of college graduates, whose numbers have risen 8.6% in four years.

The difficulty of predicting the future for the Class of 2012

Unemployment rates for the population as a whole vary from month to month, but over a period of months it is usually possible to spot trends. The data for college graduates under age 25 is much more difficult to interpret because of wild month-to-month variations. There was a 177% difference between the highest and lowest monthly unemployment rates in 2008 and, even in 2011, the monthly unemployment rates fluctuated 111% between a high of 13.1% and a low of 6.2%.

The degree of employment difficulty facing the Class of 2012 will vary considerably depending on when they look for jobs. Most students graduate in May. The chart below shows the impact of new entrants into the job market: Finding a position in June, July and August is the most challenging. Young college grads who want work will find much less competition in April. This is, of course, better news for the still-unemployed members of the Class of 2011 than it is for the Class of 2012; most employers want to see applications only from those ready to start work within a month.

Why employment statistics do not tell the whole story

The BLS definition of employment is simple: graduates count as working if they hold any kind of employment. Thus, they are considered employed if they work while in graduate school, have part-time work out of necessity, or hold positions that do not require a college degree. Anecdotally, it seems likely that–despite the latest improvements in the job market– the Class of 2012 will face significant challenges finding interesting work that is commensurate with their educational background.

Note: All statistics relate to college graduates under 25 with bachelor’s degrees, and are based on the Bureau of Labor Statistics Table 10 (unpublished).

Colleges Need New Approaches to Career Preparation

Too many of our new graduates are not getting jobs—or at least the kind of jobs that put them on a career path and provide sufficient compensation to pay back loans.

For three years, high unemployment rates have plagued some of our most talented young people. Colleges cannot change the economy or force companies to hire. But they can do a better job preparing their students to compete for available positions.

Colleges need to invest in their career services. But just doing more of the same won’t be enough. They must embrace a much more holistic vision of careers, with clear responsibilities for both student and institution.

Three strategies will help:

1) Clarify how students need to contribute to their own career success. Many students seem to think that their job is over when they decide to matriculate at a particular college; all they need to do after that is get good grades and a lucrative job will follow. Colleges need to clearly articulate from the freshman year on what students must do while they are in college to be competitive in the work world.

2) Identify the skills and characteristics required for post-graduate success—and help students develop them. The availability of a searchable database of hundreds of alumni profiles can help students better understand the connection between college and career. Students will learn more from reading about alumni experiences—especially when an alum graduated in a recession—than they will from any administration exhortations not to panic. With this kind of resource, students will likely see the need to make better use of Study Abroad and internship opportunities.

3) Develop a career community. Parents have a vested interest in the employment of their sons and daughters. Many alumni, and friends of an institution, also care deeply about graduate outcomes. Establishing a group of individuals who are willing to give career advice and assistance provides an excellent supplement to the work of on-site career professionals. At the same time, these volunteers expand both the career knowledge and opportunity base available to students and graduates.

Good jobs for college graduates do exist, but we need to do a much better job of preparing students to be competitive job applicants. And, we need to make sure that students are as invested in their own success as the schools they attend.

Alumni Unemployment Demands New College Solutions

Graduation used to mark the end of a college’s responsibility to its students. But many institutions have come to realize that they need to pay attention to their graduates—however long they’ve been out of school. Nowhere is there more pressure than in the area of career services, judged by alumni as one of the key areas where they need help.

There are compelling reasons for colleges to respond to alumni needs: When graduates can’t find jobs, get laid off, or fail to find even the bottom rung of the career ladder, their misfortune now directly affects the colleges they attended.

Families want assurances that a college’s alumni have successful careers. No longer is the matriculation decision based solely on the strength of a college’s academic program, or the student’s interest in a particular college. Families want to know that if their sons or daughters matriculate, they will find good work after graduation. Vague references in the college View Book may have sufficed in the past; now, real data is needed to prove a college can deliver on its employment promise.

Layoffs and parental unemployment affect the ability of students to afford a college education and stay in school once they have matriculated. But, student retention is also influenced by what happens to recent graduates. When underclass students see the difficulties college seniors face in finding work, they are less inclined to want to remain a student and accumulate more debt. Having a vision of a successful future may be critical to persistence.

Alumni involvement and philanthropy Unemployed alumni are less likely to want to be involved with their alma mater: it’s human nature to want to share successes but hide misfortune. This is a problem for colleges because research has shown that the more involved alumni become with their institutions, the more likely they are to eventually become donors. Unemployed alumni have other priorities for their savings.

Graduate unemployment clearly cannot be ignored. Indeed, the future of many colleges may depend on finding additional ways to meet the needs of alumni—regardless of their employment status. Babson College in Boston provides a good example of innovative thinking: the College has made it possible for many alumni who previously held high-level positions to occupy office space on campus, and occasionally teach—building a sense of goodwill towards the College that will last far beyond the period of alumni unemployment.

The college that thinks creatively in this period of high unemployment, and invests in services and activities that better prepare graduates for the future, is the one that will not only survive, but thrive.


Employment Elusive for 2011 College Grads

The government’s June statistics contained an unpleasant surprise for the Class of 2011: a ten percent rise in the unemployment rate compared to June, 2010. Twelve percent of college graduates under the age of 25 had no work at all in June, 2011—not even a part-time or low-level job.

It wasn’t supposed to be like this. After two years of unemployment rates above ten percent, there were signs of improved prospects for college seniors. The National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) reported in March that 53% of employers planned to hire more college seniors from the Class of 2011 than the Class of 2010. And, colleges across the country attested to increased participation from employers in fall career fairs.

But, the anticipated uptick in employment appears to have fizzled. A NACE student survey completed in May, 2011, showed that while close to half of those who applied for positions received a job offer, only 24% of respondents had actually accepted a job by graduation. No improvement over last year.

It is likely that those who did not accept their job offers are looking for more relevant and lucrative opportunities. But, many of those students holding out for a better offer are likely to be disappointed. They will have strong competition from those who graduated two years ago and still have not found a career path.

An unemployment rate of 12%–for any group of college graduates–is unprecedented in recent memory. And, the rate is likely to stay high unless there is a massive increase in job creation. Here’s why:

More young people are graduating with bachelor’s degrees
 Between June, 2008 and June, 2011, the number of college grads aged 20-24 grew by 66,000.

More young graduates want to work 
Typically, around 80% of bachelor’s degree grads aged 20-24 participate in the labor force, with the remainder attending graduate school, or taking time to pursue other non-work activities. Between 2008 and 2011, however, there was a 5% increase in young graduates who were either working or looking for work. That means over 100,000 were competing for essentially the same number of jobs as in 2008.

Fewer young graduates are going immediately to graduate school
 Given increased participation in the work force, it appears that younger grads are putting off graduate school, or choosing not to go at all. This is likely in response to high debt loads and an uncertain employment market.

Without intervention, high unemployment of new college graduates is likely to be the norm for the foreseeable future. If we want young people to capitalize on their education, pay back their considerable loans, and make meaningful contributions to society, it is incumbent on educational institutions, employers and the government to work together to find new solutions. Without new approaches, Barack Obama’s efforts to increase the number of college graduates will backfire.

Note: All statistics are from BLS, Table 10 (unpublished). Future blog posts will discuss how the employment crisis for young college graduates can be alleviated, and what role students and their colleges will need to play to ensure their employability.

Shifting Demographics Change College Employment Outlook

According to the June 2011, report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the unemployment rate for young graduates with bachelor’s degrees was a staggering 12%–substantially higher than for any other graduate cohort. But, as most college careers offices and development offices can tell you, the recent recession has also adversely affected large numbers of their alumni. The term “jobless recovery” is apt.

The statistics tell a troubling story for anyone hoping for a quick turnaround in career prospects. There are clear reasons for pessimism. 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.

Career Advice for the 2011 College Grad

For college seniors, graduation is no longer something on the distant horizon. It’s only a couple of months away. For the student still seeking post-graduate employment–as most are–that means there are only a few remaining weeks to work on career preparation before exams loom. It’s tempting to throw in the towel, and simply enjoy the remains of the college experience. But savvy students will take advantage of college resources to put a career strategy in place before they graduate. In doing so, they will set themselves apart from the competition, and reduce the time it takes to find a position. The following ten action steps provide the basic foundation for success:

1) Have coffee with your career advisors, whether they are faculty, family or career professionals. Everyone can use an advocate in the job search. The more they know about you, and your interests and values, the better able they will be to help you find and pursue opportunities.

2) Learn how to format your cover letter according to accepted business norms. Unfortunately, this critical skill no longer seems to be taught in high school. So it’s not surprising that many students don’t know where the address of the recipient goes, how to address your future employer, how to place the letter within the page, or how many spaces you have to put between your closing sentence and your name.

3) Pay attention to the content of your cover letter. The purpose of a cover letter is not just to put on top of your resume, but rather to entice an employer to interview you. Most employers will want to know how you found out about the job opportunity, what you have to offer and why you want the job. Cover letters are critical to some employers, yet deemed totally unnecessary by others. Unless an employer has specifically told you not to send one, however, consider it an essential part of your application.

4) Get a second or third “read” of your resume and cover letter to make sure they have no typographical or grammatical errors. Some employers immediately eliminate candidates whose materials are not word perfect. When you’ve been working hard on a document, you may not notice that you wrote “who’s” instead of “whose”. It matters. Have a detail-oriented friend proofread for you – every time you send a letter or update your resume.

5) Have your resume critiqued. The obvious reasons are to eliminate careless errors and to make sure the resume is appropriately formatted. But there’s another reason to get a critique: to make sure the focus of your resume is as close to the focus of the job you desire as possible. What image does your resume give of you? If it says you’re a brilliant academic, but you really want to go into business, you need to re-orient it.

6) Don’t rush. It’s tempting to use a similar cover letter and resume for each job. Although the basic format can be the same, you need to customize each one. Employers can sniff out “form” letters a mile off. If you give the wrong title of the position you want, it’s a dead give-away that you’re searching for multiple positions. Every employer wants to feel that you want their job, not any old job. Make them feel special!

7) Project enthusiasm. If you can’t get excited about the job, you’re unlikely to get it. You may see it as a boring, entry level, position, but your future employer is probably investing significant time and energy into hiring the right person. To be that right person, you need to indicate through your application that you’re familiar with the job and the company (read the website carefully and do your research), that you know what you can contribute, and why you want the job. In a recent survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers, enthusiasm for the job was one of the most important factors in the employer’s decision-making process.

8) Be selective where you apply. That’s difficult to do if you don’t care where you work and you just need to make money. However, your attitude will show through if you use the “shot-gun” approach. Think of it this way: You will be unlikely to compete well against other candidates using a generic approach – even if you apply for more than 50 positions. On the other hand, if you do 10 really thorough applications, your efforts will stand out, simply because so few people pay this amount of attention to the job search.

9) Follow through. You set yourself apart from other applicants even more if you follow up in person on your application. Some employers state that they do not want telephone calls. In that case you will need to email to ensure that your materials have been received. However, a telephone call gives you the opportunity to start to build a relationship with your future company, and to give them a sense of you as a person.

10) Commit to treating the job search like a job. After many years in college, you may want to take life easy for a bit. Don’t. The new grads who find jobs most easily are the ones who invest significant time, and are both prepared and persistent. If you’re researching, networking and preparing unique applications for jobs, you can easily fill forty hours a week. Just like going to work!

2011 College Grads Still Face Uphill Employment Battle

High school seniors who matriculated at four-year colleges in 2007 have seen the best and worst of economic times during their time in school. As they prepare to graduate, many must be thanking fate for the positive developments currently emerging in the employment market.

There is cause for optimism. Employers are returning to career fairs, and according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the overall unemployment rate for college grads over the age of 25 has decreased from a high of 5.3% in July, 2009 to a seasonally non-adjusted rate of 4.5% in January, 2011.

But economic gains have, so far, not benefitted new college grads, whose unemployment rate in January stood at a decades-high 10.8%. Contrary to all other groups, bachelor’s degree holders aged 20-24 experienced a 17% increase in their rate of unemployment between January, 2010, and January, 2011. And, over the past three years, that unemployment rate has almost doubled.

Three years ago, 116,000 of these young college grads were unemployed. Now, close to a quarter of a million find themselves without jobs. Many of those who do have jobs are underemployed and living back home with their parents.

A significant proportion of students attend college in pursuit of a better standard of living, commensurate with their investment in higher education. For those graduates who are unemployed or underemployed, college loan repayments are a cruel reminder of unfulfilled expectations.

As employers start to add more jobs, current students must prepare themselves to be compelling candidates, so that they avoid the unemployment/underemployment trap. Four strategies will help:

1) Take advantage of internships and co-ops. One reason why employers choose older college grads over their younger peers is because of their proven work experience. Students need to be able to articulate their relevant or transferable skills, even if they have not held full-time positions.

2) Go the extra mile. The passive approach no longer works, and that includes applying indiscriminately to every job on Craig’s List. Searching out employers of interest, reading up on company developments, and mining alumni databases to find points of connection to the organization, are all examples of the kind of proactive approach that is required.

3) Use your Career Center. Students who use their school’s career services office will typically find jobs more quickly than their peers. Yet, according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers, advising appointments at Career Centers nationally have gone down, not up. Career Centers cannot, or course, manufacture jobs, but they can help students position themselves more effectively with employers.

4) Make your career search a priority. No amount of advice can help you achieve your career goals unless you are willing to devote the considerable time it takes to conduct an effective job search.

There are jobs out there for new grads–and many lie unfilled because new college grads cannot make the case for their own employment. Parents, educators and career professionals have a vested interest and a moral obligation to help them do so.

College Loans Should Come with a Uniform Warning Label

In the next few months, hundreds of thousands of high school seniors will be deciding where to go to college. They’ve read the viewbooks, checked out the campus, and made sure they could major in a chosen subject. And, they’ve considered whether they will receive sufficient financial aid to attend.

What prospective students rarely do, however, is question whether a degree from a particular college is likely to lead to a lucrative job after graduation. How many prospective applicants press the careers office for information on employment or salaries? How many ask what it will take for them to be employed at graduation?

For the student applying for significant loans, the challenge of finding a well-paying job should be a cause for serious worry. The Department of Education estimates that in 2009, only 56% of students at private non-profit colleges were in repayment of their student loans four years after they graduated or left school. That figure dips to 54% for students at public non-profit institutions and plummets to 36% for students at for-profit colleges.

The reality of graduates struggling with debt is in sharp contrast to their expectations as students. According to the latest national survey by the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California at Los Angeles, 72.7% of 2011 freshmen largely agreed that the chief benefit of college is increased earning power.

Sadly, the Department of Education data suggests that many entry-level graduate salaries, for those lucky enough to find a job, are insufficient to maintain an adequate standard of living while repaying debts. The unemployment rate in January, 2011, for those with bachelors degrees aged 20-24, stood at 10.8%. Graduates in this cohort who do have jobs may be either working part-time or underemployed, further exacerbating their financial situation.

Students who are considering taking on high amounts of debt must understand what that debt will mean for their lives after graduation. Colleges and universities have a clear responsibility to not only publish the career and salary outcomes for their graduates, but also to identify the time and effort required for a successful career search.

Perhaps it is time to put a warning label on every college loan that says: “This college loan may adversely affect your financial health. A college degree does not guarantee that you will receive a post-graduate job with a salary sufficient to repay your loans. Further, your debts cannot be discharged through bankruptcy.”

Increasing the number of Americans with a college education, and making loans available to more students are worthy goals. But, when students are able to take out loans with insufficient consideration of the consequences, it bodes well for no one–least of all, the debt-ridden college graduate.

The Education of Fortune 100 CEOs: An Update for 2011

In an article titled “Do You Need An Ivy League Degree to Rise to the Top in Business”, dated September 14, 2009, I made observations on a recently released report of the educational background of Fortune 100 CEOs. That report has now been revised, and it is obvious that there has been much upheaval in the upper echelons of business over the past year. Twelve percent of companies on the 2011 list are new, and stalwarts like Motorola, Phillip Morris and Macy’s are nowhere to be seen. But in terms of education, the CEOs from the new companies, and new CEO’s of other Fortune 100 companies, have much in common with those who made the list last year.

Interesting facts for the 2011 Fortune 100 CEOs include the following:
• 18 CEOs have an Ivy League undergraduate education
• 9 CEOs have an undergraduate degrees from a foreign institution
• 63% of CEOs have an advanced degree of some kind
• 11% of CEOs have a JD
• 36% of CEOs have an MBA

It is impossible to identify trends from only two years worth of data. However, I stand by the conclusion that I drew from my September, 2009, analysis:

The quality of education does make a difference to someone’s ability to become a CEO of a Fortune 100 company. 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.

More Jobs, Higher Unemployment: A Confusing Message for the Class of 2010

The Class of 2010 has graduated into the worst economy in living memory. Those with bachelor’s degrees are joining their under-25 peers in a job market where 11.7% of their cohort is unemployed. And, while other segments of the market recover, the situation for recent graduates is deteriorating. In July 2009, the unemployment rate for college graduates with bachelor’s degrees was 10.1%. A year later, it is 15% higher. Those who chose to “ride out the economy” when the job market first slipped, made a serious error in judgment.

There is no doubt that it is hard for college graduates to find work. But dig deeper in the Bureau of Labor Statistics data, and the news is less gloomy. More that a 100,000 more college graduates are employed in July, 2010 than were employed two years ago.

Two factors play into this seemingly contradictory situation. The first is that over a two-year period, there has been a 3.6% increase in the total number of people with bachelor’s degree qualifications under the age of 25. The second is that the percentage of graduates who are participating in the workforce (either employed or actively looking for work) has jumped from 82% to 86%.

Here’s the bottom line: there are more jobs out there, but there are more young graduates chasing them. Never has it been more important for these job applicants to focus on what they want, identify where they can provide value to an employer and develop a strategy to get their foot in the door. The future of these young graduates depends on it.

Careers and College Debt: Don’t Blame the Parents

There is no doubt that today’s college graduates often leave school owing more money than they can easily repay. Writing in The New York Times on May 28, 2010, Ron Lieber puts the blame on higher education, banks and families. Many families have, indeed, been loath to put the brakes on excessive borrowing for college, but I believe Mr. Lieber’s finger pointing at parents misses a very important point.

Parents allow, and even encourage, their children to borrow for college, because they believe higher education provides an economic return on investment in the form of a well-paid job. The better the school (so parents think), the more likely the student will access the path to prosperity. Small wonder that the parent profiled by Mr. Lieber supported her daughter’s desire to attend NYU, even if it meant borrowing many thousands of dollars. Numerous ranking systems are testament to the perceived value of a particular school.

Probe the prosperity assumption just a little, however, and it rapidly disintegrates. Top schools often have access to prestigious employers, and robust alumni networks. But that doesn’t mean there are enough highly paid jobs available for all students with debts to discharge. Nor does it mean students will be qualified for those jobs—or even want them. And, alumni networks do no good if the student has no idea how to engage with adults around career issues.

A poor economic climate favors graduates with pre-professional degrees and directly related internship experience. But who is telling that to parents who would do anything to have their son attend an Ivy League school? And who is telling students that they don’t need a $200,000 education to become a Fortune 100 CEO?

Students from all schools–but particularly liberal arts majors from top colleges–need good career advice that is based on real world, not ivory tower, knowledge. Unfortunately, the media is complicit with colleges in perpetuating the erroneous belief that all it takes is a good education to secure a lucrative job at graduation.

Surveys conducted by consulting companies like Eduventures clearly demonstrate the importance of career preparation to the prospective college parent and student. Yet few colleges provide the kind of data that would support an informed college choice. Small wonder: gathering data costs time and money. And, schools have typically not invested in providing the kind of career services that would enable students to transition easily from college to career. The truth about the job situation for most new grads from top schools is not nearly as positive as most parents believe.

Parents might assume that in a down economy, colleges and universities would pay extra attention to the offices charged with helping graduates succeed outside the academic bubble. Not so. In the past year, most college career services have been hurt as badly as other administrative offices. In a recent benchmarking survey of sixteen college and university careers offices, conducted by Curran Career Consulting, only two escaped last year’s budget axe—and neither of those received an increase in funds. Most parents would be appalled to know that the annual amount of money spent per student on career services is often less than the cost of a couple of gourmet restaurant meals.

Parents and students need the facts about career preparation before they choose a school and sign the loan forms. In the next blog post, I will suggest a number of questions parents should ask colleges and universities before making a matriculation decision. Only with this information can a parent or student definitively say the risk of debt is worth the post-graduate reward.

College Seniors: Don’t Go To Graduate School

The Class of 2010 must be cursing their collective bad luck. For most of their college career, they watched employers wooing their older classmates with promises of high salaries and signing bonuses. Then they sat back, dumbfounded, as the Class of 2009 confronted the worst hiring situation in decades. Now, they have to face the fact that the jobs recovery still remains elusively over the horizon.

I’ve worked with students through several economic downturns, and there are always winners and losers in the employment game. The spoils this year go to the graduates with smarts, strong technical skills, and—most important–relevant work or internship experience.

The cruel irony is that the “losers” in the current senior class are often the ones who, since they were in diapers, have been told they were the best and the brightest. Armed with self-confidence, stellar SAT scores, and ambition, they matriculated at some of the top colleges in the U.S., majoring in subjects like Spanish, Anthropology, and Psychology.

Contrary to the general assumption, most of these students never intended to become translators, or anthropologists or psychologists. A significant proportion saw their education as a great preparation for a career in business—especially if they supplemented their majors with a minor in computer science or economics. Now they’re not so sure.


Students fitting this profile in the late 1990s would have catapulted themselves to the top of the career ladder by naming themselves CEO and authoring their new dot-com business plan on the back of an envelope. Since the tech bubble burst, this type of student has been increasingly drawn to the pay, prestige, and intellectual challenge of investment banking and management consulting. These two career fields rarely employed more than 20% of a university’s graduating class, but their firms’ recruiting seal of approval became synonymous with the perceived quality of the academic institution.

So what now for the college senior? Not only are finance and consulting opportunities in short supply, the rest of the employment landscape still looks bleak. The unemployment rate for college graduates under the age of 25 has increased more than 120% in the past two years, and while the rate of unemployment has leveled off, it is still at historic highs. Given the dire news, it’s small wonder that a large number of soon-to-be-graduates are sticking their heads in the sand and avoiding anything that smacks of the real world.

Many 2010 graduates are being aided and abetted in their retreat from reality by an unlikely alliance: parents and faculty. The dubious advice they are being given is to “wait out the recession” and go to graduate school. For faculty, it’s a no-brainer to encourage some of the brightest minds to stay in the academy—especially since they may honestly believe it’s for the good of the student. The reasons that parents give this advice are often a little more complicated.


Parents of 2010 graduates have been more involved in their children’s education than at any other time in history. Throughout grade school and high school, they have nurtured their children’s talents, found tutors when necessary, and guided extra-curricular activities so their sons and daughters would find success in the college application sweepstakes. The reward for their efforts? A hefty bill for tuition and expenses that often exceeds $150,000. The expected quid pro quo for such an investment has been post-graduate professional success for their offspring. Unemployment, particularly long-term unemployment, is unacceptable.

Many parents also assume that a graduate degree will automatically confer an economic advantage to their sons and daughters. A quick glance at the Bureau of Labor Statistics chart shows what appears to be a clear correlation between education and salary. Crunch a couple of numbers and you find a 25% economic benefit to a master’s degree over a bachelor’s degree and a 55% pay differential between those with just a bachelor’s degree and those with a professional degree.

The devil, of course, is in the details. In a September 2007 article, “Is your degree worth $1 million—or worthless?” author Liz Pulliam Weston attempts to calculate the actual value of particular types of degrees over a lifetime. Her conclusions are generally consistent with what I have observed. One of her most notable findings: Recipients of masters degrees in the liberal arts or social sciences actually gained no economic value from further education.

On the other hand, Ms. Weston clearly illustrates the benefits of a professional degree. She calculates that over a lifetime, an MBA graduate will make $375,000 more than if she had simply finished her education with a bachelor’s degree. That’s an impressive figure, so why not encourage new grads to get an MBA? Trick question. Most schools will rarely accept candidates for an MBA without at least two to three years of experience. In fact, the average number of years of work experience for students in business school is typically around five.


Students could find an international business school that might accept them immediately after graduation, but they’d be missing out on something U.S. schools consider very important: the ability to put business education in context and to bring real world problems and solutions to the table.

The financial advantage of an MBA is also tempered by the actual, and lost opportunity, costs of attending. With more than $100,000 of debt at stake—often on top of undergraduate loans—graduates need to be 100% sure about the value of an MBA for their chosen career field before signing on the dotted line. An MBA degree might be a real plus for someone interested in nonprofit management, but the economic equation may not make sense.

A number of schools, including Case Western Reserve, have started masters programs designed specifically to give liberal arts grads a background in business. Located in the university’s business school and lasting a year or less, these programs can be very popular with students who like the idea of a “transition” degree which orients them more towards the business world. Unfortunately, these degrees are expensive and are often not well understood outside academia. The verdict is still out on whether one year masters programs give graduates a leg up in the work world. Employers typically recruit at the undergraduate or the MBA level but don’t know what to do with the student who does not naturally fit into either category. A better option might be to consider an intense short-term program, like the Tuck Business Bridge program at Dartmouth College.


Listening to my cautionary tales about graduate school and the job market, it would be easy to descend into despair. But new graduates have always been able to find jobs even in the worst recessions. Employment opportunities do exist, and the proactive job seeker will hunt them down, using connections and resources to expand the scope of his or her search. Increasingly, students and their families are looking to private career advising to obtain the kind of personalized attention and targeted strategies that give students an advantage in a challenging job market.

I recently asked three employers what they recommend students do if they are interested in going into an area of business after they graduate. All three agreed that students need to get experience, not more education. One went as far as to say “get a job, any job, even McDonald’s.” The point is, in this economy your GPA or your SAT score may be less important than your experience and your attitude. Arrogance is out; humility is in.

Companies these days can afford to be picky. They want to know whether you can do the job that they need to have done. If you’re graduating in a major that is unrelated to your career interest, you’ll have to take the extra steps necessary to show the relevance of your education. Sometimes that means focusing the employer’s attention less on the subject matter of your degree and more on your internships or extra-curricular activities. However challenging the job market, the savvy job hunter will always find creative ways to make the hiring case, and in doing so, stand out from the crowd.

Addressing Brown University students in a careers program during a past recession, the late Frank Newman, former president of the University of Rhode Island, announced to his audience that they were graduating at the best of times. What he meant was that the graduate who can successfully find opportunities when times are bad will be well positioned for a lifetime of changing jobs and careers. I believe that’s excellent advice for the Class of 2010.

Careers and the College Grad: Predictions for 2010 and Beyond

December 31, 2009: The Wall Street Journal’s lead story proclaims that 2009 was a banner year for stocks. This is great news for parents paying for their children’s increasingly expensive college education from hard-earned savings. Yet the good economic news disguises an ugly fact: unemployment figures continued to rise throughout 2009, only flattening out towards the end of the year. And, none of the experts expect a significant improvement in the employment picture anytime soon.

Based on my reading of the statistical tea leaves, along with anecdotal data from clients, I have five predictions each for college students, and for the career services offices that help them figure out and find their futures.

College students

1) For the foreseeable future, it will be a buyer’s market for employers, not new college graduates. You won’t be able to “ride out” the poor economy—whether you’re a senior or a freshman. Building a career focus and skills early in your college career will be key.

2) A good GPA and a good school will no longer guarantee a good job. You’ll need relevant internships or jobs to prove that you can do the work you say you’re qualified to do.

3) Liberal arts students who are not at the top of the class may get left behind in the employment game. The less your major relates to your career field of choice, the more relevant experience and effective career strategies you’ll need.

4) You won’t find your job sitting in front of a computer. Forget job boards—except to get a sense of the kinds of organizations that are hiring. Success will only come to those who find a way to use connections to get their foot in the door, and who know how to exploit social media.

5) Students will need professional career help. Few students have sufficient background or training to understand how to achieve career goals, and your first interview may be the one that really counts. Expert advice on career strategy and thinking like an employer will be essential.

College careers offices

1) The number of employers signing up for career fairs will increase in 2010—a welcome budget boost for cash-strapped careers offices. But the number of interns and new grads sought by employers will not significantly increase from last year.

2) Career services budgets will remain flat, or sustain even further cuts. The careers office that doesn’t change will become increasingly marginalized.

3) The careers office that identifies ways to provide better services at lower costs will be the one that gets the positive attention of senior university leadership.

4) More partnerships will be formed between the careers office and academic advising, alumni affairs, and enrollment management, reflecting the importance of graduate success to other parts of a college or university.

5) Careers offices with diminished staff will struggle to provide the breadth and depth of services required by students and alumni in a difficult economy. Success in meeting client needs will require a different approach to career volunteers, partnerships, and outsourcing.

Understanding How Careers Work: Advice For New College Grads

To find a group of students who have been as adversely affected in their career options by the economy as grads in the classes of 2009 and 2010, you have to go back to the early 1970s. Then, as now, the number of new college grads far outstripped the number of positions requiring a college degree. And, to be sure, many graduating seniors—particularly liberal arts grads without relevant work experience—found work for which they were overqualified, or in which they were only minimally interested. But there is nothing to suggest that 1970s grads were any less successful in finding their ideal work than their peers who graduated in better economic times. The same will be undoubtedly true for those graduating in 2009 and 2010.

This article is excerpted from a presentation to students and faculty at Grove City College in Pennsylvania, in November, 2009. The lessons and strategies shared come not only from my experience as an early 70’s grad, but also from my dozen years of experience as career director at Brown University and Duke University, and research for my book Smart Moves for Liberal Arts Grads: Finding a Path to Your Perfect Career. Four key messages and three strategies will help new and recent college grads understand the context for their careers, and learn how they can best prepare for their careers while they are still in school.

Career Messages

1) Discovering your passion evolves over time
2) Finding paths to follow your passion also takes time
3) The more you can explore and experience in college, the better
4) Careers frequently do not follow a linear progression, and you often can’t see your career until you look in the rear view mirror

Career Strategies

1) Leverage your connections

2) Think like an employer

3) Find your hook

This first post covers the four important career messages. Subsequent posts will explore the three career strategies.

  1. Discovering your passion evolves over time

Few college graduates could have accurately told you their passion at graduation. This is not surprising, because it turns out that identifying a career passion evolves over time. Think for a moment about Alison Levine, one of the people profiled in Smart Moves. Alison now describes her passion as combining adventure travel with philanthropy. But could she have told you that when she was doing her undergraduate degree in communications? Absolutely not. What about when she was getting her MBA or working at a prestigious investment bank? Ditto. In fact, Alison didn’t discover her passion for mountaineering until a new procedure was discovered to treat her heart defect.

For Alison, her illness and subsequent treatment helped her discover a passion for mountain climbing. And it’s that first passion that then led to Alison’s related passion for helping the women who live in the areas in which she climbs. Alison runs the Climb High Foundation, whose programs enable these women to work as trekking guides and porters in their local mountains and national parks so that they can maintain an adequate, sustainable living wage and can make meaningful, long-term improvements to their quality of life.

If you just heard about Alison’s passions, you might think that her educational background in communications and her marketing and finance experience would be a waste. In fact, her success at achieving her passion comes from her ability to integrate all of her knowledge and talents. It’s Alison’s ability to give motivational speeches that provides the money to support both her mountain climbing and her philanthropy.

The important thing to remember is that you don’t have to know everything in college.

  1. Finding paths to follow your passion also takes time

Even if you know your passion from a relatively early age, it’s rare to find a linear path to achieving that passion. Take Brad, for example. In Smart Moves, Brad states his passion as “alleviating unnecessary suffering”, a passion he discovered because a childhood friend died of campus. But what is Brad doing now? He’s completing an MBA, after several years working as an investment analyst at a health care private equity fund, and working at a major pharmaceutical company.

Too often, when we hear that someone has a passion for something like alleviating unnecessary suffering, we immediately jump in our minds to the most obvious professional path: becoming a doctor. That’s why Brad’s story is so interesting. Because he, too, thought he’d be a doctor, and he did everything he could to prepare himself for that path. He even managed to be sent to Peru through Doctors without Borders, despite the fact that the organization never hired students for international assignments, and rarely hired people who were not doctors or medical professionals. Through that experience, and an opportunity to evaluate a World Health Program in Bangladesh, Brad really began to understand medical care in Third World countries. But his experiences were not all positive. In fact, Brad says that he got a strong sense of how much well-intentioned aid and medicine is lost to graft and corruption before ever reaching the intended recipients.

Through experiences in the field, Brad recognized that, for him, the path to reach his passion was not to be the doctor and deal with one person at a time, but to look at alleviating suffering from a much broader perspective. And that meant putting himself in a position to eventually fund global initiatives. Looking in from the outside at Brad’s career, many people would assume that he’d lost his way. But being true to your passion doesn’t require you to tell everyone why you’re taking a particular path. For Brad, working as an investment banker was a means to an end. And, alongside his finance work, Brad has always volunteered for organizations, constantly building the skill sets he’ll need to be successful in achieving his goal.

The other thing I want to mention about Brad, and all the other people we profiled in Smart Moves is that they aren’t perfect. They’re just like you sitting in the audience. People always talk about achievements, but let’s face it, we’re all going to pursue paths from time to time that probably aren’t wise in retrospect. Brad actually went down an ill-fated path to a dot-com internet company right after college. Six months later the dot-com went bust in the last recession and Brad was left scrambling, not knowing his next move.

I do not know one successful graduate who has never come face to face with serious challenges—most of the time not of their own making. If you get used to reflecting on the things that don’t go well in your life and constantly look for ways to improve situations, you will end up developing one of the most important skills in life: career resilience. What I mean by career resilience is acquiring the ability to look at a bad situation and figure out how get around it in order to achieve the ultimate goal.

  1. The more you can explore and experience in college, the better

In Brad’s case, if he had not had the two experiences of health care in developing countries while he was still in school, he would have continued his original path towards being a doctor. His frustration of not being able to influence health care in a broader way may not have manifested itself until long after he’d accumulated over a $100,000 in debt.

So the question to ask yourself is are you taking the most advantage of your Grove City education? Are you using all the available resources to challenge yourself to figure out your place in this world? And, are you using your education to develop the knowledge, skills and abilities that will help you not only decide how you want to live your life, but also provide the opportunity to find a path to your passion?

When I talk about education, I’m thinking of it very broadly. Education is not just what you study in college, but also what skills you develop in and out of the classroom, through your experiential education, and study abroad. And it’s not about checking off the boxes, as in “took a class where I used Powerpoint”; it’s about truly engaging in, and reflecting on, your education.

Let’s take study abroad or work abroad as an example. Learning outside the U.S. can be extremely helpful to developing the kinds of intercultural competency you need to follow your passion. But it’s only really a growth experience if you go outside your comfort zone, for example by living with a local family, studying only in the language of the country, or making your own arrangements. When I was at Duke, I discovered that employers often assumed that if you’d studied in a country like Spain, you’d speak the language. And if they started to talk to you in that language, you better be able to at speak enough Spanish to say “I’m sorry, I was in Madrid a couple of years ago, and I’m a bit rusty ”!

Graduating from a good college or university will help you in opening doors to opportunities, and doing well in school is important, but good grades aren’t everything. You can be successful in work you love even if you didn’t get stellar SATs or a great GPA. After all, employers rarely ask for your GPA after your first position—if then! The best antidote for lower grades is successful, relevant experience.

Many of the Smart Moves stories talk of the value of being involved in extracurricular activities. Sometimes the value of this involvement, though, is in helping you to discover what you would rather keep as interests, rather than as a career. Jonathan envisioned himself as a famous sportscaster, but his passion for politics and a reasonable family life led to decide to be a lawyer by day and limit his work at the TV station to Friday nights. When we think about our lives, we cannot separate our own personal passions from our context. With whom do we want to share our lives, and what does that mean for the kind of career we pursue?

  1. Careers frequently do not follow a linear progression, and you often can’t see your career until you look in the rear view mirror

For many people, the whole notion of “career” is totally overwhelming. The reality is, though, that no one starts at the top. And in this economic climate, starting at the bottom—even in a job that doesn’t require a college degree, is sometimes necessary. My first job was a file clerk for the Inner London Education Authority office of Career Services—and no, I had no thought at that time that my passion would be to help people of all ages find work they love. Many of the graduates in Smart Moves started work in very low-level positions. Cara worked for free at a music station; Warren bused tables in a country inn. Liz worked behind the cheese counter. These jobs were way below the graduate’s intellectual capacity. Being clueless, or underemployed, however, did not ultimately affect their ability to follow their dreams.

One of the major things that has changed in the past decade or so is that there is no longer a stigma to frequently changing positions—especially if you’re laid off, or in your first couple of jobs after college. There is evidence of this in a Duke University study that investigated how the Class of 2001 had fared in their careers during their first five years after graduation. It turns out that, on average, they had 2.79 jobs within the first five years and 43% of them had changed not just jobs but careers. When you’re thinking of taking a job, it’s worth reflecting on why you want that job, and how it will lead you closer to your kind of work you really want. Sometimes you have to take a job simply to put food on the table. There is no shame in that. And there are often ways to make entry-level jobs more useful to you than the job description might imply.

On October 22, 2009, a blogger called Tyler, who’s a recent graduate with a BA in English, wrote a very interesting entry on the Higher Education Weblog. I want to quote from his article:

“The planning firm that used me as office slave creates written reports and documents for city governments, the state Supreme Court and high-paying private clients. After I’d worked there a few months, I asked my boss if I could assist in writing them. After all, I had an English degree and the engineers and geographers at the company didn’t. He agreed and started me off typing reports and correcting a few grammatical errors. But while typing a poorly written market-research study, I asked if I could rewrite it…….I was allowed to redo the report. It turned out well, the client was pleased and I gained impressive experience for my resume.”

Tyler demonstrated a key lesson. You have to do the job for which you were hired well first. But after that, if you can find a way to help the organization while making your job more interesting, you’ll often be given the opportunity. I’ll add my 2 cents. Sometimes you have to accept jobs in which you have no real interest, and you may dread going to work. I’ve been there, so I know. BUT—and this is important– you are not your job, and no job can stand in the way of your reason for being. If the job really sucks the wind out of your sails, finding outside avenues, like volunteering, can be critical to your well being.

Good News for College Grad Employment

The latest government (BLS) unemployment statistics for October, 2009, were accompanied by a collective national groan. Across all populations, the average unemployment rate rose to a high of 10.2%–up four tenths of a percent from September, 2009, and 54% higher than a year ago. But unemployment woes have not affected every group equally. There is a whopping discrepancy between individuals with no high school diploma, and those with a college degree.

The statistics tell a pretty clear story, and it’s all about education. According to the BLS data, if you don’t have strong educational qualifications, you’re more likely to be unemployed. Period. Those with no qualifications at all have a 14% unemployment rate, while those with a high school diploma are unemployed at the national average. On the other hand, college graduates over the age of 25, fare significantly better. Their overall unemployment rate is now a respectable 4.6%, a rate that is still historically high, but has been decreasing since July. There remains a glut of unemployed recent graduates, but older graduates have been finding jobs: 163,000 fewer college grads over the age of 25 were unemployed in October, 2009, than in the previous month.

While it’s easy to think that the recession may be over for experienced graduates, that may be an overstatement. Certainly, more of them have jobs, but what isn’t known is whether these jobs are full or part time, and whether they actually require the credential possessed by the applicant. A college degree does not guarantee work that is interesting and lucrative—and commensurate with the money you have spent to obtain the degree. But it does make it more likely that you can find some kind of employment, even when the economy is in trouble.

2009 College Graduates: Unemployed and Forgotten

What has happened to the college graduates who received their diplomas last Spring? Since that time, the word on the street—or at least on Wall Street—is that we are no longer in recession. But the improving public mood has not translated yet into hiring. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the overall unemployment rate inched up to 9.8% in September, with no demographic group being spared.

On the surface, the 9.3% unemployment rate for college grads with a bachelor’s degree under the age of 25 seems quite positive. After all, the National Association of Colleges and Employers survey of 16,000 college seniors, conducted through April 30, 2009, concluded that only 19.7% had jobs lined up by graduation. Unfortunately, the Bureau of Labor Statistics data hide some more troubling information. The employment numbers are higher than expected, because they include college graduates who did any work during the previous week—even if that work was part-time work while they were in graduate school, and even if the work did not require a college degree.

A better way of assessing the severity of the situation for recent grads is to compare employment data on 2009 graduates, to the same data, from the same month in 2008. The percentage of this cohort who are in the work force (employed or actively looking for work), is almost identical to a year ago, indicating that there was, in fact, no rush to graduate school. What is strikingly different is the change in both the number and the percentage of young college graduates seeking work compared to a year ago. The unemployment rate in September, 2008 for those with just a bachelor’s degree was 6.6%, compared to 9.3% a year later. In September, 2009, there were 202,000 young college graduates looking for work–54,000 more than in the same month last year. The situation is even worse for men. Their unemployment rate in September was 11%, compared to under 8% for women.

Peter Coy, who penned an article in Business Week on October 8, 2009, talks about the hazards of long term unemployment at the beginning of a career: “For people just starting their careers, the damage may be deep and long-lasting, potentially creating a kind of “lost generation.” Studies suggest that an extended period of youthful joblessness can significantly depress lifetime income as people get stuck in jobs that are beneath their capabilities, or come to be seen by employers as damaged goods.”

So who is helping the Class of 2009 find opportunities and contribute to the economic recovery? Many alumni associations and careers offices have started to provide more services to their constituents, but their efforts often fall short due to lack of appropriate staffing, time or budget to help those who have already left school. Given the increasing cost of education and the decreasing value of a college, higher education needs to take more responsibility for the success of its graduates. And that success has to start with a job. While the cost of providing alumni career services may seem steep, it is money well spent. A college graduate who is given assistance when he or she needs help, is the one who will keep giving back to a college through increased engagement and philanthropy.

Graduate unemployment is not just a problem to be solved by the Career Services office, or the Alumni Association. It’s an institution-wide issue. Now is the time for discussion and action at the highest level of college and university administration. The Class of 2009 needs immediate help.

Update for October, 2009: The unemployment rate for college grads aged 20-24 is heading downwards. There was a .4% drop in the unemployment rate from 9.3% to 8.9% from September to October. But the rate of unemployment is still almost 40% higher than in October a year ago.

Note: Essential employment data on higher education, college graduates and Career Services is updated every month on this website.

How Can I Transition From a Career in Law to Business?

Q. After six years in corporate law, I have decided to go into business. I’m having a hard time getting my foot in the door. What do you advise?

A. The old adage that law is good preparation for any career may be true, but a legal background is not an obvious advantage to a hiring manager who’s looking for a track record in a particular industry and may think you’ll be too expensive! You have to go out of your way to make the case why the employer should hire you.

Does the way you’re presenting yourself shout out “law”? If it does, consider a “functional” resume format that allows you to demonstrate, for example, your management, financial, and strategic planning skills. You’ll still need to list your employment history, but it will come at the end of your resume, where it will be secondary to your relevant experience.

Use your cover letter to articulate why you want the advertised position, and downplay your desire to exit the legal profession. Make it easy for the employer to see how the skills you’ve developed can add value. Your volunteer work on boards of directors or organizing philanthropic events for your PTA association may be more relevant than your legal work.

Your applications will always be more successful if you have a champion in the organization who can endorse your candidacy. Build your base of professional colleagues online and through associations. Request informational interviews with executives to better understand a particular business and what it takes to be successful.

You may identify “competence gaps”—a lack of key knowledge or skills that make you less competitive than other candidates. If this is the case, consider the interim step of becoming an in-house counsel. Many lawyers have found this an excellent step towards senior management.

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!

Career Advice for Liberal Arts Parents

Over a million and a half students will become college students for the first time this fall. According to studies conducted by the educational consulting firm, Eduventures, two thirds of these students will have chosen their selected college in large part based on the assumption that it will prepare them well for a career. But within minutes of setting foot on campus, all thoughts of the future will be obliterated by more mundane problems, such as negotiating with roommates about where to put the refrigerator, or finding the best Thai food. And once school actually starts, thoughts of career recede even further.

Parents go through their own form of denial about their children’s futures. The logic of choice: it’s good that the economy is bad now, because my son has four years for it to get better. Many parents also erroneously assume that if their son or daughter goes to a good school and does well, they will automatically receive a top job after graduation. (Based on the recent lawsuit filed by an unemployed graduate against her alma mater, some students labor under a similar misunderstanding.)

After working with thousands of parents at Duke University and Brown University, I’ve compiled a list of the top ten things that every parent of a liberal arts student needs to know about education and career.

1) Your sons and daughters will probably change their minds about their major at least once, and probably multiple times. That’s normal.

2) Not surprisingly, most students change their minds about their expected careers, too.

3) Students do not need to immediately put themselves into a pre-med or pre-law “box”. There are no pre-requisites for law school, and students are increasingly taking a full four years to complete medical school requirements.

4) It is now almost the norm to work for a year or two before going to grad school, law school or medical school. And, most top MBA programs only accept students with significant experience.

5) The subject matter of the major may not have anything in common with a student’s career aspiration. If it doesn’t, your son or daughter will need to supplement the major with relevant experiences outside the classroom

6) Internships are now a pre-requisite for success in finding a good position. Students who are most in demand by employers have often had two or three internships before graduation, and have built work skills and knowledge throughout their time in college.

7) College provides numerous opportunities outside of the classroom to build skills that employers covet. Club leadership, membership on an athletic team, and study abroad can all round out the resume. The key is to use these experiences to demonstrate commitment, skills development and learning.

8) Students who build strong relationships with grown-ups—faculty, administrators, alumni and other parents—will be way ahead in the career game. Connections count.

9) Your son or daughter should not wait until senior year to start exploring careers, examining options, building skills and developing application materials. An ideal time for the first visit to the careers office is early sophomore year.

10) Today’s students use their parents as a primary source of advice on careers. You will be doing your son or daughter a huge favor by encouraging exploration and experience, while letting them do the work!

How do I Ace The Interview?

Question: I’m a recent grad who has not yet found work. I’m looking for an event management position in New York, and employers seem interested, but I don’t get called back after the interview. What am I doing wrong?

Answer: The good news is that you’re getting your foot in the door. So your academics and experience are making the grade. The problem area appears to be your interview. Interviewing is one of the most difficult skills to master. Essentially, you have to sell yourself to a potential employer. After years of letting your academic results speak for you, you have to find ways of letting your personality shine through. And you need to control those sweaty palms and the red flush that appears on your neck when you’re under stress.

Employers look for three things: first, whether your qualifications match the requirements of the position; second, whether you have the personal characteristics that are necessary (such as the ability to take initiative); and third, organizational fit. Interviewers often employ the “2am in Japan test”. Essentially they’re asking themselves “if I were stuck in an airport in Japan at 2am with this person, would I want to talk to them?”! Your potential employer wants you to be competent, but they also want to like you.

Few people are good at interviews without practice. The best way to ace an interview is to find a professional whom you trust to ask you sample questions and give you feedback. Don’t forget to work on your beginnings – the ubiquitous “tell me about yourself” question, and your endings—why you think you’re the best person for the job. Be open to their critique—however harsh it may seem. The more you can practice outside of the interviewing suite, the easier it will be when your ideal job comes along.


Why Higher Education Can’t Ignore Graduate Unemployment

Press Release



Providing essential career information and consulting to higher education and individuals



FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: Thursday, July 2, 2009

CONTACT: Sheila Curran
(919) 599 6207


Now that the Bureau of Labor Statistics has released its June statistics, all eyes will be focused on the overall unemployment rate of 9.5%–a rate only slightly higher than that reported in May. But there is one piece of data that deserves greater attention: The rate of unemployment for college graduates over the age of 25 has risen more rapidly than for any other educational cohort. In June of 2008, the rate was 2.4%; now, it stands at 4.8%.

Over a million college graduates lost their jobs in the past year. They are competing for employment with the roughly 1.2 million new graduates who are estimated to have joined the ranks of job seekers.

While an unemployment rate of 4.8% may seem low compared to the overall rate, these unemployed individuals have collectively spent millions of dollars on their educations. Many of them have advanced degrees and significant debt loads. They expect an economic return on their tuition investment.

When the unemployment rate for college graduates over age 25 was less than 2%–true for almost all of 2002, for example—colleges and universities could logically assume that their graduates would find positions without much help. That is no longer true. A significant number of today’s college graduates will be forced to accept a job that does not require either a college degree or professional experience—if they can find one at all.

The cost of tuition, room and board at a 4-year institution rose 32% for private colleges and 42% for public universities between 2002 and 2008, with average costs in 2008 running at $30,393 and $13,639 respectively. With such increases come expectations, verified in surveys conducted by the educational research company Eduventures, that higher education will prepare students for their futures beyond college. Prospective students evaluate the degree to which an institution will provide access to professional development opportunities, connections, internships and jobs.

Sheila Curran, a career strategy expert, who has directed career centers at Duke University and Brown University, believes the time has come to think creatively about linking college to career. She recommends an institution-wide approach to securing graduate success that takes full advantage of alumni and parents as career resources. Says Curran, “Exceptional career services can be a key asset that helps colleges and universities to differentiate themselves from their peers.”


Employment and the New College Grad

Sheila Curran talks with Sara Nordhoff of the Forte Foundation in a webinar titled Smart Moves for Your Career: Positioning Yourself for Success in a Down Economy, January 21, 2009. The audience is women undergraduates interested in business, but the messages are applicable to all students and graduates. Sheila maintains that success in the job search is all about attitude, focus and strategy. The text of the webinar is below:

Sara: What does your crystal ball say about the employment outlook for college women?

Sheila: Well, Sara, there’s no doubt that there are dark clouds on the employment horizon. The US lost over a million jobs in the last two months of 2008 and conservatively, the projection is for 2 million more people losing their jobs in 2009.  And by all accounts, on-campus recruiters are making about 20% fewer offers than last year. So, it’s going to be more difficult to find jobs—whether in business or some other field. But there are jobs out there.  What we’re going to be talking about today is how to put yourself in the best position to get hired.

But first we need to talk about the elephant in the room…..

Sara: What is the elephant in the room?

Sheila:  For those unfamiliar with the expression, the elephant in the room refers to something big that’s in front of your eyes but no one talks about.  In this case it represents the fact that probably 50% of those listening are thinking in the back of their minds that if this “job” thing doesn’t work out the way they want, they’ll go to graduate school.  In fact, applications to grad school at places like Duke are up over 30% from last year. Faculty are undoubtedly encouraging this trend.

Sara:  Why shouldn’t recent grads go to graduate school?  It’ll make a lot of parents very happy, and students will be be able to ride out the recession.

Sheila: My strong advice is if you weren’t seriously thinking about graduate school before the economy tanked, don’t jump on that bandwagon now. For a woman interested in business, grad school may just be a fast way to more debt, and may not increase your chances of getting ahead.

Sara: Students are probably not hearing much about why they shouldn’t go to grad school immediately after graduating from college.

Sheila: You’re right, but I posed the question to a number of experts outside academia. Here are their responses:

Expert #1, employed in NYC:  It’s all about having work experience.  A master’s candidate without experience is much less useful that a bachelor’s candidate with experience, and is therefore less likely to get the job

Expert #2, business career advisor for undergraduates and graduate students at a top university: Students with master’s degrees and no relevant experience often don’t fit into employers’ hiring plans. And, they’re perceived as being too expensive.

Expert #3: Highly successful businessman: Don’t go immediately to grad school.  Get experience. I don’t care whether it’s working at McDonalds. More school immediately after college will not be to your advantage

So don’t believe me; believe the people doing the hiring in this economy.

Sara: Just to clarify, are you including MBA courses in what you said about grad school?

Sheila:  No, MBAs are completely different, because you almost always enter business school with several years of experience. The hiring situation is also difficult for B-School grads, but the strategies we’re talking about today are equally applicable.  And, just to clarify, there definitely are jobs where having an master’s degree could be to your advantage.  My advice, though, is to not assume the benefits of a degree program you’re considering without checking out those assumptions with hiring managers.

Sara:  So, if employers aren’t looking for women with graduate degrees, what are they looking for?

Sheila:  They’re looking for KSA:  Knowledge, skills and abilities. The good hiring manager, who’s been trained to interview (which is not always the case), is going to compare the needs of her employer to your qualifications.  If your major doesn’t indicate that you understand the industry where you’re applying for a job, you need to find a way to show you have the required knowledge through courses, work experiences and possibly even extracurricular activities.

Skills and abilities are less likely to come from the classroom, but you can draw from all your college experiences—on and off campus.  Hiring managers may make assumptions about your level of competence from your GPA and your major, but they don’t know about your skills and abilities unless you highlight them.  That means specifically mentioning skills and abilities in your resume and cover letter and giving examples.

Sara:  So what you’re basically saying is that in the absence of a personal connection, it’s your combination of relevant knowledge, skills and abilities that will get you the interview.

Sheila:  Right, but getting the job is going to require that you ALSO possess three other critical attributes:  A great attitude, clear focus, and a well-thought-through job search strategy

It’s interesting.  If you ask most people what it takes to get a job, few will tell you about attitude, focus and strategy. But that’s what we’re going to concentrate on today. Because there are thousands of new grads out there with a great education, and even good experience. It’s the addition of attitude, focus and strategy that will help you beat the competition.

Let’s start by talking about attitude.

Sara: Attitude is one of those nebulous characteristics.  What exactly do you mean?

Sheila: I’m using attitude in the employment context to mean four things: if you want to succeed in this market, you have to be positive, pragmatic, prepared and persistent. The fact is, most candidates don’t have the perfect blend of knowledge, skills and abilities. And if an employer has a choice between one slightly imperfect candidate and another, she’ll pick the one with the good attitude every time. An employer recently gave me an example of this. On paper the candidate for a technology sales position didn’t look as qualified as some of the others.  But in the interview, her knowledge of the product line and genuine enthusiasm shone through.

Sara: The woman in your example showed her positive attitude through her enthusiasm.  Is there anything more you want to say about being positive? For example, what strategies do you have for staying positive when there’s so much bad news around?

Sheila:  Funnily enough, the first strategy I’d employ is not putting yourself in a position where the chances of rejection are almost 100%. Let me give an example: A student came to work in my careers office, with the clear purpose of getting first access to any available business-related job openings. Sounds like a good idea. Unfortunately, he shot himself in the foot by applying indiscriminately online for any opening.  He didn’t get a job that way, and when he did hear back from an employer—pretty rare in itself—it was always a rejection. That can make anyone depressed.

Sara: Are you suggesting that college women not apply for jobs where all it takes is to apply on line?

Sheila: I know of instances where students have gotten jobs through sites like Monster or Craig’s List, but they tend to be lower level, commission sales, or technology jobs.  Look at it this way, if you can easily find a job listing through an online site, so can thousands of others. So your chances will only be good if you can find some additional ways to get the employer’s attention.

Sara: So far, I’m even more depressed. What are the reasons to be positive?

Sheila: The number one reason is that it can get you a job.  Let’s assume you have the basic skills and qualifications, and you’re invited for an interview. Genuine enthusiasm for the opportunity, and for the value you can provide, is infectious.  People like to be around upbeat people, and employers are no different. So if you’re down about the job search, don’t let it show.

Sara:  OK, let’s move on to your second point.

Sheila:  OK, point #2, you need to have a pragmatic attitude. Easy example:  Last year, you wanted to work in the investment banking industry. This year, unless you’re one of the few people who got hired from an internship—in which case you’re not on this call—you’ll need to expand your horizons to look for work.

Sara:  What do you mean by “expand your horizons”?

Sheila: It might mean thinking “finance” not “i-banking”, and considering smaller companies, different geographic locations, or different ways of employing your interests and skill sets

Sara: Your third point is being prepared.  But isn’t everyone well prepared for the job search in this economy?

Sheila: It’s certainly true that successful job hunters will spend an enormous amount of time preparing for the job search. So let’s test the notion of being prepared.  I’d like our audience to think about the degree to which they would be prepared to do an on the spot telephone interview for a position in which they’re really interested, but for which they applied three months ago online. Being prepared means either having an extraordinary memory, or having records of your applications and interactions in an easily retrievable database. Of course, if the employer calls at 10am, and your computer is invisible under a pile of clothes and you still haven’t had that essential cup of coffee, it’s worth asking if you can call them back in a few minutes.

Sara: Do you have any success stories of students or recent grads who were particularly well prepared?

Sheila: Yes I do.  Sharon comes to mind. She’s one of the women profiled in my book, Smart Moves for Liberal Arts Grads.  Sharon was a buyer for a major retail chain, but she really wanted a job writing about the fashion industry. Here’s where taking graduate classes really was the right decision.  Because Sharon knew that she couldn’t just move from retail to writing, even if she knew the field about which she wanted to write. So she signed up for an NYU evening journalism class. That was the first smart move.  The second was to have her wits about her when she approached a woman on the subway as she was heading to class.  She noticed the logo on the woman’s jacket was for Newsday, one of New York’s biggest papers.  Sharon started a conversation about the woman’s work, and then told the woman about her interest in getting into the business of writing about fashion. Fast forward, and Sharon got a gig writing online articles about fashion. Of course, she couldn’t immediately give up her day job, but this chance meeting gave her the inside track to a new career.  Sharon knew what she wanted to do, and she was prepared when luck appeared.  That preparation gives you the confidence to take advantage of serendipity.  It’s also a powerful reminder to develop your elevator speech.

Sara: What’s an elevator speech?

Sheila:  It’s a short (up to thirty seconds)  pitch for what you want to do.  The idea is that if you found yourself in an elevator with a business leader who asked what you were doing in the building, you could tell such a compelling story that when you reached your stop that leader would want to continue the conversation with you.

Sara: So Sharon probably had the components of her elevator pitch in mind when she approached the woman from Newsday, and she was able to weave her pitch into the conversation. Sharon certainly has a good story, but how often does that kind of luck happen?

Sheila:  Probably more frequently than you might think.  When I was researching the book I coauthored on careers, I consistently heard people crediting their success to the fact that they were in the right place at the right time.  You have to be prepared if you want to take advantage of serendipity.  But realistically, most people have to be more persistent than Sharon, particularly when it comes to the job search.

Sara: Isn’t there a danger that employers will get annoyed with the persistent applicant?

Sheila: You’re right. So here’s the strategy.  (This is assuming that the job you’re applying for isn’t going through the on-campus recruiting process, and that you have the opportunity to send a cover letter)

1) The last sentence on your cover letter should say how much you look forward to talking with the company about your background and experience and how you can add value to xyz company. Then indicate that you’ll follow up in 2 weeks to make sure that they have all the information they need, and to see if you might arrange a personal appointment.

2) Follow up at the appropriate time.  The company will probably tell you they have your resume and that they’re not ready to make any decisions about whom to interview

3) Say that you’re still very interested in the position, and ask when would be an appropriate time to follow up again

4) If they give you a date, follow up at the specified time, starting with the statement that you’re following up as suggested by xyz person

If you follow these steps you’ll be combining persistence with respect.  Of course, if you also find someone in the company to speak on your behalf, you’re golden.

So, we’ve talked about attitude and the need to be positive, pragmatic, prepared and persistent.  Now let’s talk about why you need to be focused.

Sara:  How important is it to know exactly what you want to do?

Sheila: It may be the difference between getting the job and not getting the job.  There’s a real temptation when you’re desperate to get a job to say you’ll do anything.  But that’s exactly the wrong thing to say. Employers don’t want to have to think about where they can use your skills. In this market, you have to be totally focused on what you want to do and how you can add value to the employer.  Essentially, however much of a square peg you might be, if the employer has a round hole, you have to make yourself fit into that round hole.  It’s all about making it easy for the employer to hire you.

Sara: So it’s good that students and graduates on this call probably already know they want to go into business?

Sheila:  Yes, but let’s remember how many different areas of business there are. Having a general direction is great, but knowing specifically where you’d be a good fit is much better.

Sara: Are there any areas of business that are growing and where it might be easier to find work?

Sheila:  You can find business jobs in just about any career field, so it’s worth following the news and anticipating which areas are growing and where federal  stimulus money may be spent over the next year. Areas where there may be opportunities are sustainability and energy conservation; risk management; areas of the federal government; health care, and education. But don’t wait until everyone else finds those opportunities.  Take the initiative to go down to your local Chamber of Commerce or Economic Development office and find out who’s starting businesses in the area where you want to work. Sometimes working for a start up can give you an education you’d never get in a larger company—even if you do have to do your share of filing.

Sara: Any other suggestions for someone who’s totally clueless about career direction?

Sheila:  Yes.  I’d hightail it over to your careers office and ask to take some assessment instruments to see where your talents and interests might best be employed.  Don’t forget to debrief the results with a counselor to make the most of the assessment. And then investigate potential fields of interest, for example by reading the Vault guides. Many careers offices provide access to Vault guides online.

Sara: We’ve covered attitude and focus.  Your next point, Sheila, is that college women need to have a strategy. Why is the job search strategy you use so important these days?

Sheila:  Strategy is what’s going to help you beat the competition. You should have both a micro strategy, which you employ when you’re applying for a specific job and a macro strategy for how you run your whole job search.  And by the way,  the strategies you use for your first real job can be employed at any time in the future, too. Let’s start with micro strategy, as in how you approach a specific job opening.

Sara:  Can you back up for a minute and talk about how our audience can decide what to apply for?

Sheila:  Yes.  Here are some basic rules. Only apply if

1) You have at least 75% of the qualifications, and 100% of the really important ones, like being a college graduate with experience

2) You know you can psyche yourself up to convey interest in the employment opportunity in both your documents and in an in-person interview

3) You’re willing to spend time researching the job and the company, and figuring out how you can add value to the company

Remember, the job search is not about you. Until you get the offer, it’s all about the employer.

Sara: So where does the strategy come in?

Sheila:  You have to be more prepared than the competition.  That means going way beyond the job description and the website to find out more about the opportunity, and identifying actual examples of what you’ve accomplished that relate specifically to the job at hand.

Once you’ve done your due diligence about the job, and found out more about the position and the company, it’s time to see if you can identify a connection or alumna who works at the company and who can give you the inside scoop.  In your conversation with the contact, tell her which job you’ve applied for, and that you are very interested in their company.  Your reason for talking to her is to find out how you can best position yourself to get hired.  The key here is to build rapport—so much so that you gain a supporter within the company.

Sara:  I think this is probably an area we’ll want to explore later in more detail.

Sheila:  Yes, we don’t have time to go into too much detail on the micro side. So, let’s move on to big picture strategies. My first macro strategy point is that you need to choose your board of directors.

Sara:  Are board member positions paid positions? 

Sheila:  Unfortunately no.  These are knowledgeable people, who have your best career interests at heart and who will tell you the truth. That means, by definition, they are not your parents or your best friends who are way too biased.

Sara:  So who should be your board members, and what do they do?

Sheila:  They could include a faculty member, a career advisor, an alumna or sorority sister in your field of interest.  They’re people who—based on your request– have agreed to give you feedback on your resume and cover letter, hear your elevator pitch, potentially even practice interview with you. Your board should be up to date on your thinking about career direction and be available to help you make good decisions. Keep them in the loop on what’s happening in your career search and listen to their advice carefully, even if you don’t take it.  They may think of additional avenues you could explore, and they’re particularly helpful if you’re dealing with either multiple job offers or multiple rejections.

Sara:  What else is on the list of macro strategies?

Sheila: There’s not a person I know who’d disagree with the idea that, however qualified you are, you have to network like crazy.

Sara: Networking seems like asking for help to many women, and makes them very uncomfortable.

Sheila:  You’re right that it’s a new skill for many women, but before you say “I don’t want to do that”, it’s worth looking at the benefits.  The more people who know you’re looking for work, and are impressed with your knowledge, skills and abilities, the more opportunities will open up for you.  You may be more comfortable if you realize that all you’re supposed to be doing is having a conversation with another person.  Most of the time you won’t be talking about the help you need unless the person you’re talking to offers the help first.

Here’s a tip for those of you who hate the idea of initiating a conversation about your career aspirations. Start with people you know, like relatives, who naturally open the door for you to talk about how school is going. Learn how to weave your future plans into the conversation. And don’t discount school advisors with whom you have a good relationship.  One student I know asked the professor teaching an undergrad law class whether he thought she should go to law school.  At first she was really upset, because he said “absolutely not”, but he followed it up with the comment that he saw her as being very successful in the entertainment business.  And then he did something that really surprised her:  he introduced her by email to his old college roommate, who was a film director in Hollywood.  This student now works in the entertainment field.

Sara:  I can see why you highly recommend networking. What’s next on your list of macro strategies?

Sheila: Here’s a very uncommon, but extremely useful strategy: identify and address your competence gaps.  That means, in simple terms, consider the types of jobs you want to apply for, and identify where you don’t meet the qualifications. If you do this now, you may have time to fix the problem before you apply for the jobs.

Sara: Do all candidates typically meet all qualifications?

Sheila:  No, but if you consistently see jobs of interest requiring a facility with Excel or Powerpoint, and you don’t know those programs, it’s really a good idea to learn them. Harpreet, another recent grad profiled in my book had excellent non-profit management skills but no formal grounding in business.  So she deliberately applied to work at a consulting firm where she could learn good business skills. The key in this economy is “don’t give them any excuse to reject you”.

Sara:  Just as a matter of interest, how long does it usually take for an employer to evaluate your application?

Sheila:  You’re doing well if they even spend 30 seconds on your documents, so make sure one of your competence gaps isn’t the inability to proofread!

Sara:  There’s a theme here, and it seems to be “employers have the upper hand, so give them what they want”.

Sheila:  You’re right. The piece of advice I give most frequently to students and recent grads is to think like an employer. I’ve already alluded to the fact that you need to make it easy for an employer to hire you.

Sara: Can you make that practical?  Take a resume, for example.  How can you demonstrate “thinking like an employer” in a resume?

Sheila: Most of us have a lot of different attributes, and we’re very proud of all of them – or at least our parents are.  There’s a temptation to a) put all of them down on the resume, including winning the jeopardy quiz in high school and b) send the same resume and cover letter to every employer.

Sara: Wait a minute.  Are you saying that you need to customize every cover letter and resume?

Sheila: Cover letters definitely need to be customized for the employer, because you want to highlight how your accomplishments will help you be an excellent fit with the open positions.  But it’s often helpful to rearrange your accomplishments on your resume, too, so that the most important items stand out more effectively.  Here’s a tip.  Give your resume to an acquaintance, and ask them to tell you what parts of your background, experience or characteristics stand out.  It’s a great check on whether you’re actually conveying what you want to convey.

Sara:  Isn’t it enough to just change the name of the company throughout the cover letter?

Sheila:  I can assure you that companies sniff out the quasi form letter virtually every time.  If you don’t write something really specific about why you truly want to work for the employer, they’ll probably ditch your application pretty quickly—that’s unless they’re doing what I call “hiring by the numbers”.

Sara:  What’s “hiring by the numbers”?

Sheila:  That’s when an employer doesn’t even want a cover letter; they just want to see that you have a certain GPA from a certain school, a particular major, and specific experience.  If that’s the case, you truly have to be a round peg for the round hole, or you won’t even get a chance to shine in an interview.

Sara:  Do you have any advice on resumes?

Sheila:  There are plenty of good sources of advice on resumes, including professionals in most careers offices, but two things are very important.  First, unless you worked full time before coming to college, make it a maximum of one page.  And second, make sure you list accomplishments, not just job duties, and quantify what you did where if at all possible.  Give your resume to a couple of detail-oriented friends to look over and make sure it’s word perfect. Spell check doesn’t catch everything! And don’t forget, the employer is going to be reading your documents with their requirements in mind.  The easier you make it for the hiring manager to find your matching skill set, the better.

Sara: I’m sure there will be questions from the audience about how to best present yourself to an employer.  But one of the things we said we’d do today was to highlight how to beat the competition.

Sheila:  Yes.  And that brings me to my last key point of strategic advice:  Find your hook.

Sara: I think you’ll have to explain more. What’s a hook?

Sheila:  A hook is some characteristic you possess, or an action you take, that separates you from your competition. Probably everyone in the audience employed some kind of hook to get into college.  It could have been a particularly high SAT score, or athletic prowess, or starting a non-profit company. It’s the same idea when working with employers.  Do you have something they can remember you by? It could be something personal like the fact that you climbed Mount Killimanjaro, or you could be like Theresa, who always writes personalized handwritten thank you letters to those who’ve helped, or interviewed her.

But even more powerful is the work hook. If you’re applying to work in a corporate area at Honda, being fluent in Japanese might be your hook.  Or, you might have consistently demonstrated a willingness to go above and beyond what was expected in each of your internships—and have the references to prove it.  And don’t underestimate the opportunity for non-profit work to provide you with business experience hook.  After graduation, Sara joined the Peace Corps in Morocco to learn a language, but in working for a small NGO there, Sara learned a huge amount about women’s small business development and developed an interest in micro finance. A skill set or knowledge that most people don’t have can be your hook.

Sara:  So our listeners should think about their own hook, in the context of the work they want to do?

Sheila: You got it!

Sara: These examples are very helpful.  Do you have any suggestions as to how students and recent graduates can find more helpful stories.

Sheila: Well, coming to webinars like this, and Forte Foundation presentations on campus, is a great start.

Sara: Yes, and many listeners may be unaware that Forte also has a section on its website called “Girl Talk”.  That’s a place to continue the kinds of discussions we’re having in this webinar.  What else, Sheila?

Sheila:  I can’t say enough about the value of informational interviewing to get career advice from those more experienced, who’ve already made their mistakes. Many women are shy about reaching out for this kind of advice, but you just have to. Sometimes if you concentrate on asking questions about someone else’s career, you’ll be less self-conscious.

Sara: Who can you go to for informational interviews?

Sheila: A good place to start is with your existing connections:  aunts, uncles, business colleagues of your parents. But you also have to mine your alumni network, and events where alumni come back and share their career histories.  Those are particularly helpful if you can wangle a way to be a host.  You may also find your career center a great source of referrals and information.

Sara: Can you talk about what students and young alums might get from your book.

Sheila.  Absolutely. Thousands of people have found my book Smart Moves for Liberal Arts Grads:  Finding a Path to Your Perfect Career to be really inspirational. That’s because it talks about careers in context.  Smart Moves contains the stories of 23 fairly recent grads who found work they loved, and tells of the smart moves they took to become successful. (It also talks about some dumb moves, that you would hopefully avoid!)

Sara:  How does your book relate to business?

Sheila:  Actually the advice in the book is applicable to a career search in any career field, and quite a few of the people we profiled went on to get an MBA. When the book was used in the Engineering department at Duke, they changed the name to Smart Moves for Engineering Grads! It could easily be called Smart Moves for Business.

Sara: We’re getting close to the end of the formal portion of this webinar, so Sheila, do you want to recap the smart career moves our audience should be thinking about?

Sheila:  Yes, there are essentially three things to always keep in mind while you’re going through the job search:

First:  Keep a positive attitude—no matter what happens

Second:  Be focused on what you want to do and where you can add value and

Third: Design a custom strategy for your career search and for any position in which you’re interested.

Sara:  So any final words of wisdom?

Sheila:  If there’s anything I want students and recent graduates to know, it’s this:  The unemployment rate may be creeping up, but the unemployment rate for college grads is typically about half the national average.  There are jobs out there, and there are smart moves you can make to get them.

So don’t hyperventilate; don’t feel you have to go to graduate school to wait out the recession.  Know yourself and your skills so well that you can go out there and wow your future employer.

Good Luck!

Graduate Unemployment: The Threat to Higher Education

Fiscal year, 2009, will go down in the annals of history as one of the most difficult for higher education. Many colleges and universities have had to trim to the bone, collectively shedding thousands of positions, while they try to beef up financial aid budgets. A great deal of attention has been paid to managing the economic ramifications caused by falling endowments and high tuition.

But few colleges have addressed a related threat on the horizon: the inevitability of post-graduate unemployment. Prospects for high paying, high prestige jobs in finance are already as rare as a seven-figure donor. Outside of finance, the employment outlook is better, but realistically can be described as gloomy. And the bad news holds true, whether the student is completing undergraduate, graduate or professional school.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics recently reported that significantly more than one million college graduates over the age of 25 lost their jobs in FY09, pushing the unemployment rate for their cohort to 4.8% in June, precisely double the rate of June, 2008. And, the unemployment rate for those new graduates currently seeking jobs is already at 10.8%.

Higher education might be tempted to avoid the issue of rising graduate unemployment and place its faith in the Career Services department to alleviate student anxiety about the future. Across the country, students are being advised to start their career searches early and be more flexible in their attitudes towards opportunities. But these initiatives, however valuable, are not enough. A situation of this magnitude requires a response from senior leadership at colleges and universities.

There are compelling reasons why higher education needs to address the impending career crisis. No college wants to field calls from hundreds of graduates (or their parents) who will be incapable of paying off student loans. Nor do they want to see their unemployed graduates profiled in the local or national media. For many schools, the career success of students also affects core issues like matriculation and retention.

In the summer of 2007, a leading educational research company, Eduventures, surveyed more than 5,500 freshmen and high school seniors about the factors that were important to them when choosing a college. Sixty percent, not surprisingly, considered the school’s overall academic reputation to be one of the top three factors. But an almost equal percentage cited the expectation that the school would prepare them for their careers.

The Eduventures data appears to suggest that students—and their parents—are willing to overlook the high cost of education if they believe there is an economic value to a degree. Students applying to college in 2009 are likely to carefully scrutinize the career outcomes for a particular institution. An expensive college whose graduates are still consistently unemployed may end up losing prospective matriculants to a public institution, or to a college that has found ways to mitigate the adverse effects of a poor economy.

The career crisis will undoubtedly be felt as we move into fall, but the problems for universities may begin much sooner, in the form of retention issues. Students, particularly those who attend school while working, may reconsider the wisdom of incurring substantial debt without a guarantee of a better position after graduation.

A recent advertisement for a part-time receptionist position in Rhode Island drew over one hundred applicants, a high proportion of whom were college graduates. Students who see recent graduates from their school accepting jobs that do not require college degrees may question their own educational investment.

So what is a college of university to do?

The first step is to recognize that graduate career success is essential to the long-term health of any institution of higher education. Even if matriculation and retention are not problems, the career success of alumni drives donations to the college and volunteer involvement.

Now, more than ever, colleges and universities must communicate their vision of graduate success, and take steps to ensure that desired outcomes are achieved—regardless of the economy. Bold career leadership is required to exploit opportunities for institutional impact on a student long after graduation, while addressing immediate career issues.

Second, universities must appreciate the value of a coordinated approach to career development–one that integrates the experiences of the student in and out of the classroom, and incorporates service learning, study abroad, athletics, student leadership, mentored research and internships. Currently, the divisions that house each of these functions often act more like silos than collaborators, leading to duplication of effort and confusion.

The recommendation to involve different areas in no way implies that everything that happens on a college campus is career-related, or that the academic agenda needs to be changed. Rather, it is recognition that without high-level oversight and common understanding, it will be more difficult to achieve post-graduate career success.

Third, colleges and universities must capitalize on their own resources. Many academic institutions have networks of alumni who have volunteered to give career advice to students and alumni. This is the time to expand the networks to include parents and friends, and to build more personal relationships with volunteers. A concerted effort must also be made to prepare students to take advantage of such networks.

A key requirement in this economy is to be aware of a volunteer’s work situation. When a volunteer is well situated, he may enjoy being tapped for job leads and advice. But when the volunteer has, himself, fallen victim to the economy, a college builds extraordinary good will and long term commitment by offering the option of advice for his own career.

Finally, it is important that any new initiative involve professionals in the career services department. These are the people who have their fingers on the pulse of university, student, and employer needs. Given clear goals, they can assist university leaders in designing strategies and initiatives. But they cannot do it alone. There must be an expectation that university departments will work together.

Institutions of higher education are currently facing significant financial restraints. Fortunately, the ability to address the career crisis requires a comparatively small financial investment, or the redistribution of existing funds. What is much more important than money is a new vision for careers and graduate success.

Colleges and universities that deal with increasing demand for career assistance by providing more of the same services to students will forego the benefits that accrue to institutions which adopt a more creative, coordinated, and inclusive approach to careers.

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


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
  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.


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.

Five Smartest Moves for Liberal Arts Grads

Smartest Move #1: Discover where you want to go

If you thought finding a job after graduation was the most difficult thing to do, think again! Far harder than the initial job search is figuring out exactly what you want to do. The difficulty is that when you’re in college you have very little time, and you may not be inclined towards self-reflection. One way to get started is to take the instruments commonly offered by your careers office, such as the Myers Briggs Type Indicator, or the Strong Interest Inventory. You won’t magically find direction, but particularly if you work with a career counselor, these instruments can help jumpstart your thought process.

One piece of advice: be willing to jettison preconceived notions about success. It doesn’t take too long when you’re in the real world to discover that no amount of pay will compensate for a miserable work situation. In particular, don’t be swayed in your career direction by those around you as graduation nears. Resist the temptation to follow the pack and forget who you really are. Often, that means remembering who you were, and what you loved as a child.

It’s actually quite normal to graduate from college without being completely sure of your direction. There are a number of reasons for this. First, you may not have been ready to think deeply about your career while you were in school. Second, you may have tried a number of different fields, but still not found direction. And you may just need more time for exploration or reflection. If you find yourself in this situation, don’t sit still. Find a job. Work through a temp agency. Do information interviews. Intern in an interesting company for a few months. The first key is to put yourself in situations where you can figure out what you like and what you don’t like. The second key is keeping talking to people, especially those who love their jobs. It’s not easy to put in the amount of time necessary to find your passion, but it’s well worth it.

Smartest Move #2: Get experience

Without exception, all the people in Smart Moves, had early work experiences, either on or off-campus. They did co-ops and internships, and played leadership roles in clubs and organizations. Often internships and low-paid clerical or service jobs after graduation offer you the only way to get your foot in the door. That’s particularly true in fields like entertainment, where many recent grads find themselves working in the mailroom. It’s the classic “Catch 22”. You have to have experience to get experience. And often, you simply have to pay your dues.

To make the most of your experiential education, before and after college, it’s worth remembering a few things: First, whatever you’re asked to do, do it well. Second, remember that all experience is good experience, even if it tells you what you don’t want to do ever again. Finally, always be looking around you. Who’s doing the really interesting jobs? How did they get there? Do you like the culture? What do you see that you’d want to avoid in a new job?

While you’re on a short-term assignment, it’s a great time to get into the habit of LUNCH. Invite someone to join you for a brown bag or a sandwich and get to know them. The more people who know you and like you, the easier it is to find career allies who will help you down the road.

Smartest Move #3: Build social and networking relationships

The graduates profiled in Smart Moves could write the book on networking. Networking is important for everyone, but it’s critical if your passion is something unusual like being a stunt actor or working for a major league baseball team. The more outrageous your ambition, the more likely it is you’ll need help getting there. Unfortunately, building social and networking relationships is one of the hardest skills for any young person to master.

Here’s a tip to get you started: In your career toolbox, you need two items. The first is an elevator speech, and the second is an eyeball paragraph. Both seek the same goal, namely to convince the person you’re talking with or writing to that they should spend more time with you. In the case of the elevator speech, you need to prepare a thirty-second response to the question “Who are you and what are you looking for?” For an eyeball paragraph, you need to make sure that the busy person who reads your email has a compelling reason to answer it! Some people, like family friends or graduates of your school, may be pre-disposed to help, but you’ve got to make it easy for them to do so. Your pitch needs to be concise and well thought through.

Building your network is a key skill for graduates at any stage of their careers. Whether they’re former bosses, friends, business acquaintances, faculty, or your hair stylist, people in your corner can make all the difference. They’re great sounding boards, wonderful confidence builders, and above all, probably your best source of job leads. Don’t hide your passion. Let everyone know your career destination, and you won’t travel alone.

Smartest Move #4: Identify your competence gaps

The higher you move in your career, the more likely you’ll be confronted with tasks and responsibilities with which you’re unfamiliar. Knowing what you don’t know is important. But far more important is figuring out how to acquire the knowledge or skills that you lack. In other words, you need to identify and fix your competence gap.

Assessing this shortfall, you need to ask two key questions: “Is the skill necessary for a field in which I want to stay?” and “Would the skill help me to achieve my future goals?” If the answer to either question is yes, you need to find a way to close the gap. The graduates in Smart Moves used the following methods to obtain the knowledge they needed:

1) Pursued further education, e.g., business or law school

2) Identified professional development opportunities offered through their organizations

3) Sought assignments that would help them to practice new skills

4) Found mentors who would act as sounding boards

Most important, you have to be open to assessing what you know and what you don’t. Be open to feedback. Ask for it frequently, and adjust your course based on what you hear.

Smartest move #5: Find your “hook”

Anyone who’s been admitted to a very selective college is familiar with the notion of finding a “hook”. That’s what separated you from all those with a similar background whom the college chose not to admit. It’s the same for the job search. Like the graduates in Smart Moves, you have to distinguish yourself from the pack.

The more you know about what you want to do, the easier it is to identify a potential hook. It could be a specific skill, like an unusual language. It could be some specialized training or a highly risky venture in which you’ve been successful. More likely, your hook will be something quite simple, like persistence combined with a winning personality.

How do you figure out your hook? You need to adopt your potential employer’s point of view and identify ways that you can add value.

Here’s the best news: Even if you have no unusual skills or talents, you can set yourself apart from other graduates and find your hook by doing your homework and following through. Sounds obvious? It is. But it’s amazing how rarely candidates go beyond a cursory glance at a company website, do what they commit to, or take the time to write thank you notes to their interviewers.

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


Negotiating Pay and Perks for New Grads

Almost one and a half million new grads will enter the workforce this summer. Graduates with good grades, internships, and job search savvy will often have their choice of job offers.  But some of the best and the brightest will flunk their first real world test:  they’ll incorrectly assess the economic value of the positions they’re offered.

While students are in college, they typically seek work opportunities that fit their class schedule and pay well. Convenience and salary are the key determinants.  But after graduation, there are many other factors to consider.  The smart grad will carefully examine issues related to cost of living and benefits, as well as salary.  They’ll also understand when and how to negotiate to get the best possible compensation (salary and benefits) package.

Cost of Living

Many new grads head to the bright lights of the city.  They know that places like New York and Chicago are expensive, but few know exactly what that means to their lifestyle.  Consulting a website like salary.com provides a wake-up call:  If you think a job offer of  $30,000 in the Research Triangle Park area of North Carolina is too low, consider that you’d have to make almost $49,000 to have a similar standard of living in San Francisco. Perhaps you’re willing to have a smaller apartment, or live in an area that’s not quite as safe. You may even be prepared to eat ramen noodles a while longer. But it’s best to know where and how you’ll need to compromise if you’re determined to go to a particular high-priced location.


Few student jobs provide benefits, so their value is often under-rated. But when you graduate, having good benefits can be essential.  For one thing, you’ll most likely no longer be covered for health insurance. And even a small accident or operation like an appendectomy can cost you many months’ salary.  If you buy temporary insurance as an individual, a basic policy will cost close to $100 a month, without prescription coverage and with high deductibles. And forget about pre-existing conditions:  they’re probably not covered. Check out the health insurance coverage that comes with your job:  sometimes it’s fully paid for you; other times you have to contribute.  The amount of your contribution can vary significantly.

Graduates often overlook 403B or 401K plans—particularly if they see the word “retirement” attached to them. The fact is, these plans can not only provide a forced savings plan, but also significantly increase the value of your compensation.  Many companies will give you a one-for-one match up to a certain percentage of your salary.  For example, you contribute 3% of salary and the company will contribute an additional 3% to your retirement fund.  Universities and other non-profits are often substantially more generous, requiring you to simply contribute a small percentage of your income in return for as much at an 8% match.  That’s the equivalent of getting an 8% pay hike!

Other benefits may be worth a great deal or nothing at all depending on your personal circumstances.  If you spend a lot of time in the dental chair or at the eye doctor, dental or vision plans will save you money.  If you want to pursue your masters’ degree while you work, be on the lookout for educational benefits.  And if you like to keep in shape, be aware that corporate gyms can save you upwards of $75 a month.

New grads, in particular, lament the fact that they no longer have a winter, spring or summer vacation.  If vacation time is important to you, check your job offers carefully. You may find you have to wait a year before you can take even two weeks off.


Comparing salaries should be easy. But the figure you’re quoted may include other financial compensation, for example, a signing bonus or relocation funds.  Unfortunately, you’ll receive these extras only once.  There are two important items for recent grads to consider: your base salary, and when you’ll be eligible for performance-based raises.  Some companies start with lower salaries but have six-monthly reviews that can financially catapult you over your peers working for companies where length of service is more important than performance.

Negotiating the Compensation Package

If you’ll be one of hundreds of college grads hired for a particular company, you may have no opportunity to change the compensation package.  On-campus recruiters, for example, usually have set policies on salary and benefits.  And unless you have a “hook”, like having worked for the military for several years before coming to college, it will be hard for you to make a case for why you should be treated differently.

However, the majority of employers do “just-in-time” hiring.  In other words, someone has to leave before they’ll even recruit someone new.  If you’re offered one of these positions, you may have more flexibility. Follow these steps to increase your chances of success in negotiating a better compensation package:

Identify what benefits are important to you. Know the prevailing salary for someone with your background and experience in the type of work and organization for which you’re being considered. Check salary comparison websites.  Better yet, network with someone in the company to find out what people in this kind of position typically make.

Call the organization’s human resource department and ask if there is a salary range for the position. Recognize that most salary ranges are divided into quartiles.  Usually new graduate hires will be given a salary in the first quartile of the range.

Check the human resources website for information on benefits.  You’ll be surprised how much information you can usually find.

Wait until you’ve been given a job offer before you try to negotiate either salary or benefits. The hiring manager has to be committed to you, before he’ll appreciate these types of questions. You’ll need to ask after getting the job offer if there is any flexibility in the terms of the compensation package.

Recognize that, unless you’ll be working for very small company, it’s easier for management to increase salary, add items like moving expense reimbursement, or give additional days off than it is to enhance benefits like health insurance.

Be professional. Resist pressure to give an immediate answer:  it’s perfectly acceptable to thank the manager for her offer, and say you remain very interested, but need time to think about a few issues. Once you’ve agreed to changes or you’ve accepted an offer, don’t go back and try to renegotiate.

Don’t expect that you’ll be able to put an employer on hold indefinitely while you gather job offers.  If you’re pursuing other opportunities, it’s acceptable to call those employers and tell them that you need to make a decision on another job offer. Ask if they are in a position to make a quick decision on your candidacy.

Use your resources.  Many careers offices welcome calls from new grads who are trying to decide whether to take a particular position, or who want an expert opinion on the relative value of job offers.

Recent grads are often thrown by questions about salary.  The first rule of salary negotiation is that the person who states a number first, loses.  This is particularly true if you’ll be working in business, but your experience has been in the non-profit world.  You can finesse the salary expectations question by saying that you’d expect to be paid the same as someone with similar background and qualifications, or that you’re willing to discuss salary when you’re further along in the process.

The most important thing to remember is that the “sweet spot” time for negotiation is after you’ve been offered a job, and before you’ve accepted it!  When employers want you, but they don’t know how much you want them, you’re in the driver’s seat.  Use the time to assess your needs, your values and your opportunities.

Job Search 101 for College Seniors

If you have a 3.9 GPA, a multitude of extra-curricular activities and a winning personality, read no further.  For everyone else, follow these tips and you’ll be the one walking out of the interview with the job offer:

Find a Career Advisor.  Everyone can use an advocate in the job search, so make friends with a career advisor. The more they know about you, and your interests and values, the better able they will be to help you find and pursue opportunities.

Learn how to format your cover letter according to accepted business norms.  Unfortunately, this critical skill no longer seems to be taught in high school.  So it’s not surprising that many students don’t know where the address of the recipient goes, how to address your future employer, how to place the letter within the page, or how many spaces you have to put between your closing sentence and your name.

Pay attention to the content of your cover letter.  The purpose of a cover letter is not just to put on top of your resume, but rather to entice an employer to interview you.  Most employers will want to know how you found out about the job opportunity, what you have to offer and why you want the job.  Cover letters are critical to some employers, yet deemed totally unnecessary by others.  Unless an employer has specifically told you not to send one, however, consider it an essential part of your application.

Get a second or third “read” of your resume and cover letter to make sure they have no typographical or grammatical errors.  Some employers immediately eliminate candidates whose materials are not word perfect.  When you’ve been working hard on a document, you may not notice that you wrote “who’s” instead of “whose”.  It matters.  Have a detail-oriented friend proofread for you – every time you send a letter or update your resume.

Have your resume critiqued.  The obvious reasons are to eliminate careless errors and to make sure the resume is appropriately formatted.  But there’s another reason to get a critique:  to make sure the focus of your resume is as close to the focus of the job you desire as possible.  What image does your resume give of you?  If it says you’re a brilliant academic, but you really want to go into business, you need to re-orient it.

Don’t rush.  It’s tempting to use a similar cover letter and resume for each job.  Although the basic format can be the same, you need to customize each one.  Employers can sniff out “form” letters a mile off.  If you give the wrong title of the position you want, it’s a dead give-away that you’re searching for multiple positions.  Every employer wants to feel that you want their job, not any old job.  Make them feel special!

Project enthusiasm.  If you can’t get excited about the job, you’re unlikely to get it.  You may see it as a boring, entry level, position, but your future employer is probably investing significant time and energy in hiring the right person.  To be that right person, you need to indicate through your application that you’re familiar with the job and the company (read the website carefully and do your research), that you know what you can contribute, and why you want the job.  In a recent survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers, enthusiasm for the job was one of the most important factors in the employer’s decision-making process.

Be selective where you apply.  That’s difficult to do if you don’t care where you work and you just need to make money.  However, your attitude will show through if you use the “shot-gun” approach.  Think of it this way:  You will be unlikely to compete well against other candidates using a generic approach – even if you apply for more than 50 positions.  On the other hand, if you do ten really thorough applications, your efforts will stand out, simply because so few people pay this amount of attention to the job search.

Follow through.  You set yourself apart from other applicants even more if you follow up in person on your application.  Some employers state that they do not want telephone calls.  In that case you will need to email to ensure that your materials have been received.  However, a telephone call gives you the opportunity to start to build a relationship with your future company, and to give them a sense of you as a person.

Build relationships with adults!  There are plenty of people who want to help you find a position if you give them a chance. Faculty, staff, former employers, career advisors, friends and relatives can all be invaluable resources for identifying opportunities, promoting you as a candidate and, except in the case of family members, acting as a reference.  The more people know about you, the better able they are to sing your praises.

The Career Advantages of Study Abroad

What’s your dream?  Touring castles in Scotland?  Walking on the Great Wall of China?  Working to improve the lives of women in rural Uganda?   If you’re thinking of studying abroad, there’s no end to the places you can go, things you can see, and subjects you can study.  At many top schools, like Duke, Tufts or Brown, over a third of the junior class take the opportunity to complete part of their education out of the United States.  Even if your school doesn’t have an extensive study abroad program, you can often get credit from a different school.

Multiple benefits accrue to those who spend significant time in another country, and a significant proportion of students see the experience as an important part of their college years. You’re likely to have fun. But if you’re also thinking about study abroad as a way to gain a critical career advantage, read on.  You’ll find that all foreign experiences are not created equal in the minds of employers.

Employers are looking for graduates who can communicate well with others, both in person and in writing.  They know the importance of cross-cultural understanding and an appreciation for different points of view.  They gravitate towards students who demonstrate maturity, initiative and creativity.  All of these assets can be demonstrated through your study abroad, but it’s going to be much harder to set yourself apart if you’ve taken the “easy route”.

It’s not hard to find the “easy route”:  that’s the one where you go with your friends to another country; all the arrangements are made for you by the school—including the American-style apartment where you live with your classmates.  In this scenario, it doesn’t matter which country you go to, because all your classes will be in English, possibly even taught by your American professors.  You’ll undoubtedly have a somewhat different experience, but to do the “easy route” is to forego some of the major advantages of your time away.

Consider these ways of standing out from the applicant crowd and finding your “hook”.

  • Study in the language of the country wherever possible, even though it makes for a tough first few weeks. (That’s assuming the native language of the country isn’t English!) You’ll smile when your potential employer realizes you really can conduct an interview in your fluent Spanish.
  • Live with a family, rather than with fellow Americans.  You’ll start to understand the nuances of culture and how things work:  great for a question on cross cultural communications.
  • Select courses that take advantage of your study abroad location, such as Art History in Florence, or a study of lemurs in their natural habitat of Madagascar.
  • Seize the opportunity to do an internship, volunteer assignment or work in the place you’re studying abroad.  You’ll get a completely different view of the country if you work with the local community.  It may also make you want to come back after college!
  • Experience things you’ve never done before, like joining a family for a religious celebration, or bargaining for a carpet in a souk in Morocco.  Not every experience is a good one, but a certain level of discomfort or failure can make you more resilient.
  • Explore, explore, explore.  Make your own arrangements.  Take trains and buses. Get off the beaten path.  Find villages that are not on any tourist map.  Talk to the local people in their own language—however bad your pronunciation.

Study abroad can be a welcome relief from the rest of your studies, or it can be the most formative experience of a lifetime.  It can be just one more item on the resume, or it can provide the most colorful examples in your interview.  If you take a few calculated risks, plan in advance and take advantage of all study abroad has to offer, you will become that “memorable candidate”—the one who truly gets the employer’s attention. In the process, you will have developed skills and attitudes that will stay with you for a lifetime.

First published in Going Global, Transitions Abroad, and the Duke University Study Abroad Guide

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.

When Your College Graduate Comes Home

This summer, there are more than 100,000 unexpected guests at the family dinner table. They’re adult children — the ones who’ve just graduated from college but expect to remain, at least temporarily, on the family payroll. Some may have jobs that don’t pay enough to support the lifestyle they expect. Others want to get a head start on paying back loans. But most simply don’t have jobs at all.

I can relate. I have advised students and alumni on their careers for decades, first at Brown University, and currently as director of the career center at Duke University. My own son, a 2006 Colgate University graduate in philosophy, has also recently rejoined the family. It is small comfort that I am not alone.

A May 2005 survey showed that a quarter of the class of 2006 expected to spend more than seven months living at home, up from 23 percent of the class of 2005. I now join the hundreds of thousands of parents forced to become a personal career counselor for an “adild” — an adult child.

For most parents, the role of advisor is familiar. From early childhood, parents have imparted wisdom to their children on everything from first dates to how to get into a good college. And children have heeded their advice — keeping parents on the cell phone speed dial.

It’s not surprising, then, that parents would be co-opted in the search for post-graduate employment. But the role of career counselor to an adild is fraught with problems, not to mention the kind of emotional angst that can divert retirement funds to psychotherapy. Parents and their adilds have the same goal: success in life. Unfortunately, definitions of career success and strategies to achieve it vary substantially from generation to generation. What parents may consider the “perfect position” may leave an adild cold, no matter what its prestige and pay.

In the absence of direction, it’s easy to revert to the old “law school/grad school” option, especially if parents are willing to pay. This is a potentially risky proposition: The financial rewards of such an education, if it’s not required for a particular career, may not justify its expense.

It’s the savvy parent who understands how much he doesn’t know about the career landscape for recent college grads. In the past 30 years, since parents were in school, career options have exploded, attitudes changed, and strategies fine-tuned. Advice that may work brilliantly for a mid-career changer may be totally inappropriate for a new grad. The best way for parents to help their adild find a job may actually be to avoid giving them any specific career advice.

Avoiding advice does not mean withholding support. Support can be as simple as helping an adild set short-term goals and identify strategies to achieve them, or encouraging her to return to her college’s career center for help, even if she avoided it like the plague in school. Career readiness comes at different times, and unemployment has a wonderful way of focusing the mind on the need to learn effective ways to present abilities and qualifications. Given the number of times an adild is likely to change jobs, an excellent résumé, cover letter and interview skills are critical.

Perhaps the most important thing parents can do is to encourage their adild to find her passion. This is often one of the hardest things to do. Sometimes the discovery only happens by trial and error, working in a number of “not-quite-right” positions. Family, friends and acquaintances can all help, by providing insight into different careers and valuable connections.

One final piece of advice: Set a time limit on living at home without a significant contribution to household expenses. Careers take off more rapidly when graduates take responsibility for their decisions — good and bad — and learn from them. Almost every successful professional has taken risks and experienced failure. The lessons that come through such experiences are invaluable, but much less likely to happen if there is an ever-present parental safety net.

Even if parents enjoy having their adild at home, they need to let go for the sake of their child’s career. Once they do, they’ll be able to return to all those activities they put on hold while raising children. In the process, they’ll be giving a priceless gift to their graduate.

First published in 2006 in the Louisville Courier-Journal and The News and Observer

Choosing a Major or Concentration

A number of years ago, I received a call from an anxious parent. He said he wanted urgent and specialized career advice for his son. It turned out that his son was only a freshman and had, in fact, just finished orientation at Brown University. The problem? The student had come to Brown proclaiming his desire to major in computer science and had been convinced by new friends in his first few days of college to major in philosophy.

His father’s lament rang loud and clear: “But there are no jobs as philosophers!” This concern was echoed recently by a group of guidance counselors from across the country who visited Duke University. I asked them to tell me the number one concern of parents. Unanimously, they asserted that parents wanted their children to use their educational experience to obtain a successful career.

As a parent, I understand this concern. After all, college often costs enough to require a second mortgage. As the director of a large career center, however, I know that parents often worry unnecessarily. That’s because I’ve seen plenty of philosophy majors who’ve managed to do everything from investment banking to law to starting their own business. Marshall Gregory, professor of English, liberal education and pedagogy at Butler University puts it this way. “In 35 years of teaching, I have never seen a student who really wanted a job fail to get one after graduation, regardless of his or her major…But I have seen many students fail to get an education because they were fixated on the fiction that one particular major or another held the magical key to financial success for the rest of their lives.” For guidance counselors, there’s a real balance between encouraging the educational aspirations of students and assuaging the fears of their parents.

Choosing a major is easiest for students for whom education is identified as a means to an end: employment. Some students identify their intended career at 18 and find a course of study that leads directly to that occupation. Obviously, if you intend to be an accountant, it’s a good idea to major in Accounting. If you want a career related to sports, Sports, Entertainment and Event Management could be a great major. Such certainty at 18, however, is rare. And if students are looking at higher education as an opportunity to grow and develop in a number of different directions, they may significantly limit their options by following a specific career-related path.

Top colleges may not even offer business or other pre-professional options. Still, students will often try to get as close as possible by choosing to study majors like economics that they perceive as more practical. College is too short, however, to pursue a major in which you have little interest. A recent survey of the class of ‘09 at Duke identified that 22 percent of freshmen intended to follow a pre-med curriculum. This expression of interest probably hadn’t changed much in four years, yet only seven percent of the class of ‘06 actually went immediately to med school. Were they unqualified? No. They either chose to wait a year or two before matriculating or they found other careers that turned out to be better suited to their interests and values. From a career perspective, there are few occasions when it is truly advantageous to select your major or course of study very early. Delaying the decision on majors may help students to enjoy college academics more, while opening up previously unknown vistas.

Many students come to college with preconceived notions about majors and their associated career possibilities. There are numerous myths that get in the way of good decision-making. The first is that major equals career. It doesn’t. The second is that it’s better to study something that’s practical, rather than a subject you love. It isn’t. The third is that you need to select your major early if you want a good job, and never change your mind. Not true.

For evidence that major doesn’t equal career, I encourage you to read the book Smart Moves for Liberal Arts Grads: Finding a Path to Your Perfect Career. One of the reasons I wrote this book with a colleague, Suzanne Greenwald, was to demonstrate that you can do just about anything with any liberal arts or sciences degree. Smart Moves includes the entire career stories of 23 fairly recent graduates with liberal arts degrees who have gone on to do all manner of interesting things. All of them are off the family payroll. More importantly, they’re pursuing work they love and few of them are using the subject matter of their major. It turns out that your success after graduation depends much less on the subject matter that you study and much more on your demonstrated interests, aptitudes and experience. Plenty of other factors also come into play, such as personal characteristics, passion and persistence.

There’s also a great deal of anecdotal evidence to support the notion that it’s better to learn how to think in college than to study a craft. Time and again, I’ve been told by top people in the media that, for example, they would rather train a recent graduate with experience writing for the school newspaper and a liberal arts degree, than a person with a bachelor’s degree in journalism who was less well-rounded.

So that leads us to the final and most important question: How should students choose a major? Most colleges require major decisions to be made some time in the sophomore year, so it’s important to explore as much as possible in the first year to get a sense of the possibilities. Students should read course descriptions; talk to upper-class students and professors, discover the career realities of alumni, and discuss their thoughts and concerns with academic and career advisors. Only if students are willing to explore interests, options and implications, can they make sound decisions about their major.

Sheila Curran is the Fannie Mitchell Executive Director of the Duke University Career Center, where she has served as an academic advisor. She is the co-author of a book published in May, 2006, by Ten Speed Press, entitled Smart Moves for Liberal Arts Grads: Finding a Path to Your Perfect Career (www.smartmovesbook.com). Sheila regularly talks to students, parents and alumni about making the most of a college education from a career perspective, and writes a column titled “Curran on Careers” for BusinessWeek.com.