Welcome to Freshman Orientation, Now Meet Your Career Counselor!

Every semester during my thirteen years of teaching at a liberal arts college, several senior year students would approach me and ask if I “knew of any jobs out there.”

The issue went deeper than the angst of seniors about their employment prospects, however. I found that the school often failed to thoroughly inform students about the choices awaiting them after college. Faculty advisors guided them in selecting coursework that would fulfill their degree requirements, but many were unable to guide them in making selections that would best prepare them for their professional lives.

I recall teaching an international marketing course to seven business majors. One morning I asked them on what basis they chose their electives.

Their answers pertained to schedules, instructor reputations, etc. But not one mentioned specific, career-oriented reasons.

Another time, a senior chemistry major took my international business course as an elective. He told me that he planned on going to graduate school, since he assumed that a Ph.D. was the only real way to leverage his undergraduate degree for a career in the chemical industry.

Prior to taking my course and meeting with guest executives who sometimes addressed the class, he had no idea that many alternate career paths were available to him, including the full range of commercial functions like sales, marketing, supply chain and general business management.

Each time something like this happened, I saw it as shared failure on the part of the student, the career services department, and the faculty.

Typically, a college’s career services department provides a lot of useful tools for students: help with resume writing, conducting job fairs on campus, maintaining bulletin boards of available jobs and internships, linking students with alumni who are willing to help in the networking process, etc.

But those are only transactional tools. They do nothing to help a student make the fundamental choice of an appropriate career path.

The first two years of college are often wasted in terms of developing career strategy. Faculty advisors are assigned on a random basis at orientation, and they pretty much just help the students figure out how to register for their first semester classes. Sometimes they meet with students to troubleshoot their study habits.

Many colleges seem to celebrate students who enter “undecided” and delight in telling them how they can sample the fruits of many interesting options. The problem with this sampling is that electives get frittered away. Many students end up overloading their later semesters (or even taking a fifth year) to satisfy the requirements for their major.

Most schools don’t require students to declare a major until they’ve completed their sophomore year; only then is an advisor in that major assigned.

Colleges should handle this process differently.

For starters, every incoming student should be required to declare a tentative major upon enrollment and an advisor from that department would be assigned immediately. I understand that many students change their minds during that first year, so they should be limited to taking required general education courses. Hence, no wasted coursework during the first year.

At the end of the first year, the student meets with the faculty advisor and a career services staff member to finalize the choice of major. If the student wants to change, two faculty advisors need to be involved in this discussion.

Now the hard work begins.

Assuming that the advisor and career service counselor are both familiar with most or all of the career options for the major, an informed discussion takes place. What types of business functions are available to a person with a given major? What is a typical career progression? Does the future include graduate work, or moving right into a job after graduation? Which organizations are leaders in their fields? The list of issues is lengthy.

From this conversation, the three individuals begin mapping out a program of study for the following three years, including the numbers and sequence of the electives that support the student’s career goal. A research-oriented student will plan on more technical courses, while a commercially oriented student will take selected business courses.

During sophomore year, the student works with career services to identify companies likely to offer opportunities that he desires, both for internships and full time positions.

I always advised my students to scan the Fortune 500 and similar lists as a thought provoking exercise, and to make a list of industries in which they thought they’d enjoy working over the course of a career.

With that list in hand, I encouraged them to then take an in-depth look at the leading companies in each, and to examine their employment openings to get a further sense of the types of jobs available in those industries.

A large multinational corporation is not for everybody, but this matrix-like examination of industries and job functions will help a student  think more clearly about life after graduation.

If the student decides that he would first like to obtain an advanced degree, the search focuses on graduate schools that best align their research with the industries the student favors. This offers the flexibility of launching a career in research, teaching, or commercial functions as the student nears his terminal degree.

The end of the second and third years are crucial, in terms of obtaining internships that fit the career plan and offer both student and employer an opportunity to audition each other.

From my own business experience, I know the value we placed on the identification and recruitment of bright students because human capital is an essential ingredient for organizational success. The involvement of career services is crucial at this stage of the process.

With this due diligence, the student will be interviewing for employment or graduate school positions at the beginning of the senior year. Everything can be tied up by the start of the spring semester.

This is demanding work for all parties involved, but I am certain it’s the only way to develop a curriculum plan that supports the student’s career goals.

A problem is that colleges often don’t have faculty who know the state of industry today. Furthermore, their career services staff members seldom have more than a general background in counseling. The engagement of retired industry executives can help schools fill in the gaps.

This can be done, and at least one college seems to understand the importance of this. At the University of Delaware, the Alfred Lerner College of Business & Economics connects qualified students to industry mentors through its Executive Mentors Scholars Program.

As the college describes the program, “this initiative establishes mentor-student relationships in which the executive’s professional background is complementary to the student’s career objectives.” Students apply at the end of their sophomore year and begin the mentorship in their junior year.

Positive as this program appears to be, I would advocate that the mentorships begin in the sophomore year for students who qualify based on academic performance and seriousness of purpose.

“Do you know of any jobs out there?” That question is the mark of shared failure. Colleges need to make sure that they devote as many resources to “launching” students as they do to attracting them in the first place.