College Preparation v. Career Readiness: Close the Gap!

6187_544272209083923_3541349427109924735_nIn March, I presented at the Symposium on Languages for Specific Purposes in Phoenix on the mismatch between college preparation and career readiness.

When a new academic quarter began at the University of Chicago this week, I was determined to try to bridge the college preparation – career readiness gap at the level of administering the course I teach.  

Throughout the spring quarter, I will share specific examples of career readiness activities I deploy in class.

First, some background. Here are a few examples of what employers want in recent grads who are new hires and why college might not be preparing students properly:

1- Organized problem-solving, decision-making, information-obtaining individuals. The National Association of Colleges and Employers publishes the results of annual surveys, “Job Outlook: The Candidate Skills/Qualities Employers Want.” Those skills and qualities include decision-making; problem-solving; planning, organizing and prioritizing work; ability to obtain and process information.

But on campus, nearly everything is highly prescribed: our courses, syllabi, assignments, project descriptions, etc. make all the decisions for students. We plan & prioritize the work in tidy 10-15 week chunks. We point students in all the right directions for obtaining information, rarely asking them to explore new sources on their own and recoiling at the thought of them consulting Wikipedia.

2- New hires with real-world professional experience. The Atlantic cites the Chronicle of Higher Education in this piece on What Employers Want. It turns out employers want to hire recent grads with work experience, internships, volunteerism, extracurriculars.  College major does matter.  GPA doesn’t matter much.  

Screen Shot 2014-04-14 at 8.06.04 AMBut on campus, grades rule.  A’s matter. GPA’s are everything. How disappointing for the recent grad who has been trained over decades to value grades and GPAs above almost everything else in the educational experience.

3- A tolerance for ambiguity. Jeff Selingo has a second book on the campus to career transition coming out in April 2016, “There Is Life After College.”  Here’s my favorite quote from his LinkedIn post, “For What Kind of Future Work Are We Educating Our Kids?” 

Success in the future will belong to those able to tolerate ambiguity in their work. Too many recent graduates approach their job descriptions the way they did a syllabus in college—as a recipe for winning in a career. They want concrete, well-defined tasks, as if they were preparing for an exam in college. But jobs are a mash-up of duties. 

But on campus, we hand out the syllabi full of concrete, well-defined, short-term tasks. See item 1 above.  Also see my post here on one small way we can free ourselves and ours students from the tyranny of prescribed tasks and start to develop a tolerance for ambiguity.

4- The ability to apply the rich skills acquired in college to the real-world setting of the workplace. The Association of American Colleges and Universities’ “Falling Short? College Learning and Career Success” reports that employers value applied learning, including “written and oral communication, teamwork skills, ethical decision making, critical thinking, and the ability to apply knowledge in real-world settings.”

But on campus, we focus on theory and neglect application. Our students have wonderful written and verbal communication skills when it comes to academic essays. But can they apply that to the kind of communication they’ll have to do in the workplace: writing emails, memos, agendas, reports; meetings with supervisors, vendors, customers?

Here is how I have started off my spring quarter course with some attempts to address the college preparation – career readiness gap:

Day 1.  Warm-up activity to start class: Talk to at least 3 classmates, find out names, majors and something you have in common.  After 3-5 minutes, a few students present their results to the whole class.

My favorite today: two students had worked–at different times– for the same Principal Investigator in the same lab on a combined psychology-biology project.

Professional takeaway: Networking must start with something that you have in common.  In early conversations, find out what that is. Then you can build on that through a lifetime of networking–first, just keeping in touch on a topic of mutual interest, eventually sharing opportunities, then doing & asking favors (note I put doing the favor before asking the favor!)

This takes a lifetime! It’s not a one-time conversation. It’s not a transaction. And it will never fit into a 15-week semester!

pencilsDay 2. Warm-up activity to start class: Take down my contact information, then exchange contact information with each other. The logistics of this activity are described in day 3 my earlier post, Make Professional Development and Career Prep Part of Your Language Courses–Every Day! 

The new twist for career readiness is that students received full credit or no credit for taking down my contact information correctly. The message to students is twofold:

1) In the workplace, there are no letter grades.  You succeed or you fail.  If you have one letter wrong on an email address or one digit wrong on a phone number, you might not be able to contact that person. You don’t get “partial credit” from your boss for having nine out of ten digits right on that phone number you took down and passed on.

2) This is a minor failure–the kind we all make everyday. You’ll fail in some small way everyday. Your boss will too.  The three important takeaways are to try to avoid mistakes, accept the reality that you will make mistakes, and embrace the consequences.

When you do make a mistake, own it! Acknowledge that you messed up, apologize and take steps to correct it if possible. Don’t engage in subterfuge, react defensively, or try to negotiate your way out of trouble.

This last point is where the gap between college preparation and career readiness is the biggest. Within the educational context, we tend to encourage students to negotiate for partial credit, to ask us to give up time to “solve their problem” of missing a point, or to argue over a point lost on a test item. That’s exactly the opposite of an appropriate professional interaction–employers will want employees who are accountable for their actions and who own their mistakes; not employees who take up a bunch of other people’s time trying to cover up or weasel out of their mistakes.

Day 3’s participation quiz consisted of arriving on time.  Full credit for those who were present at 9:30 when class officially starts. Zero credit for those who had not yet arrived.  I cited Sreeraman Thiagarajan’s quote on BuzzFeed’s “36 Career Tips No One Will Actually Tell You:”

Reviews only happen once or twice a year, but appraisals happen everyday. Assume that everything you do will have an effect on your raise and promotion opportunities. 

I’ve seen this with students’  service-learning experiences–and it mirrors the professional workplaces they are likely to encounter after graduation. If you consistently show up late, nobody’s going to say a word to you—but it will be reflected in your annual performance review. Likewise, community partners will give a low overall evaluation at the end of the service-learning experience and comment that the student consistently showed up late. To which the student will respond, “what!? I knew I was running late a lot, but nobody ever said anything so I thought it wasn’t a problem!”

Before students graduate and go out into the working world, they need to know this: if you consistently show up late (or otherwise behave unprofessional in a consistent manner), you’re not going to get tapped for any interesting work—new teams, new projects, out-of-office activities at which you represent your employer, extra assignments that can help you get ahead. You’re going to stagnate. That’s high stakes!  What’s low stakes: your quiz grade or participation grade stagnating in this class. Better to learn & practice now when the stakes are low!

Day 4’s lesson on ambiguity, obtaining information, problem-solving, decision-making. At the end of class today, I went over the first composition that students will have to hand in next week.

 The two professional takeaways:

1) Use good judgement when the prompt asks for “a complete answer.”  This small amount of ambiguity is a challenge for many students. They want to know “how many words should it be?” “how many lines should it be?” “what font should I use?”  

My answer: use good judgement and give me a complete answer.  I won’t punish you because you didn’t reach some arbitrary word count; but if you’re answer isn’t complete, you will lose points.  If you use bad judgement and turn in an assignment with script yellow font on white paper, your grade will suffer. But better to learn that lesson now than once you’re in the workplace.  And in the workplace, your employer will likely delegate small tasks like email writing, memo writing, agenda preparation–assuming that any college grad can handle it.  They won’t want to answer questions about word limit and font choice!

2) Google your question to find out how to do something new. In this context, I told students to set the language to “Spanish” in Word when they write their compositions. One student asked how to do that.  

IMG_4945My answer: type this questions into Google: “How do I set the language to Spanish in Word?” I know you can figure that out on your own.  No need to ask anyone else–especially not your instructor or supervisor in the workplace.  

Be resourceful! Obtain information on your own! Solve all those little “problems” and make all those little decisions for yourself.  

Week 2 participation quiz: draw a seating chart and label each seat with the name of the students sitting in each seat.  

Knowing names is important in professional contexts–including networking: people are impressed when you know their names on a second or third encounter.

Also important:  knowing how to quickly and smoothly get over the awkwardness of forgetting a name. It’s easy: “I’m sorry. I forgot your name.  My name’s Darcy.  What’s your name again?”  We did that in Spanish to wrap up this warm up activity.

Note: I’m teaching a multi-section basic Spanish course so there isn’t much room in the curriculum for me to “do my own thing,” but I do have flexibility with students’ “participation” grade so each day one of these daily activities is a 10-point “participation quiz” and the average of all those will be the 5% of the grade at the end of the course that is participation. You don’t have to rewrite your curriculum (nor abandon the humanities) to integrate career readiness into your courses.  


2009 Head ShotDarcy Lear is a career coach specializing in academic writing, job search documents, professional school applications, and interview preparation. To schedule a campus workshop or for help navigating your career transition, contact Darcy: darcylear@gmail.com
 
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March Career Coaching Newsletter from darcylear.com

IMG_8857This month’s career coaching newsletter is about chunking big projects into smaller tasks, then into to-do lists.

The next big challenge–the biggest challenge psychologically–is getting started. Not just with the big project, but each and every day with the to-do list.

Start big, but break things down, make lists and start everyday by “picking the thing you want to do least and doing that first.”

The 2016 buzz on career sites surrounds referrals and inside hires as the number one way to land a job–the newsletter has links to the best articles along with brief summaries.


2009 Head ShotDarcy Lear is a career coach specializing in academic writing, job search documents, professional school applications, and interview preparation. To schedule a campus workshop or for help navigating your career transition, contact Darcy: darcylear@gmail.com
 
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Open Post to CEO of Yelp! Goes Viral–and Gets a Recent Grad Fired. Can the Humanities Step Up?

Screen Shot 2016-03-01 at 10.31.45 AMOver the weekend, this open post on Medium to the CEO of Yelp! written by a frustrated young employee went viral. Since, responses have popped up on late night television, in LinkedIn posts and elsewhere.

Stepping away from the details of this particular event for a moment, this points to a significant problem that the humanities disciplines must address if they are to survive and thrive in higher ed.

On the one hand, we have college students and recent grads who find themselves in the situation of needing an increasingly expensive four-year degree simply to get an entry level job that comes with an entry-level salary. That is a frustrating and unfair situation for people to face as they start their adult lives. And it isn’t the fault of those who work in the humanities.

On the other hand, how did this person–and others like her–not know better than to enter into many aspects of her current situation?  Shame on her, but shame on us in the academy for not providing better preparation to these young people with expensive degrees (and often accompanying debt) that are minimum qualifications for minimum wage jobs.

In the humanities, we pride ourselves on teaching critical thinking. We claim to churn out students with sharp analysis and synthesis skills. We say over and over again that the value of an English degree like this young woman has is precisely those broad, higher order thinking skills.

But what good are those skills–assuming we’re even successfully teaching them–if students can’t apply them in practice? How could we possibly have done a good job teaching this English major to think critically if she can’t apply that thinking to this math equation:

If I earn $1466.48/month and sign a rental agreement for $1245/month, that leaves $221.48 for phone, transportation, food, gas & electric, spending money…everything else!

The numbers don’t add up. It’s as if she’s never had to analyze a situation and synthesize the results of her analysis.

Likewise, how could we have taught this person anything about critical thinking if she doesn’t know to think twice before publicly posting her frustrated diatribe? Doesn’t she know to at least sleep on a draft one night before submitting it? Did any of the courses she took in college require her to think about disputes from the perspective of both parties? To step outside of her own experience and see a situation as the other might?  Did she never have to take the long view side-by-side with the short view in an analytical essay?

The skills she needed to avoid the bad situation that she then made a bad decision to post about should have been taught in college–and not just in theory; their practical applications must be made clear to students before we turn them out into the world.  

This is the flaw in all our arguments in favor of the humanities!  We say the skills we teach are valuable. But we fail to prove it by churning out students who can apply those skills in the real world.

Even if we say this young woman is a “single rare case,” we all know that students put content in writing (in emails to us) all the time that they probably should not; we aren’t requiring students to apply critical thinking skills to the everyday, practical administrative tasks involved in getting a college degree (like written communication with faculty). And if those tendencies go unchecked–as they mostly do–they could easily lead to something similar to this open post to the CEO.

Long gone are the days when English majors were all preparing for graduate studies and future careers in the academy. Can you imagine the disaster it would be if all English majors went to grad school and sought employment in higher ed? I know it’s also a disaster to not have enough English majors to keep those currently employed in higher ed in their jobs. But for the future to be sustainable for us all, we must adapt.  We must come down out of our ivory towers and connect the dots for those we claim to prepare for life beyond campus.


2009 Head ShotDarcy Lear is a career coach specializing in academic writing, job search documents, professional school applications, and interview preparation. To schedule a campus workshop or for help navigating your career transition, contact Darcy: darcylear@gmail.com
 
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Group Work as Professional Development and Career Prep

IMG_1345At a recent faculty workshop, one participant commented that she was dissatisfied with her ability to hold students accountable for group work in class. She wondered if there might be a way to improve upon student reporting after group work that would also serve as professional development and career prep. 

This struck me as an excellent way to provide students with practice in the written & verbal communication skills that employers say they want in new hires while also gaining experience with short, low stakes presentations.

I do this in one of two ways:  

Verbal communication through group reports.

At the conclusion of group work, one member stands and gives a brief report. It must be polished & prepared. At first, students will stand and then begin preparation with a lot of pauses, ums, uhs, consultations of notes–in short, take up a lot of time to provide a report that is not very fluent, smooth, or polished.

After one or two negative examples, I will stop the reporting, give each group 30-60 seconds to prepare a presentation; I explicitly say that I want this practiced, polished & prepared.

After the allotted time, we begin again and quickly move around the room with presenters standing and delivering exactly what I require. The audience appreciates the difference!  

Recently, my Spanish 2 students had begun studying the preterit.  I deployed the above reporting techniques after the typical “ask each other what you did last weekend” activity from the textbook.  

Reporting students had to stand and name one thing they had in common with their partner and one difference.  After the early false start, everyone reporting was able to give a fluent report along the lines of, “Rebecca and I studied. She cleaned her apartment, but I went out with friends“–and all the reporting took less than 2 minutes because of the high level of preparation!

I take a moment to reiterate that they have just engaged in formal presentations–very brief, but exactly the kind you always have to be ready to do at networking events, job fairs and interviews.  And no matter when or where, no matter how long or short–all presentations should be practiced, prepared & polished.

If you establish this standard of verbal communication to report back after group work early in your course, students will automatically prepare appropriately after 2 or 3 reminders.

Two notes:

1) If you have always conducted your classes this way and your students are always planning ahead so that they are indeed prepared and polished when presenting to the whole class, kudos to you!  It’s how we should be running our classrooms. I wish I had been doing this all along because students find my feedback “harsh” now that I’m enforcing this.

2) If you think it’s obvious to students that they should do this–especially when they can see the pattern and should know when to expect to be “on the spot” and therefore prepare ahead of that moment, know that very few people are willing to take the social risk of being that student.  If you make it the standard for all students, then it will be normalized and everyone will be able to do it well.

Written communication through memos.

To develop written communication skills, have groups report back to the whole class using memos–this can be a bulleted list sent as a screenshot or posted on a smart room screen. Again, these can be very short–for example, a single clause that summarizes the results of an in-class activity. The same example of “what you did last weekend” from above works here–but students have to submit written sentences along the lines of:

  • Rebecca and I studied.
  • She cleaned her apartment.
  • I went out with friends.

It’s always important to be explicit with students about their professional skills development so be sure to explicitly draw the connection between the above activity and professional memo writing. The two thing have a lot in common: summarizing relatively large amounts of content in clear, concise and accurate bullet points.  You wouldn’t put bad grammar or spelling in a memo at work; don’t do it in this brief form either!


2009 Head ShotDarcy Lear is a career coach specializing in academic writing, job search documents, professional school applications, and interview preparation. To schedule a campus workshop or for help navigating your career transition, contact Darcy: darcylear@gmail.com
 
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Get Ready to Answer This Job Interview Question: “Tell Me About Yourself”

TellMeAboutYourself“Tell me about yourself.”

Are you ready to answer this commonly-asked job interview question?

With broad questions like, “tell me about yourself” or “what do you do?” it’s important to have a short, descriptive pitch that will pique interest, start a conversation, and invite follow-ups.

Don’t ramble and don’t fill in the blank, “I am a_____.”

Watch this great example from someone who aspires to work in international development and sustainability after finishing her degrees in bioengineering and languages (Spanish and Russian).


2009 Head ShotDarcy Lear is a career coach specializing in academic writing, job search documents, professional school applications, and interview preparation. To schedule a campus workshop or for help navigating your career transition, contact Darcy: darcylear@gmail.com
 
The mock interviews were conducted with University of Illinois Urbana Champaign students from Ann Abbott’s “Spanish and Entrepreneurship” course who worked with me on my social media presence as part of their course project in spring 2014.
 
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Find Balance in Your Career Aspirations

Screen Shot 2016-01-26 at 12.43.01 PMFollow your dreams.

Pursue your passions.

Do what you love.

This is common career advice–well, career aphorisms.

And while I’m all for following your dreams & doing what you love, the first rule–above all of those–must be:

Be realistic; be practical.

It doesn’t have to be one or the other, but you do have to find balance.  Of course, it’s ideal to be passionate about your work.  Ideally, your work is a well-integrated part of your life and not something you just go do to get a pay check, then live your “real life” on the side.  Work is and should be part of your identity. It should be something that your family knows about and in some ways participates in.

But practically, you need to bring home a pay check. And at some point–for everyone–that means working a job you don’t like in order to put food on the table.  That’s realistic!

People who are passionate about the work they do–love their work–have followed their dreams. But they also deal with onerous tasks at work–every.single.day.  

All jobs have something about them that you don’t like to do–whether that’s paperwork, making phone calls, editing, being self-disciplined.  There’s always some piece of your day-to-day work–even if you love your career–that you don’t like.  You have to be realistic about what it means to successfully pursue your passions and do what you love.  

This is especially problematic for two groups:

1- People who’ve been unemployed, underemployed or made the choice to leave the workforce for a period of time who want to re-enter the workforce. When you decide to go back in, you have to be realistic.  

On the one hand, you have be confident about the skills and experiences and qualifications that you do have.  You have to confidently be able to articulate how those things will serve the employers where you want to work.

On the other hand, you’re entry level if you’re re-entering the workforce after a decade.  You can’t say, “I want to be making the same money I’d be making if I’d never left the workforce and I want flexible hours that allow me to be a hands-on parent and I want to be working only in an area that I feel 100% passionate about.”  That’s the same as throwing up your hands and saying, “Oh well. Guess I can’t go back to work!”  Flexibility probably means lower pay.  High pay probably means a lack of flexibility and a level of stress that can impact quality of life.

Instead, be realistic about starting at the entry level while keeping your eye on your goals and dreams. From there, work toward your ideal. Climb to the top as fast as you can! But don’t imagine that you can jump in at the top.  

2- Recent grads who’ve never been employed in career-type work suffer from this idea that they’ll jump in as management right after graduation.  

It’s a mistake to assume you’ll never have to do “secretarial” work.  Imagine if you’d refused to type at some point because it was “below you.”  Or thought that filing digital documents was someone else’s job.  Your laptop would be useless, a mess or both. And so will your work life if you don’t embrace everyday tasks like filing, taking messages, making copies, organizing and scheduling meeting & events, writing agendas & sending memos, and generally troubleshooting day-to-day problems around the office.  This is part of everyone’s work life now. If you want to be able to lead a meeting, then you have to be able to plan a meeting!  

Find the balance between shooting for the stars and knowing you have to start somewhere. You’ll always have to do some grunt work; there’s an unpleasant side to every job.  

Follow your dreams…and be realistic to find balance in your career aspirations.


2009 Head ShotDarcy Lear is a career coach specializing in academic writing, job search documents, professional school applications, and interview preparation. To schedule a campus workshop or for help navigating your career transition, contact Darcy: darcylear@gmail.com
 
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Get Ready to Answer Job Interview Questions in Spanish

Screen Shot 2016-02-11 at 11.04.52 AMYour resume says you speak Spanish. Are you ready to speak Spanish in a job interview?

The key takeaways from this before and after video are:

Practice & prepare. Be ready to speak your best Spanish. Record yourself using your phone’s voice memo app or video feature.  Note the errors you made (or ask someone else to do so on your behalf). Correct your errors and practice again. Repeat until you have internalized a pitch that you can deliver with ease.

Talk about your professional life. This gets to the content of your answer. Talk about how you have used your language skills in a professional context–any non-academic environment will do; you don’t have to be the professional to talk about your experiences in a business, school, public place, etc. Then explicitly tie your language skills to the job you are interviewing for: say how you might use Spanish to meet needs and solve problems for the organization.

Don’t talk about your studies or why you like Spanish personally! This tip sounds straightforward, but it’s difficult to follow. Your first instinct will be to talk about yourself, your language studies, why you like the language, how you’ve learned it.  And this is precisely why it’s essential to practice & prepare–so you have something that diverts you away from that first spontaneous impulse that won’t resonate with employers.


2009 Head ShotDarcy Lear is a career coach specializing in academic writing, job search documents, professional school applications, and interview preparation. To schedule a campus workshop or for help navigating your career transition, contact Darcy: darcylear@gmail.com
 
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