Career Development: What Role for the Faculty?

A central tension has arrhythmically disrupted the heart of the university since its inception. On the one hand, some argue, the university’s sole purpose is to animate the life of the mind. As T.H. Huxley famously declared in 1894, “The primary business of universities has to do merely with pure knowledge and pure art – independent of all application to practice; with the advancement of culture and not with the increase of wealth or commodities.” On the other, it is hard to deny that higher education has always (and I mean, always) prepared students for their post-graduate futures, whether, in the beginning, as learned men of the church, or later as “gentlemen” who would embody and perpetuate specific cultural norms, as women who would become teachers, nurses or educated wives, as state bureaucrats or colonial administrators, as those who would fuel the nation’s economy or who possess the creative imagination to invent the jobs of the future. Indeed, one could argue that the only ones not prepared by their university years to do something else after graduation are the faculty, we who remain in place while everyone else moves on.


John Lavery, Miss Auras, c. 1900. Public domain.

If the pure vs. practical battle has been a long one, more recently the scale has tipped ever more heavily toward the “practical” side. We find ourselves criticized for teaching poetry rather than plumbing, economics rather than accounting. We’re spending too much time encouraging our students to look at art and not enough focusing on the vocational skills needed for the labor market of the future. Indeed, if one were to ask the state legislators who control the purse strings of higher education, our sole job is to serve up “career ready” graduates.

Those of us who teach in private liberal arts colleges could, until recently, feel a bit sheltered from the “more practical” drum beat that has become deafening for colleagues who work at public universities and in community colleges. But surging tuitions, stagnant wages, an increasingly segmented labor market, unaffordable urban rents, rising income inequalities, and concerned parents have all come knocking on our door as well, demanding, justifiably, that, as we attend to the “pure,” we do not neglect the “practical.” We are increasingly being asked to consider more thoughtfully the way in which our concerns for nurturing our students as critical and responsible thinkers can be more intentionally linked to preparing students for their careers, for their (multiple) employment futures. (The historian William Cronon tried to square this circle by arguing that education should “aspire to nurture the growth of human talent in the service of human freedom.”)

How we more intentionally link our tasks in the classroom with the need to prepare students for success after graduation was the central question we explored at a recent workshop at Oberlin: What role does the faculty have in career development?

My own, idiosyncratic, answer to this question has changed over time. When I began teaching at Oberlin, in the 1980s, I tended to work more closely with those students who wanted to go on in history, who wanted to “be me” when they grew up, than with students whose interests were other than with history. Not only did the latter seem fully capable of taking care of themselves without any intervention on my part, but I was pretty sure I had little advice that could prove useful to them. When students did seek my counsel about their future careers, I would send them to Career Services where, I imagined, they would learn to write a resume and search for internships.

As the years went by and the world had a good laugh at our cloistered isolation, as the possibilities for my students, armed with PhD’s, to actually find tenure-track jobs deteriorated, my department and others began to sponsor lunches for students at which we discussed “What you can do with a History (or English, or Classics, or Anthropology, or etc.) major.” Of course, we should have recognized that the great majority of our majors had never become professors, but the shifting academic job market forced us to consider the alternatives that were available for our majors. At least at the departmental level we began to take greater responsibility for helping students think about their futures in a more helpful manner.

But this departmental approach has also come under scrutiny as it becomes clear that, while one can correlate college majors with future earnings, that engineering majors are likely to earn more than English majors – now why didn’t I think of that! – the link between a student’s major and the nature of her future employment is not at all as obvious. A recent study by the New York Fed, for example, found that while 62% of recent college graduates were working in jobs that required a degree, only 27% of graduates were employed in jobs that related to their major in any significant fashion.

So, how should we be thinking about career development at the present time, understanding both that we do have an important responsibility in preparing students for their future success and that this is a much broader responsibility than either preparing them for their first job or preparing them to (only) be good historians or anthropologists. At some level, we are preparing them for many types of employment as well as for jobs which have not yet been invented.

Helping Students Succeed in the Future

In the past few years, higher education journalists have devoted considerable effort to examining, “How Colleges Can Do Better at Helping Students Get Jobs,” “Why Aren’t College Students Using Career Services?”, or “What Gets Forgotten in Debates About the Liberal Arts.” Not surprisingly, few are hesitant to give advice. Colleges, they write, should “fuse business and the liberal arts,” while focusing on “delivering value,” and developing “market-responsive curricula.” Already I’m getting nervous. Does this approach to “career development” require that we become something other than what we are? That we put our highly educated thumbs down on the “practical-side” of the scale while letting Russian literature and Buddhism fend for themselves in the marketplace of ideas? More data analytics, less Emily Dickinson?

Not really. What I’ve come to appreciate, and what we discussed at the workshop, are the ways that, as we are teaching Russian literature and Buddhism and Emily Dickinson and data analytics, we can be more intentional in thinking about the ways we can help our students succeed after they leave college. Indeed, when you come right down to it, if the only thing we did was to prepare our students to succeed as students, it would be one sorry state of affairs.

Our hopes for our students’ success are as comprehensive as our myriad interactions with them have been over their years on campus. We want them to succeed not just in terms of the jobs they secure, but in leading lives that are meaningful and fulfilling. Some years ago, Gallup polling, in association with Purdue University, asked about students’ post-graduate success by examining five “well-being” categories. I’ve partially modified them here as they can help us think about what success means. They include:

  • Purpose well-being: Do you like what your doing as a general rule and day after day; are you motivated in your work to achieve your goals?
  • Financial well-being: Are you doing well enough economically to feel secure, to be able to do a lot of what you both need and want to do?
  • Physical well-being: Do you feel you have at least some control over your health? Do you pay attention to your physical well-being and have enough energy to get done what you intend to do?
  • Social well-being: Do you have strong and supportive relationships? Do you have (real) friends to talk to?
  • Community well-being: Are you engaged in a community where you live or work? Do you feel a part of something larger than you?

It’s not hard to describe what it means to succeed at college: graduating on time, which means passing a number of courses, fulfilling major requirements, demonstrating competency in areas such as writing and quantitative and formal reasoning, etc. But it is more difficult to map those elements we think will pave the way for our students’ future success onto a set of graduation requirements since they are often aspirational in nature. The closest approximation we have of the outcomes we want for our students can be found in Oberlin’s “Learning Goals.” These describe the knowledge, skills, and dispositions we want our students to have gained during their undergraduate years. For example, we want them to have demonstrated mastery over specific bodies of information and to have gained an understanding of the disciplined way to approach knowledge and knowing; we want them to have acquired skills in specific competencies such as writing, but also in areas such as visual or information literacy. And we want them to have absorbed and be able to demonstrate certain non-cognitive behaviors or dispositions, that, in the end, and as the research suggests, will do more to assure their future success than other factors. Picking through the learning goals in search of these “squishy,” dispositional factors, we find (among others):

Creativity, planning, determination, inclusion, self-awareness, a sense of community, resilience, the willingness to take risks, an ethical and moral grounding, curiosity, empathy, a sense of responsibility.

As a community, then, we’ve agreed on what we would like our students to have achieved at Oberlin, but what do these desired outcomes have to do with “career development”? While “purpose well-being” (finding productive, satisfying, and remunerative employment) isn’t the only measure of future success, it will most often provide a solid foundation for success in other measures of well-being. So, that leads us to ask what employers are looking for in their employees? What learning outcomes do they most highly value? In 2015, the American Association of Colleges & Universities (AAC&U) commissioned a survey by Hart Associates that asked these questions. Here, in the charts below, are their answers.

If you map our “learning goals” to the “learning outcomes” that employers value, you’ll find that they are strongly aligned. What this suggests is that the role for faculty and staff in career development is not to become something that we’re not by refashioning the curriculum to respond to “market demand,” or to focus our on ROI (return on investment) rather than on student learning. But, at the same time, neither do these data indicate that we should be fully satisfied with what we are doing nor can we grow complacent. We need to be more intentional about how we help students think about their futures and more aware of what else we can do to enhance their chances for future success in the world of work. So, what can we do?

Five Recommendations

In the first place, I would return to the learning objectives we develop for our courses and recommend that we think more explicitly and more intentionally about the full range of goals we have. When designing assignments, we don’t always articulate the specific skills or proficiencies that can scaffold student success. These factors often don’t occur to us since we have long ago mastered them and no longer remember what it was like to struggle with them. Particularly for introductory courses, and especially for first generation students, spelling out the knowledge, skills, and dispositions that will determine the successful completion of an assignment or a course can be enormously important. To spell out, for example, that the students are required to have gained not only an understanding of the Krebs cycle, but that they can also manage their time appropriately; that they have achieved insight into a Borges essay, but also the ability to work with others; that they not only understand how to solve differential equations, but have also gained in self-efficacy, the capacity for reflection, or patience and perseverance. I’ll talk about this further below, but stressing such goals not only helps students better prepare, but also increases their awareness of – and their ability to talk about – the skills they have gained, something that is critical for job interviews.

Image taken from “Lilliput Lyrics,” R. Brimley Johnson, ed, illustrated by Chas. Robinson, 1899, p. 277 (British Library)

Secondly, most likely you have already integrated many of the outcomes that employers value into your course designs, because they are of value to us as instructors. But are there specific skill areas that you should also be addressing to support career development that are consistent with your (and the college’s) desired learning outcomes? I’m thinking, in particular, of ways to help students become more effective oral communicators. Our overall learning goals state that “An Oberlin education should provide students with the ability to communicate articulately, persuasively, dispassionately, and, when required, passionately, in written as well as oral modes…”  Cortney Smith, in a 2016 “Article of the Week,” quoted Warren Buffett’s advice: “You’ve got to be able to communicate in life. It’s enormously important. If you can’t communicate and talk to other people and get across your ideas, you’re giving up your potential.” She added that, “we need to impress upon our students the importance of being able to express their ideas and views in the most productive manners. And one way to do this is by emphasizing and evaluating student speaking in the classroom.”

Third, as I suggested above, we need to help our students develop a greater awareness of what they have learned, the skills they have acquired, and what they did to get there. Surveys conducted by the Career Development Center revealed that students aren’t particularly good at “articulating their value.” In other words, they either don’t always know what they know or they can’t easily talk about it. This is not about exaggerating one’s strengths or humble bragging. Indeed, by recognizing where gaps exist in their learning, students can better work to address them. Rather, and I’ve found this to be true in so many cases, many students don’t actually recognize, and therefore have a hard time articulating, their actual strengths. Some years ago, after reading through perhaps 20 drafts of a student’s essay for her Rhodes Scholarship application, I asked her to just talk to me about her experiences abroad during her junior year. That discussion brought to light some of her extraordinary skills that she didn’t think were worth mentioning since the narrative included failures as well as successes. (She made it to the finalist round.)

There are many ways we can help our students reflect on their strengths (as well as their weaknesses).

  • After each project or exam, have them write about what they learned in completing the assignment: not about content, but rather what about their own learning was revealed to them.
  • If your students wrote a short essay at the start of the semester on what they hoped to accomplish over the course of the semester, have them bring it in and then write, in class, a short essay on what they actually accomplished and what needs further work.
  • A colleague in psychology at Ohio Wesleyan University requires her students to write a resume as part of a final project. This provides them with an opportunity to take account of their skills and experiences, including those gained in the class, as they think about their professional career. She writes, “The main goal of any résumé is to highlight your skills and experiences in an elegant way that draws immediate attention to your ability to organize and communicate with the highest degree of clarity.” (Sarah Bunnell, Department of Psychology, Ohio Wesleyan University, syllabus for Psychology 333, Child Development, Spring 2018).

Fourth, be aware of what’s going on at the Career Development Office and encourage your students to check in with them early in their Oberlin years. While the faculty can do a lot to help students understand their strengths and address their weaknesses (to “articulate their value”), the Career Development Office is designed to help them in a variety of specific ways and using a new set of in person and online tools to help them build their networks, connect to alumni and others, and find career paths that will aid them in achieving their own goals.

Finally, I would encourage you to be aware that there are some students whose futures are more uncertain and fraught then is the case for the majority of our students. For undocumented students or those who are temporarily (and precariously) protected by DACA, graduation means yet again confronting the realities of a country that seems intent on denying them the success that they have earned and that they deserve. They will be a minority among your students, but you can support them by simply acknowledging their presence, even if you don’t know who they are, by your words, by insuring that the college supports them in every way possible, and by the actions you take as concerned citizens.

So, what role can the faculty pay in career development? A critical one, not just in helping our students gain the knowledge, skills, and dispositions they will need to achieve success and fulfillment in their employment futures, but in helping them understand just what they have learned and how that can be used to find success in many different facets of their future lives.

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