Bringing career counseling into the classroom

The career services office at most universities is good at setting up employer fairs,  helping with professional resumes and LinkedIn profiles, and doing many other things to prepare students for careers after college. But most of these offices don’t have nearly enough staff members to serve all of the students and alumni who seek their advice.

And then there are faculty. Though professors often serve as advisors and mentors to students and develop close relationships with them, faculty don’t usually view career counseling as a formal part of their jobs.

As universities are measured more often by return on investment and the salaries of their graduates, a number of institutions are trying a new approach to extend the reach of their career services offices: They’re working with faculty willing to incorporate professional development efforts into their classes, and they’re paying professors who agree to take part.

The big idea: It’s impossible to know exactly how many U.S. universities have adopted career faculty fellows programs. A senior official with the National Association of Colleges and Employers said the organization’s surveys have not asked universities if they offer incentives to professors to integrate career development into their classes.

But at least a handful of universities are doing just that. Their number includes the College of Liberal Arts of the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, whose semester-long careers fellows program has involved 100 faculty and reached about 21,000 students since 2017; the University of Central Florida, whose program enters its second year this fall; and private universities in New York and California. Some other institutions, like George Washington University, are doing stripped-down versions of these programs in which they train faculty on best practices and resources available to students but don’t provide grants.

There’s a reason why professors make good partners for career services offices, said Kelly Dries, executive director of the Office of Career & Professional Development at University of Redlands. 

“We know that students interact with faculty more than anybody else on campus,” Dries said. “By partnering with faculty, we’re making (career readiness) not optional.”

Faculty fellows grow career center’s reach

On the ground: At University of Redlands, a private liberal arts institution in southern California, the career services office has just three staff members. Dries said that’s not nearly enough to serve a campus of 4,500 students plus alumni, who get lifetime access to the career services office.

A year after arriving at the university in 2018, Dries did something she thought could scale up the university’s professional development efforts. She asked students to nominate professors who had helped them work toward their career goals. From that group Redlands named five Career Faculty Fellows.

The first five fellows came from a diverse range of departments — art, biology, business, political science and the Johnston Center for Integrative Studies, the popular Redlands program that lets students create their own interdisciplinary majors. These faculty fellows met monthly with Dries, served as career services liaisons with other academic departments, and talked with their colleagues at departmental meetings and faculty assemblies about career services programs their students should know about.

Their most important mandate — the one that Dries thinks can pay big dividends — was to include career readiness concepts in their curricula. 

“By clearly communicating the connection between learning and careers,” Dries said, “we’re helping students better prepare for their future.”

University of Redlands professor Art Svenson’s class meets on the campus quad in December 2018. (William Vasta/Courtesy of U of R)

The details: Fellows serve for a year and get a $1,000 grant from the university to use for their own professional development. The grant was higher in the first year, Dries said. But two things happened: the university made budget cuts, and because the COVID-19 pandemic led to a lot of canceled conferences, some fellows didn’t spend their entire stipend. After their year as fellows, these professors join a campuswide career alliance of faculty, staff, administrators and alumni dedicated to helping students develop their careers.

The third class of Career Faculty Fellows will start their work in the upcoming fall semester. Dries said her goal is to have on campus at least 40 faculty members — a critical mass of full-time tenured and tenure-track professors — who have been fellows. 

Measuring success: Early returns from the program have been promising. Dries said juniors surveyed last fall reported that the in-class career readiness sessions boosted their confidence heading into their first professional job search. The program also won a 2020 Career Innovation Award from The Career Leadership Collective, a Colorado thought-partner and consulting group that works with universities to weave career readiness into the campus experience.

“Students are coming to college to improve their future outcomes,” Dries said. “I think this program has found ways to accelerate their careers.”

First Five’

In the classroom: So how does career readiness in the curriculum look in practice? 

Ben Aronson, a biology professor at University of Redlands, starts most of his classes with five minutes of career-related talk. 

Some days he used what he calls the “First Five” to tell students about internships or upcoming events sponsored by the career services office. Or he invited a former student to talk about their job and how they got it. 

In some instances, he asked a student to talk about a summer internship — how they found it, how they applied, how it went. Once, Aronson went over a resume one of his students wrote because he thought it was well done. “Peer-to-peer learning about career readiness is probably more powerful than anything I can say,” he said.

Aronson, the Virginia Hunsaker Chair in Distinguished Teaching and a member of the university’s first group of Career Faculty Fellows, said he knows that perhaps only two or three students in each class might be interested in that day’s First Five topic. But this short daily session sends a message to all of his students that he’s another on-campus resource for information and advice on careers.

Working more closely with the university’s career development office for the past two years, he said, has helped him appreciate that there are many big and little things professors can do to get their students thinking about what they’ll do after college.

“Faculty are in a unique position with their students,” Aronson said. “During the course of the semester I have a kind of relationship with students that can and should be leveraged in terms of career development.”

Connecting content to competencies

Shifting perceptions: The University of Rochester, a private research university in New York, awarded its first $2,500 career education grants in the spring to two professors. 

Joe Testani, an associate vice provost and the executive director of The Greene Center for Career Education & Connections at Rochester, said he has been chipping away for years at the perception that the career services office merely prepares students for their first jobs out of college. What’s especially important these days is helping students develop career competencies they can use throughout their working lives.

Many Rochester faculty have traditionally advised students on their post-college plans, especially those who were considering graduate school, Testani said. But faculty are uniquely positioned to help students develop those competencies because they know what skills and abilities are crucial within their disciplines.

“Faculty are definitely experts in content knowledge,” Testani said. With these new career readiness grants, he added, “we wanted to lean into their expertise as well as offer our own.”

Students in the College of Business at the University of Central Florida give a presentation. (Courtesy of UCF)

Moving to scale: Incorporating career competencies into a class doesn’t always involve a lot of heavy lifting, said Lynn Hansen, executive director of career services at the University of Central Florida. 

Many professors, through research papers and class projects, already teach their students to communicate, to collaborate, to think critically. In a lot of cases, Hansen said, it’s simply a matter of making those lessons more obvious to students so they’re able to explain their skills and abilities to prospective employers.

The university started its NACE Faculty Career Champions program last summer. In exchange for $400 stipends, 20 faculty members got training from the career services staff and agreed to put statements on their syllabi explaining which career competencies would be covered in their courses.

“Whatever the class assignments were, they were intentionally and directly aligning those class assignments with skill sets that the students would develop from doing them,” Hansen said. “They were using the same language that corporate America and industry are looking for.”

During the 2020-21 academic year, 94 UCF faculty members took part, and more than 4,700 students completed the post-course survey. 

Survey results were encouraging, Hansen said. Faculty and students both said they learned a lot more about NACE’s eight career readiness competencies, and students reported that they were more confident in their abilities in all eight areas. That’s good news for UCF, she added, because Florida’s higher education performance funding model considers employment and salaries of university graduates.

“The employment-after-graduation piece is pretty important to the people of Florida,” Hansen said. “We want to make sure as a university we’re taking that seriously, too.”

‘Really critical partners’

In coming years, the career center at Rochester hopes to also increase the number of faculty grants and the scale of its work. Testani’s office has 21 staff members and 20 student workers. That’s not nearly enough, he said, to serve a student population of about 12,000, many of whom have enrolled in Rochester not just to learn but to enhance their prospects for social and economic mobility.

“We need to find new ways, and we need to do it faster and more aggressively than before,” Testani said. 

Parting thought: Faculty, he said, will continue to be “really critical partners” in that work.  “It’s less important that students are coming to our office,” Testani said. “It’s more important they are talking to people they trust.”

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