University of Vermont

The Honors College

Message from the Dean - October 2011

Abu Rizvi

There's a lot of news about jobs, or the lack of them, these days. Whether it's the monthly report on a stubbornly high unemployment rate or President Obama's jobs program, talk about jobs is everywhere. In this context, it's important for universities to think about what, if anything, they should be doing to improve the chances for success of their graduates. Even well-prepared students are having trouble finding jobs in this economy: an August 31 article in the New York Times called "Generation Limbo: Waiting It Out," discussed the fear that many students and their supporters have, that having a college degree won't be enough for students to land a job.

Andy Chan of Wake Forest University, one of the most thoughtful commentators and doers in the field of career services for college students, says, "If we assume that "things will just work out" for our students and their careers in this new economy, our students will be unprepared and disappointed". His ideas on a developmental approach to career education, in which students are guided in figuring out where their interests intersect with available jobs, helped inspire the Honors College's pilot career initiative this year. (I wrote about our Professional Development Forum, led by Brit Chase, in my remarks in the our last newsletter.) .

Andy Chan points out on his blog, http://andychan.blogs.wfu.edu/, that college students and their advisors often misunderstand what makes for success in the job market. The obvious thing to do seems to be to ask employers what they're looking for in a job candidate. Here's what they want: .

  1. Communication skills, written, verbal and visual. This was the most common desire of employers.
  2. Critical thinking skills. In the words of one employer, if you are someone "with a brand new challenge and you can think your way through to a working solution, you're going to get lots and lots of opportunities to shine."
  3. People skills. One employer says, "The world of work is a world of people and therefore relationships" and "students/graduates can distinguish themselves in a powerful way by demonstrating awareness and enduring interest in who people are, why they do what they do, and how they behave together."
  4. Initiative. Students should "constantly seek ways to improve yourself and your performance, as well as improve the business around you."

In addition, especially in today's job market, students need to be introduced to the world of work and have an entrepreneurial mindset. The particular field studied, while crucial for certain jobs, of course, is not that important for the bulk of jobs. Chan reports that 90% of employers want the best student regardless of major. The best students (fastest to promotion), according one employer, were Physics and English majors. .

Now you may say, "Hold on a minute. What if employers value something different from what universities value? Should universities just go along with employer imperatives? " Yet looking at this list of graduate attributes, at least from the perspective of the Honors College, I don't see much of a conflict. In fact, helping our students succeed academically seems to mean helping them succeed on the employment front. Let's look at this overlap a bit more closely. .

A cornerstone of honors education at UVM and elsewhere is seminar-based learning emphasizing discussion and written work. Many of our seminars also involve group work or formal debate. The intensity and seriousness of written work develops with the thesis process in the last two years. All along, students are urged to take the more passively acquired knowledge that they have and synthesize and apply it in a different setting, eventually creating a novel work of significance in the senior thesis or creative project. Working with other students, learning in a residential setting, and collaborating with a thesis mentor all take place in a rich interpersonal setting. The honors program itself is optional for students, not a degree requirement, and so students show considerable dedication to complete it. So for these students in many regards, the values of the university and of the workplace coincide. It is also true that students can, if they choose (which is the key here), remain anonymous in classes, pursue their academic careers in a solitary manner and do the minimum required. Not only does this path not lead to a satisfying education, it also puts the students at a disadvantage in their pursuit of work after they graduate. Such students are less likely to find that "things will work out," so far as careers are concerned. .

The employers Andy Chan interviewed also mentioned an introduction to the world of work. This may arise naturally in some academic settings. It may also have to be provided intentionally, as it is in the Professional Development Forum Professional Development Forum.

Thinking about jobs is helpful in figuring out what universities should provide their students. In this newsletter you'll find evidence of students taking an active and engaged approach to their educations in ways that will almost certainly (though not necessarily directly) lead to meaningful careers after college. I hope you'll find the material you read interesting and that you'll be in touch with responses and questions. .

Last modified November 01 2011 04:34 PM