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[Fresh] How NOT to talk about careers with your son or daughter

This is a posting from Fresh@News, Villanova's e-mail newsletter for parents and friends of the class of 2012. Please forward this e-mail to anyone who would like to open a subscription.They can open their own subscription by sending an email to Fresh@News.Villanova.Edu. The message should have just two words: subscribe fresh   To be removed from the list, just reply to this e-mail and tell us you want to be off.  


Today’s first year students are remarkably preoccupied with questions about their eventual careers, and we find that the students (and sometimes even their parents) have some misconceptions.  To get some additional perspectives, today Fresh@News interviews Ms. Nancy Dudak, who directs Villanova's Career Services Office.


Fresh@News: What is the big challenge for those of you who work in Career Services?

Nancy Dudak: The answer may surprise some our parents, but it is a bit different from what they might think. Our biggest problem is not so much helping our students get started in a career or a graduate program. A lot of the top employers in the country love our students, and many of our students leave us to go to outstanding graduate and professional programs. The biggest challenge that we face is undoing some of the misconceptions and preconceptions about careers that students bring with them when they first come to our office.  


F@N: What would be an example of a misconception?

ND: The biggest is how they feel about the relationship between majors and careers. Imagine this scene, repeated countless times, when any adult meets any college-age student. The adult says, "You are a college student? What is your major?" But, of course, what the adult is really saying is, "You are 18 years old, tell me what you will be doing for the rest of your life." If the student says, "I am studying accounting" or gives the name of any other major that is identical to a job the adult has heard of, the adult says, approvingly: "That's a great field." But if the student says, "I am majoring in English" the next remark is: "What are you going to do with that, teach?" It gets even worse if the student says, "I haven't decided what to major in." Indeed, I can promise you that some of the students are dreading one aspect of going home for Thanksgiving, precisely because they know that every well meaning aunt and uncle is going to have that same conversation. In fact, many of these same students who can't answer Aunt Myrtle's question are going to have outstanding careers, often in fields that don't even exist yet. What we see, in other words, is two huge fallacies. The first is that your major is your career, and the second is that you must know what your career is when you start college or you are wasting your time. But as most of our readers know, people today have many careers over their lives, and their undergraduate major is only part of their formation. In fact, almost all of our students go onto extremely successful fields. It is true that over 50% of our students have their post-graduation plans firmed up by the time they graduate, but almost as many students don’t have a firm plan by graduation.  But within six months after graduation, the picture has changed dramatically and almost all of the other students will also be in a career or training program.


F@N: Who gets hammered the hardest on this?  We always hear these concerns from our Arts students.  How does employment turn out for these students?

ND: The problem for Arts students is not so much their employability; lots of them get amazing jobs. The challenge is for them to articulate the value of their degree to a potential employer. It isn't enough to say, "I am an English major" and to believe that the employer assumes a writing ability. Students need to be able to give concreteness and specificity to those experiences. They need to be able to say, I have great communication skills because I had an internship where I did the following projects, or I have great writing skills because I have done this kind of writing in these courses.


F@N: A lot of the students seem to be going for double and triple majors. Does that give them a head start?

ND: One of the problems we see is that students think that having two or three majors and a stack of minors and concentrations will make them more employable. Then they feel that once they have every minute of their time accounted for in fulfilling requirements they can take a mental holiday. Not only can all of those requirements give them a false sense of security, it often prohibits them from taking some interesting electives later on, or fitting in study abroad and internships. We find that employers aren't interested in labels as much as they are in specific skills and passions. Employers are much more interested in a student who can connect a transcript with his or her passions and interests than they are in a student who has a lot of different majors and minors.


F@N: Let's talk about the students in Nursing and Engineering.

ND: If you want to be a nurse or an engineer, you should certainly go to the College of Nursing or the College of Engineering. But all too often we see students who are in those programs not because they are passionate about those fields but because they think they have to be in a pre professional field to get a job. These fields are challenging ones under the best of circumstances, but a student who doesn’t have a passion for these fields is going to have a tough time doing well in these programs.


F@N: What about careers in business?

ND: Here again, there is a lot of confusion. Accountants, for example, are always highly employable, and a lot of students will major in accounting because they think it means they have a lock on a career for the rest of their lives. If they do well, they will have the security of having a job before they graduate. But accounting is really not for everyone. I see some accountants who come back to us after their first year saying, "I hate this field, can you help me change fields?" A lot of students are interested in finance, even with the bad news we’ve been hearing about recently. Everyone thinks you need to be a Finance major to work on Wall Street. But in fact, the investment bankers are famous for hiring students from all majors, and they hire many Arts majors and engineers as well. In general, the largest business employers hire students from all majors and colleges. They are all looking for the best and the brightest.


F@N: So what should students do?

ND: The important thing is for students to find an area that they can become passionate about and do well in that area. Trust me, it is much easier for me to sell an English major with a 3.7 G.P.A., than it is to sell a finance or engineering major with a 2.2. Students should not panic if they don't have a clear idea about a career when they first arrive at Villanova. In some ways it is a great thing to keep the doors open for awhile. Often career ideas will emerge from upper division courses, from the student's internship, from service projects, or from overseas study. Parents are always amazed how the apparently aimless freshman student emerges four years later with a goal, a plan, good contacts, and eventually a great first career.


F@N: What are some of the other big challenges?

ND:  Another big challenge is getting students to integrate their career development into their everyday lives, and learn to use some of the same skills that they have developed in their search for jobs and a career.  The students sometimes have a tendency to view life in separate compartments, with school in one category, personal life in another, and their career work goals in yet another silo. They learn great skills in the classroom and from living away from home, but they are genuinely surprised that these same skills can be applied to their careers.  For example, they thoroughly research a company or a topic to write a paper for one of their courses, but are stumped as to how to research a company in preparation for an interview.  They can network with friends to secure off campus housing or get a ride home for winter break, but are intimidated in networking connections for an internship or job.   A big part of what we do is to normalize the career development process so they see it as part of the bigger picture.


F@N: When should students come to your office?

ND: It depends on the questions students bring to us. We see many freshmen who are concerned about academic choices. We also see many students who wait until sophomore or junior years as they start thinking about how to connect a major to possible careers. First year students (and parents) might start by exploring our website: http://www.villanova.edu/vpaa/careers/plan/myplan.htm


 F@N: What advice do you have for parents?

ND: Several things come to mind. The most important thing, of course, is to encourage your son or daughter to take challenging courses and to do well in them. Good grades keep the options open even if the choices aren't clear. It's discouraging to see a student who decides to go to professional school but doesn't have the grades to be competitive. Also, hold them accountable but please don't pressure your students to make premature decisions about careers and majors. It is much more important to help students find their passion, and that may take a little bit of time. Offer your insight with "clues" about what might turn into a career choice. If you haven't worn it out already you can always try this one: "You are always arguing with your father, you might be a good lawyer" Help them to understand where they might fit in an organization. Here it is valuable for parents to talk more about their own work. It is amazing how little many students know about what their parents actually do on a day to day basis. They might know that mom works at Procter & Gamble, but what do the thousands of people who work at this large company really do? Relatives and family friends can be a wonderful resource. Sometimes the best way to proceed is to help students do some "informational interviews" with friends of the family who are in different fields. This is a good opportunity for students to learn to present themselves, and often those interviews may lead to a contact for a summer job. Encourage them to speak! Speaking is becoming a lost art since the explosion of technology. You don't even have to speak at the deli anymore, you order off of a keypad. Simple conversations with professionals are even more intimidating when they just don't have the practice. When a student is nervous about interviewing and networking, I always recommend that they speak to as many people as possible in the week before the event.  Another good idea is to reinforce “real world” expectations by holding students responsible for being on time and dressed properly.  Students need to understand that calling ahead from the cell phone in the car to say you’ll be late isn’t the same as being on time, and that kind of behavior just doesn’t work in the professional arena.  You just can’t be late.  And, as always, give them support but, as I said earlier, don't put too much pressure on them for premature decisions and career choices.  


 F@N:  It sounds like perhaps the parents should try to take a deep breath and relax a bit. Although most of our freshmen are still pretty immature, the vast majority of them do find a direction and a great career in their short four years here.

ND:  Right.