4 Things Academic Deans Can Do to Help Students Succeed after Graduation

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Why, you might ask, should academic deans add this concern about students’ career preparation to their already unmanageably long list of responsibilities?

As leaders of the faculty, deans need to serve as the programmatic agents of implementing a holistic undergraduate education. And deans provide the essential perspective of someone who observes the connections on a daily basis between how the university works and how students learn.

Students best engage in their learning when they know how that learning fits into their lives. I do not mean to imply that students are selfish or myopic. Quite the opposite. Students implicitly, although naively, understand higher education as important to their whole lives. Our role as deans is to cross the bureaucratic barriers between academic and student services in order to teach students and how to apply these to growing personally and professionally.

This has been a major focus of my work over the past 25 years as a department chair and academic dean: to connect academic learning with career development. Here are four practical strategies I have learned: four opportunities for academic deans to partner with career services:

  1. Use national career services and academic organizations with a cross-division team.
  2. Create a career services developmental retreat for department chairs and career services staff.
  3. Partner with dept chairs and faculty to translate course syllabi assignments into transferable skills.
  4. Integrate faculty into networking events and job fairs.

1. Attend national career services and academic organizations with a cross-division team.

Offer to attend local, regional or national conferences of organizations such as the Association of Colleges and Employers (ACE) and the Cooperative Education and Internship Association (CEIA) with a team from career services.

Bring your career services colleagues to academic conferences and to workshops sponsored by professional groups such as American Association of College and Universities (AAC&U) and Academic Impressions (AI), as well as career events at professional organizations (in my case, for example, the National Association of Practicing Anthropologists).

Nationally there is little cross-representation at these conferences. Leverage these opportunities to collaborate with internal and external career services partners, and be sure to follow up on campus after returning to build collaborative momentum.

2. Create a career services developmental retreat for department chairs and career services staff.

Focus a retreat on opportunities for collaboration. If possible, invite a provocative and well-spoken outside speaker to talk on particular aspects of career services that apply to both career services and academic staff and chairs. Allow all parties to offer their perspectives and to openly discuss barriers and resistance to crossing academic/career services boundaries. This will help opinion-leaders and change agents get out of their silos and will give these critical individuals opportunities to connect with colleagues outside their respective divisions.

3. Partner with dept chairs and faculty to translate course syllabi assignments into transferable skills.

Adjusting course syllabi is often a difficult task and can be met with heavy resistance from faculty. Anticipating this, I would strongly recommend that the topic of including careers within disciplinary courses and curricula be discussed and demonstrated at the faculty-career retreat. This will allow you to address fears that you are attempting to regulate syllabi, while also giving you the chance to identify those faculty who are most willing to partner with you on their own syllabi.

In many cases faculty resistance can be dissolved once you explain that you are not looking to change the course mission, but rather to make it explicit to the students how particular topics and assignments include transferable skills and knowledge. Invite faculty to explain what is transferable and engage them in a conversation about how to make that transferability clear to students.

For example:

  • My meetings with the Department of English chair quickly progressed into a lively conversation about how research assignments required critical assessment of information sources, and writing and presenting conclusions in a clear manner.
  • In my discussions with the Anthropology chair, we quickly began to discuss the many critical skills students learn from participating in a field school, including teamwork, journaling, analysis of data, and especially hard work.

4. Integrate faculty into networking events and job fairs.

Most faculty have little experience with campus career events. Often, this is because they do not see these fairs as part of their job — but the lack of attendance is also because they have never been invited!

I would encourage you to directly invite faculty who you know work closely with students and who might be most interested in attending career events with their students. An invitation and targeted involvement can go a long way in gaining faculty buy-in for closer collaboration.

One particularly useful strategy is to have a career services representative introduce faculty to some of the employers at a career fair and cue questions concerning what kinds of students employers are seeking. This can open up a conversation on the kinds of skills particular jobs require, which moves the conversation away from tying specific majors to particular careers. In most such conversations, employers will stress the importance of writing, critical reading and thinking, teamwork and hard work. This gives the faculty an opening to tout the transferable skills students learn in their courses.

Once chairs or other faculty are introduced to employers (and vice versa), departments often quickly develop their own ideas about how to initiate career mentoring activities, workshops or even courses. Buy-in is established because faculty taking part in the career fair saw how these activities can help their students.

Work closely with departments to connect their students with prospective employers, outside the college-wide career fair. Connect students with alumni employers who may have personal connections with the faculty and willingness to return to campus to tell their stories. Departments can also set up their own networking events and “reverse” job fairs, where employers rove a room to meet students, rather than the other way around.

Collaboration between academic deans and career services is key to opening up more opportunities for our students.