When Christine Bonney, a 2009 graduate of Cornell University, decided last fall that she wanted to pursue a master's degree in psychology, she met with admissions officers and filled out applications, but a school's career services center wasn't on her mind. "I know it's important, but my focus was on the caliber of the program, the professors, and the location," she says.
Bonney's approach is typical. Not many graduate school applicants ask what type of career counseling and job search support will be available to them as they near completion of a degree. "Students don't think that far down the food chain," says Robin Mount, director of the Office of Career Services at Harvard University. "When you're picking a professional school, you're really going for the highest-ranked one, one that's in a region you think you might settle in afterwards because of how you might build out your connections in that area," she says.
But in today's tight job market, you should be asking. Top-notch career services can make a difference now and quite possibly down the road if you change jobs or decide to start your own business.
In 2009, students who used career-center resources were more likely to land a job than those who didn't use them, according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers' recent survey of more than 35,000 students from over 840 colleges and universities nationwide. Fifty percent of students who sought out career services intensively—meeting with counselors for résumé review and interview practice sessions—received at least one job offer, compared with 42 percent of students who did not use the career center or used it minimally, according to the survey. Moreover, 26 percent of students who consulted the career center extensively had secured a job before graduation, compared with just 17 percent of students who only searched job listings on the career center website.
The demand for help is palpable as anxious students looking for work besiege centers. The result: Centers at colleges and universities across the country have been adding staff and ramping up their offerings at a brisk pace. In the past two years, Harvard's career services center has doubled the number of educational programs to close to 100. Some sessions include exploring careers in sports management, preparing for a career as an independent musician, or looking into careers in the culinary arts and fashion fields.
In addition to the basic services—reviewing résumés and cover letters, staging mock interviews, sponsoring job fairs, and providing free use of copiers and computers—career centers are trotting out a variety of workshops, offering Web seminars, or webinars, reviewing résumés and cover letters via E-mail, and extending office hours. They're recruiting a more eclectic mix of employers of all sizes to campus and aggressively wooing alumni to networking events with students in the hopes of opening doors for internships and jobs.
Here are four ways you can take advantage of cutting-edge career centers to boost your job search.
1. Look for opportunities early. At a growing number of schools, career management is now offered as a class, and it may even be a required credit in some M.B.A. programs. Career service centers typically develop the syllabus, and staffers frequently teach the course.
The advantage: You're going to have to do the work sometime, so you might as well score a credit for it.
Duke M.B.A. students need a personal development plan before the first semester begins, says Sheryle Dirks, associate dean for career management at Duke University's Fuqua School of Business. "The students participate in a one-day career workshop, which focuses on personal branding and telling their story, self-assessment, and job search strategy." In addition, all Fuqua students are required to take a semester-long class titled Leadership Communication. Approximately half of the course includes career and job search content taught by career center staff. In a tough job market where so many variables are out of your hands, if you have a plan, there are things you can control, says William Wright-Swadel, executive director of Duke's career center. For instance, you can control whether you're networking. You can reach out and meet five or six new people at an alumni event, he explains. "We coach students to take responsibility, to think about what they really want to do, what matters to them, and to find joy in what they choose. We call it integrating heart, head, and spirit."
2. Tap into supercharged websites. Students and alums at many schools can create a password-protected online account through the career center to access online podcast seminars, post résumés and profiles, view job and internship listings with contact information, sign up for career center appointments, and get the latest news on job fairs and recruiter visits.
At Georgetown's McDonough School of Business, for example, the career center provides the technology to take part in an interview using Web-based software or videoconferencing from the career center or a candidate's own computer so recruiters can meet M.B.A. students—regardless of where the firm is located.
The advantage: Fast, up-to-date, one-stop resources that save you the walk across campus.
A number of schools, including Drexel University's LeBow College of Business's Office of M.B.A. Career Services, offer InterviewStream, an online interactive simulation program that allows you to hone your interviewing skills. Once you create an account through the center's website, you can practice answering interview questions at home using a computer with Internet access, a webcam, and a microphone. InterviewStream allows you either to select a set of standardized interview questions or to customize your interview by choosing from a list of 1,000 varied questions.
3. Ask for startup help. When jobs are scarce, opening your own business may be appealing. A growing number of recent college and grad-school graduates are doing just that, according to more than a dozen center directors interviewed by U.S. News.
In response, career centers are offering space and computer hookups for students and alums to tinker with start-up ideas with fellow students. They're setting up meetings to help make connections across disciplines, say, between engineering and business schools, and are bringing venture capitalist alums back to campus to hear pitches and give feedback.
Many graduate schools have start-up competitions—such as the Be Your Own Boss Bowl at Temple University's Fox School of Business—that offer consulting, legal, and Web services; cash; and software to winning business plans. And a burgeoning number of schools have incubators that help students—past and present—sharpen business ideas. In some cases, the incubators support students financially or with other resources.
The advantage: Starting a business is fraught with challenges. Having university resources at your back is a bonus.
4. Return for alumni services. Alums and would-be grad students are tapping into online Web refresher courses on résumé writing, interviewing, and even navigating social networking sites. Many schools offer free career coach meetings and welcome alums back at job fairs and for company informational meetings. Some schools assist alumni in scoring interviews. Graduates can also tap into a school's LinkedIn alumni network.
The advantage: Consider it added value—a degree that keeps giving back. You can bone up on job-hunting skills—free of charge in most cases—and link to a vast network of people predisposed to want to lend a hand. A hail-fellow-well-met relationship with alumni is priceless.
At Duke, Fuqua School of Business M.B.A. alums have not been bashful about asking the career management center for help. The seekers are generally unemployed, recently laid off, or sensing that job stability might be a little shaky with their current employer. "Our guidance ranges from strategic assistance for those who want to move in a different direction and are looking for support and counsel on how to get there to a very tactile need to dust off résumés and get started again," Dirks explains. "That's what we're trained to do."
For soon-to-be grad student Bonney, that bodes well. "I'd love to be a professor one day, but no doubt, I'll be the one hounding the career center when the time comes to find a job," she says with a laugh. Chances are, she's spot on. And she'll be in good company.