Get a Head Start on Career Planning in Graduate School

Incoming graduate students should begin meeting with career placement advisers soon after orientation.

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If you are an admitted graduate student, you have just spent a lot of time going through the graduate school application process and are now finally getting ready for orientation and the start of your first academic term.

But although you are just beginning this journey, you should already start thinking about your future after graduation.

It might seem a bit strange for me to be talking about career planning at this early stage, but there are important reasons to get the process rolling now.

[Set realistic priorities to successfully adjust to graduate school.]

During my years as a dean of student services at both Columbia University and the University of Chicago, I saw many graduate students who did minimal career planning prior to the start of their final year of study.

By that time, it was often a bit late to be pulling together a resume, researching potential employers, attending recruitment presentations and preparing for employment interviews. All of this should be happening soon after starting graduate study.

In general, schools offer separate career services programming for graduate and undergraduate students. In the case of professional programs like business, law or medicine, each school tends to provide career guidance to its own students.

In addition to these specialized services, there are specific actions you can take to help you prepare well for life after graduate school.

First, check out your school's career placement office as soon as you arrive on campus. Introduce yourself and take a look at all of the services available to you. You might even see if someone has a few minutes to chat with you. Get to know one of the career advising staff members, and plan to meet with him or her regularly.

[Find out how to make the most of graduate school advising.]

Students should also attend the career placement presentation during orientation. This will help you learn about all of the services offered in the coming term and year and allow you to best know how, when and where to show up for these opportunities.

There are a number of services that are frequently offered by career placement services, including free skills and aptitude assessments, regular resume review workshops, mock interview sessions, employer presentations, networking events and internship opportunities.

Resume consultation can be especially valuable for students who are enrolling right out of college, as they may need input on how to address a lack of work experience in their resumes. For graduate students who are changing careers, or who want to transfer to another area within the same field, career services can help you present your resume in the best light.

Mock interviews may also be new to graduate students. You need to know what to expect when seeking employment, and preparing ahead of time reduces stress and nervousness.

Some programs have alumni come in to do mock interviews, while others use current students or, in rarer cases, professors.

Graduate students should also do some independent career investigation. One of the best strategies I have found to determine if a particular career field is a match is to conduct some research on the options.

[Follow these steps to get the most out of your college career services.]

At a minimum, students should conduct interviews with recent graduates of your school who are working in the fields you are considering. Ask your career placement contacts – or your family, friends and classmates – to provide you with a few names.

Prepare a series of questions, including these two very important ones: "Would you choose this career again if you had it to do over?" and "Would you do anything differently as a student to help you better prepare for your career?"

Ask a few of your interview subjects if you could shadow them on a job. Find out if they would allow you to observe them at their work for a few hours.

I did this several times with students who were interested in the fields of enrollment management and student services. In many instances, individuals are quite willing to let students observe.