By Jill Randolph
December 30, 2009
The following is an interview transcript with Len Konarski, Director of Career Services and Internships at the University of Massachusetts Boston. Mr. Konarski has worked in the career development field for over 25 years. Prior to that, he served as a mental health counselor and program manager. He holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in Psychology, as well as an MBA degree. His focus is the development of each individual's full potential.
UMass Boston is a public research college located in Boston, Massachusetts. It was originally established as Boston State College in 1852 and was renamed in 1964. The university annually grants admission to over 12,000 students and offers online courses in various fields to overseas students. Their sports teams are known as "The Beacons".
Jill Randolph: What do you think are the three most important things students should do to prepare to find a job?
Len Konarski: For a typical career model, students first need to go through a very realistic and intensive session with a career counselor in order to evaluate their strengths and weaknesses. Students have to know the truth about their strengths and weaknesses, not simply be told what they would like to believe about themselves, because they may need to build upon an area of weakness, and need to be both realistic and practical if they want to improve.
Secondly, students need to develop very strong tools for job hunting. They need an excellent resume, not just an okay resume. Even with electronic job-hunting outlets, students need to know how to write a persuasive cover letter. In addition, they need to know how to interview with proper etiquette. There is a lot of research about the economy and the job market that students should be informed about by counselors as well.
Finally, students need to gain work experience like internships and co-ops while in school, which will help them when looking for a full-time job.
Jill Randolph: What would you recommend to a college junior or senior who had completed an internship in their prospective career area, only to realize the field he or she had been working towards for the last two or three years was not a good fit?
Len Konarski: That is an excellent question. Let me begin by saying students can avoid that situation by taking advantage of the resources offered to them by their career office early on in their college career. That's essentially why we are here, not only to help them develop a successful track, but to investigate whether their plan is working for them. If students reach a point where there is a problem, even in their junior year, they should meet with us so we can find ways to help them adjust to what's happened in a positive and beneficial way. The reality, however, is that students sometimes don't meet with any counselors from their career office, and they find themselves in that unfortunate situation. The good thing about work experience is that if students intern in a field they think they want to go into and then come to the realization that it's not the right field for them, it's not the worst thing that can happen. It's better for them to find that out while they are still in school, rather than after they graduate. We see students who have never had work experience in their field, have done well academically, and then end up disappointed when they are working their first job, which causes a great deal of concern. If students complete an internship or something similar and they don't enjoy the experience, then they can meet with someone like myself and talk about their options. We first want to understand why the experience wasn't fulfilling, and then we help them with whatever they need to complete while still in school in order to build up skills that will allow them to enter the job market competitively. Our goal is that career hopes and reality match up, but if that is not the case, students have to strategically use their remaining time in school to make adjustments. An ill-fitting internship can be a disappointment, but it's important for students not to give up and think there is nothing they can do about it. They need to reach out and use the multitude of valuable on-campus resources available to them.
I have seen some students, only a few courses away from graduating, who have just experienced an unfulfilling internship, and though they don't think they want to work in that particular field any more, they are going to have a degree, and they have transferable skills. They are going to be able to use their degree, in many cases, for many other fields they haven't thought about. In that situation, it's sometimes better to complete their degree rather than prolong their education. Because of the expense, time and stress involved with more schooling, I believe it's best for most students to complete their degree while working with a career counselor to help with their career path alternatives. There is a point where students won't necessarily benefit from staying in college any longer. It might be better to complete their degree more quickly, and think about what kind of job they are going to look for and if it will require graduate school.
It is not a cookie-cutter process; these scenarios happen to students at different stages of their college career, and we evaluate each student on an individual basis. If a student has six credits left to complete his or her degree and that person decides the major he or she has chosen may not lead to a dream career, it doesn't mean that efforts towards a degree are being wasted. He or she has probably developed a lot of skills and simply needs to reorient him or herself in the job market. In other cases, students may have time to develop a minor, which may lead to a more desirable job as well. The key is that students need to work with someone like a career counselor throughout college so they don't end up unsure of what to do with their degree. I think it's sad to see someone graduating who doesn't want to work in the field he or she has been intending to.
Jill Randolph: I think it's equally sad when people love what they do and then lose the ability to do that particular job because of the economy. For example, there aren't many manufacturing jobs available throughout the country anymore.
Len Konarski: There are many issues with that example and that's why a liberal arts degree often is so valuable; the students develop a wide range of skills, which makes them adaptable. When students are trained for a narrow field and that field doesn't continue hiring at a high rate, they feel like they have very limited options. That's why it's important to work with a career counselor, and also to have a broad skill base, because job markets change. With the manufacturing example you gave, there may not be many opportunities for students orienting themselves for a career in this field. Those students still have solid management skills they can apply in another industry, however. A liberal arts student who thinks he or she may want to go to medical school may not need to if that person has good research skills and would rather go into pubic health research.
If students aren't equipped to think outside of the box, however, it may lead to panic. When the job market isn't good, students are under greater stress and realize their options are limited, so their perspective becomes very narrow. It is better not to look at everything as black and white. When meeting with a career professional, the goal should be for the student to open up his or her thinking to the alternative options available, which can be very difficult when under stress. Under pressure, people tend to think very narrowly. The same is true with career issues, so we think if we can teach students how to look at their skill set and make an effective career transition, they can apply those skills in the future too. Once they learn how to think outside of the box and evaluate their transferrable skills, they can repeat the steps almost every time they are ready to change careers. If they have another situation that comes up, they will be able to apply the same strategy.
Jill Randolph: You talked about how it's really important for students to visit their career office throughout their college career. What percentage visits your office?
Len Konarski: For every service we offer, we have data on how many students use each one, but it is very hard to know the exact percentage unless we complete a comprehensive, costly survey to know how many students use our services, and in what manner. If I were to guess how many students use our assistance aggressively and use everything available, I estimate it's about 30 to 40 percent.
What you said is important; it is true that many people don't think about using their career office until after graduation. We try to publicize our services, but it's very difficult to get students to visit us. The underlying reason for this is that most students tend to look at career issues as something they will deal with once they are ready to graduate. This is not the way to look at it, however, because whether they are aware of it or not, alongside the path of every student's academic program is a parallel career track. We've tried to complete studies about this, and we have concluded that around 70 to 75 percent of all the students at our university will use the career office at some point during their undergraduate or graduate program, or shortly after they graduate. That doesn't mean they were using all our relevant services all along, or that they were using the services for the reasons that would benefit them the most.
There are certain groups where more than 40 percent of students use all the resources they have available to them aggressively while they are in school. It may be as high as 60 or 70 percent in particular majors within a college of management. For liberal arts students, however, I think colleges and universities are more likely to see the percentage of students who are familiar with all the career services available to them to be around 30 to 40 percent.
Jill Randolph: What are some suggestions you recommend to students to help them stand out from other job applicants?
Len Konarski: I think the tips that really help students stand out are pretty simple. They need to take the job hunting or career development process seriously from the beginning, meaning that any conversation they have with an employer or any event they attend should be taken as a serious part of their development process.
I think students should focus on developing excellent presentation skills, whether it's an interview or networking event, and they should be able to be comfortable with speaking and writing. They need to develop a mini commercial about themselves so that when they are introduced to someone, they are able to provide succinct personal background information. That's being assertive, and I think students are sometimes too passive in trying to develop a career. Students should know better than to go to a career fair and directly ask an employer what kind of job they have for them. It's much better to introduce themselves to employers and tell them what they are studying and what they are interested in career-wise. Students need to take control of their own career development.
Also, an excellent academic record never hurts, and having internships or co-ops are a plus as well. The academic record is sometimes overlooked. I hear students say grades don't matter much in college, but they do, especially if those students want to go on to graduate school. If they finish their undergraduate program and their record isn't very strong, their chances of getting into graduate school will be limited. Being professional and knowing how to give a presentation will help applicants stand out as well.
I recommend students try to build a variety of skills into their background. I often encourage them to do things they are not comfortable with in order to build their skills. If students aren't comfortable giving presentations in class, for example, then one of their elective courses should be an oral communications class.
Jill Randolph: Perhaps those students can join Toastmasters and attend meetings when their schedule allows.
Len Konarski: Exactly. I had a friend who worked in the technical field and then was hired for a management job when he was in his mid 30s, without any experience doing presentations. When he took the job, they told him he'd be doing a number of presentations, and he told them he thought he would need to enhance this skill, so they recommended Toastmasters. He went and loved the experience, and now he does presentations in front of hundreds of people. It's an excellent alternative for students who don't want to take a public speaking class. I talk to individuals who are not in school about Toastmasters all the time, especially business people who are often encouraged to use it, and they all speak very positively about their experiences. Some people believe they can't learn to be a good presenter, but there are certain skills professors can teach students in a presentations class that are really easy to learn. I always find that any presentation with a beginning, middle and an end is much better received than one that wanders. If someone giving a presentation writes out a script with a beginning, middle, and an end, and tells their audience what they intend to discuss beforehand, it will more than likely result in a good presentation.
Jill Randolph: What do you think are the most important things high school students should do in order to be accepted into the best possible college? For example, if a student is interested in a pre-med track, what are some important things he or she should be doing while in high school?
Len Konarski: It's very important for high school students to keep in mind that they need to do well academically in all areas across the curriculum. Those interested in the pre-med track especially need to do well in science classes, because those will be the foundation for their work when they get to college. It is also important to be involved in extracurricular activities, such as participating in community service activities or joining school clubs, as this will increase the chances that they will be accepted into the college or university of their choice. Strong skills in quantitative and writing areas will also be important for aspiring medical students.
Jill Randolph: How early should they start working on their plan?
Len Konarski: Realistically, the earlier they start, the better off they will be in the future. I think, however, that there is always an adjustment period for high school students. I think it is best to take their first year or so to become grounded academically and adjust to high school. Then as they move along in the science curriculum and take more elective courses, they can begin to put their plan in place.
I believe high school students should be thinking about what their potential major may be in college. Having a very narrow career plan in high school may not be to the advantage of most students, however, because at that point they haven't been exposed to the academic fields in enough depth to know which field they may want to pursue professionally. I think that happens more so in college, so doing well academically and having a sense of which major they might want to pursue in college is advisable.
Jill Randolph: So you recommend students have a broader view as they enter college so they will avoid having to change their major numerous times, as many college students do?
Len Konarski: Yes. Say a high school student is considering going to medical school after he or she completes an undergraduate degree. If that person has an unrealistic view of the field of medicine such as what it's like to be a doctor, the academic and career demands, as well as parental pressure, the reality may be that it's not the ideal field for that particular student. Some students may not have the ability to complete medical school, and that is an important factor to consider. In order to be successful as a medical student, he or she has to have an aptitude for the sciences and mathematics, and should be confident in the desire to become a doctor. If students focus on all of those issues, after being in college for a semester or two, they may find that it is not really going to be the best field for them. Therefore, we want students to have a broad base so they can change direction more easily.
Jill Randolph: What are the biggest trends you are seeing among incoming students?
Len Konarski: Right now, incoming students are really concerned about pursuing a field of study that will not only provide a rich experience, but one that will lead to tangible job outcomes as well. They look at the economy and what goes on in their own families, and I think there is more emphasis placed on practicality.
Jill Randolph: More so than in years past?
Len Konarski: Definitely. There will always be a core group of students who are very focused on what they want to do, but when the economy and the outlook for jobs is very positive, students feel less pressure to have a specific career path while they are in college.
Because of the various trends in our culture, certain majors have become more in-demand from time to time. If there is a medical show on TV that's popular for example, we find more students considering medical school. When shows on specific careers or industries are popular, we find more students being interested in those fields. Right now, students are very interested in green careers because of concerns about the environment. Also, because of shows like "CSI", forensics and related fields tend to be more in-demand and more discussed by incoming students.
Jill Randolph: Do you see more occurrences like that in better economic times, or are you still seeing that now?
Len Konarski: When the economy is good, students are less focused and goal-oriented, but when the economic outlook is not so good, students tend to be more focused on particular outcomes. The example about careers gaining popularity because of related television shows can happen at any time.
Jill Randolph: Do you have any career-related books or websites you recommend to students?
Len Konarski: One website I recommend is "What Can I Do With A Major In", which is on our website under hotlinks, and was designed by a group from the University of North Carolina, Wilmington. It's an excellent site for students who want to know which careers they can pursue with their degree.
"What Color Is Your Parachute" is a very well known book. The exercises are sometimes difficult to do without the aid of a career specialist, but the first 170 pages or so offer excellent, foundational career material and it covers many of the topics we've been talking about.
Career Services Offices provide students with a wealth of information, besides just what we've talked about. If students visit their career office, they will be able to arm themselves with invaluable tools that will make finding their first and future jobs much easier and less stressful.