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University Of Texas At Dallas Career Director Interview: Avoid Picking A Career On Its Popularity Alone

By Jill Randolph
January 20, 2010

The following is an interview transcript with Michael Doty, Director of the University of Texas at Dallas Career Center. The field of career services first intrigued Mr. Doty as he was going through his own job preparation process during his senior year at Ohio University. He returned to this interest after being sidetracked for several years. Through a networking connection, while completing his Masters Degree in Clinical Psychology, he obtained a position as a Career Counselor with the Vanderbilt Law School Career Center. He then relocated to the Dallas area and pursued an Associate Director position with the UT Dallas Career Center. After serving as the Interim Director, he was appointed to the Director's position in 2005.

The University of Texas at Dallas was founded in 1969, offering graduate level degrees only. In 1991, the school opened to undergraduate level students--the first freshman class consisted of only 100 students. Since then, the university has grown to 15,000 students, and offers baccalaureate to doctoral degrees. 45% of baccalaureate alumni are first-generation college graduates. Both "Kiplinger's Personal Finance" magazine and "Consumer's Digest" have ranked UT Dallas among the best values for public colleges nationally.

Interview Transcript

Jill Randolph: What are the biggest trends you are seeing among incoming students?

Michael Doty: We try to steer students away from choosing a major or career field because it is popular at a particular time. Students can be so much more marketable in different ways, depending on what they are doing and what their desired career path is, by receiving a more comprehensive education. When students choose a major only because of a particular field that is hot at the moment, they haven't considered the fact that the career might not be in demand by the time they graduate. That is why we prefer that 'hot career trends' are not used to market the school. Our goal is not necessarily to give students their first job out of college; it is to give them a lifelong career and the tools necessary to help them evolve with the workforce over time. When we are working with students, we try to point them in the direction of a career goal. They may have several jobs before they arrive at their target career, which is not abnormal.

This school is different from a lot of others across the nation in that it is only 40 years old. It is unique in the fact that it opened solely as a graduate school, and we didn't enroll freshmen here until 1991. We recently finished building our first residence hall on campus and students moved in this fall for the very first time. When I started here nine years ago, the school's enrollment was under 10,000; now it is up to 15,000 and will continue to increase. Most of the focus here was on engineering and computer science when we first opened, but now the largest college on campus is the school of management and we are a full liberal arts college as well.

In addition, we are on track to become a top-tier school. We have had a new president here for four years, and he has been a major influence on taking the school in a top-tier direction, which has been wonderful. We are planning on becoming a major research institution in the science and technology fields. We also have a couple of relatively new, popular majors, including Arts and Technology, which has become a booming business. We also began offering a new Emerging Media major this semester, after adding a Mechanical Engineering and also an Entrepreneurial program within the School of Management last year. The Center for Brain Health and the Callier Center are very prestigious components of what the University has begun to offer as well. There isn't just one area that is hot at UT Dallas; we have many popular programs. We also offer interdisciplinary degree options to students who aren't interested in pursuing a specific major.

Jill Randolph: Do you think most students come in unsure of which major or path they want to pursue?

Michael Doty: Among undergraduate students, normally about 20 to 25 percent come in without having chosen a major. They are going to school because it is the thing to do. Our career center will start working with students like this in order to help them have an idea about which career they may want to pursue after graduation. We become involved with them at an early stage so that they know we are here to help them make those decisions. I also have several counselors in the office who work specifically with targeted groups of sophomores who are undecided, in order to help these students move that process along. The other 75 percent of students typically have a path, but it doesn't mean that will not change. Around 40 to 45 percent of our students continue on to graduate school, and in the last couple years we have seen alumni who have been out of school for a while returning to pursue additional education. We haven't seen a lot of what is occurring at other universities across the country, however, where students are coming back to school to ride out the recession. We have seen an increase in returning students, but it has not been comparable to the numbers many other schools are experiencing.

Jill Randolph: Do most students pursing a master's degree come in knowing the path they are going to take?

Michael Doty: Yes, they typically come in knowing exactly what they want to do. They know how long the path will take, and if it will require a master's or doctorate degree. For the most part, these students stay on that path, but there will be a small percentage that does fall off. Maybe they are unsure about their choice of program, or life circumstances may force them to make a change. At the beginning of their road, they think they will have a clear, straight path, but then suddenly something can happen that will cause their path to change drastically.

To start students on the right path early on in their undergraduate studies, RHET 1101 is a required introductory course for all freshmen.

Jill Randolph: How involved is the career office in the RHET 1101 courses?

Michael Doty: Normally, we present to every one of the RHET classes in order to give an introduction and overview of all the services the career center offers. Many of those instructors will have one of our staff members provide a résumé or interviewing workshop. Those who see the value of the career center will incorporate a presentation from our office in their curriculum. Also, two of my staff members teach a slightly different version of the RHET 1101 class, which is targeted towards career development. We also offer career development classes in addition to the RHET classes.

Jill Randolph: Can students choose which RHET 1101 class they will take when they are signing up for classes?

Michael Doty: Yes. Each of the classes holds 19 to 21 students per semester, and those are offered every fall and spring semester, while the specialized career-focused RHET 1101 classes are offered in the fall.

Jill Randolph: Most students seek post-secondary education in order to find a good job after they earn their degree. Why do you think universities don't require students to visit the career office or take at least one career-specific class?

Michael Doty: It would be great if universities did require that of all students. Since they don't, however, it is our job at the career center to get the word out as best as we can to try to enforce our value to the students. We have a lot of students here who already have a job, and they don't necessarily need or want our services. About a third of our student population fits that mold. They wouldn't want a career class to be a forced requirement, and I understand that. Those students may be here to get more education in order to get a better job within the company they already work for, or they may simply see the need for whichever degree they are pursuing in order to get a better job in the future. So we take it upon ourselves to get the word out as best we can, via in-demand technology. We are on Facebook and Twitter in order to facilitate advertising our services.

Again, I wish visiting the career office was a requirement, and we offer seven different classes. We also have the full support of the administration, all the way up to our president. He understands the value of our career center and he will tell others about our services, which I am very pleased with. He has put us at the forefront several times. I have been to events where he has mentioned the career center and it is always in a positive light. It is great to have that support; otherwise we wouldn't be able to offer what we do in our office. We are strengthening relationships with the faculty and administration of each individual school so that they are fully aware of our services and can point students towards the career center as well. We are also involved with academic advisors so that they know what we are doing and what we have to offer.

Another thing we want students to realize is that we are not only here for them while they are in school; they still have access to our services after they graduate. We have built a relationship with our alumni office and they put the word out to alumni through newsletters including information about the post-graduate services we offer. In almost every newsletter, there is a piece regarding something we are offering at the career center. This way, we will be in the forefront of alumni's minds and they will contact us if they need to.

Jill Randolph: Do you offer any of your services to members of the community?

Michael Doty: Because of the structure of the funding for our office, we do not offer services to the community. However, we offer some special things when we are asked, such as exhibiting at high school college recruitment fairs. The campus has an office of community engagement, which is connects community to the university.

Jill Randolph: What advice do you offer to high school students in order for them to get into the college of their choice, and how early in their high school career should they start working on that plan?

Michael Doty: I think it is important for high school students to realize and understand how academics play a major factor in where they will go to college. For example, UT Dallas is a part of a nine-school UT system, but each one of those schools has its own entry requirements. It is harder to get into UT Dallas than it is to get into any of the other schools in the UT system, as we have a higher SAT requirement. This shows how the university is continuing to try to grow and become a top-tier school in research areas.

In addition, high school students should work on being academically-focused, including developing good study habits and self-discipline so they will be more prepared once they are in college. In the global economy we have today, I also think it's very important for students to learn a foreign language, and they need to start learning one by high school, preferably. Learning a new language is not something that comes as easily, the older people get.

Guidance counselors are a very good resource for many high school students as well, and some schools may require their students to meet with a guidance counselor a certain number of times per year. It is a good practice, so that students can establish that relationship and know assistance is available if they ever need help. It also gives them piece of mind knowing that there is someone there to help, so they don't have to work through different processes on their own. As students establish a rapport with their counselors and teachers, they will realize that the school's team is there to help them on their paths. That mentality carries over into college as well, where building relationships with career counselors can help students when trying to move onto grad school or find employment opportunities after graduation. The earlier the importance of seeking out career counselors' help gets engrained in students' minds, the better off they will be.

More and more students today are also concerned with finding a balance between their academic lives and participating in extracurricular activities like volunteering or clubs. I especially see this among incoming classes, much more so than 5 to 10 years ago. At this university, we added an Office of Student Volunteerism this past year, which has grown immensely in size and popularity. Students need to be able to do things like volunteering in order to network and gain valuable work experience.

Jill Randolph: Do you think volunteer-type offices are developed as a supplement to internships and experiential learning?

Michael Doty: It's a combination of it all. At the career center, we don't tend to work with volunteer-type positions because most students come to us preferring a paid job or a paid or credit-awarding internship. They do, however, need an alternate route if these positions are unavailable, and the volunteer office is an excellent option. I am seeing more students today latch onto volunteering and wanting to give back to the community. I'm not a sociologist or psychologist, so I can't figure out exactly what has caused volunteerism to increase in popularity, but I think part of it comes from the increasing use of technology. Students today don't have as much human contact, so volunteering helps with that. I am thrilled volunteerism is increasing if that is the reason, because one of the things we deal with at the career center is the fact that many students today are not prepared for job interviews because they haven't had enough human interaction in their lives.

Students today sometimes don't know how to act properly in social situations, which is one of the challenges we deal with. We put on a number of events throughout the year in order to help in this regard, including career expos that give students the opportunity to interact with others. Most of the time, the interactions will be in a very non-threatening and casual fashion. For example, a freshman knows an employer at a career fair is not likely to hire him or her, so he or she can feel comfortable having a discussion with the employer in order to gain information. There is less pressure in these situations when students know they have a low chance of getting hired, and it is good informational interviewing and networking practice.

Jill Randolph: Do you think that internships or externships are important for students to complete?

Michael Doty: Yes, one of the main reasons for students to complete an internship or externship is to gain exposure with prospective employers. This way, the employer will have a first-hand impression of how a particular student works. We had a student this past spring complete an externship that didn't really match his major, and it was not really what he was interested in. He had a very good experience with the company, however, and he is now considering working for that company in a different position. Therefore, having flexibility and transferrable skills are important too.

One of the things we struggle with here in Dallas is the fact that we are a major metropolitan area, so some students don't want to leave here after graduation. It is possible, however, that there may not be any jobs in town related to careers some students are looking for, and this is why it is also important for students to be willing to look at other possibilities and to be open to relocation. Networking with past internship contacts, employers, or peers also helps students and alumni find out about additional opportunities.

Jill Randolph: Do you use anything like the Strong Interest Inventory or the Myers-Briggs assessments to help students determine which careers are the best fits for them?

Michael Doty: Yes, our counselors use both Myers-Briggs and the Strong Interest Inventory, along with the Self-directed Search, and I have one counselor who uses Card Sort to help students determine their skills and what they want to accomplish with them. We also have a couple of online systems that accessible to students 24/7. Some counselors work really well with the Myers-Briggs in big group presentations, especially with our School of Management. It is relatively quick to take easy to score, and it is simple to talk about in a large setting. We even use Myers-Briggs for staff development and teamwork purposes on campus. It allows colleagues to learn about each other's interaction preferences so they are able to work better together.

Jill Randolph: What are the three most important things students can do to prepare to find a job once they graduate?

Michael Doty: Number one is developing a professional package and everything that comes with it. This includes a résumé, interview skills and a professional presentation style. More on the side of task-oriented aspects is completing an internship or having another form of related experience, which is especially important for people who are uncertain about their future career path. It helps give them a way to test if a particular field is really what they want to be doing for their career.

Networking is very important, and they need to have an understanding of how it works. Students hear about the importance of networking often, but sometimes I feel like they really don't have a true understanding of what it means. For example, you and I are networking right now. A casual conversation is networking, and people don't always realize how something seemingly inconsequential can turn into a wonderful opportunity for them.

The third thing students need to do in order to prepare to find the best possible job after college is to know where the career center is located on campus and to be familiar with the programs they offer. This way, students can take advantage of them. For example, we can help students understand that when speaking with prospective employers, the students need to be able to communicate on the level the employers expect. Whether it's through texting or emailing, the communication has to be professional. The ability to cooperate and work in a team is very highly valued in the work world as well. We can help show students the ropes before they make detrimental mistakes.

Jill Randolph: What are some suggestions you recommend to students to help them stand out from other applicants, whether that is in a stack of résumé s or at career fair?

Michael Doty: I think that comes back to something I had mentioned earlier - the professionalism aspect of the job search process. Having a polished résumé that speaks about an individual's skills and accomplishments will really help students stand out in a crowd. Many times, a résumé will be the first thing employers see about a prospective employee. It has to give employers enough information that they will want to call the applicant, but not so much information that the résumé looks too time-consuming to read. A résumé is designed to get people in the door, and a professional interview is the next important step. Applicants need to dress appropriately, meaning neatly, cleanly, and their outfit should be ironed. We no longer stick to the rule of applicants having to wear suits to interviews; it depends on the organization and what its needs are. Even in more casual organizations though, applicants should still be professional in their interview attire, because they don't have the job yet. They may be able to dress casually once they have the job, but it is not recommended when the applicant is not in the door yet.

One of the biggest things students fail to do is to research an organization before going on an interview. They don't look at the company closely enough in order to understand what it does or how it operates, which may create the impression that the student is unenthused about the opportunity because of his or her lack of preparedness. Students should go into interviews armed with a couple of very good questions to ask. In order to learn that level of professionalism, understand which aspects of a company to research and which questions to ask during interviews, I think students would be very wise to learn these pertinent things during one or more internships. We offer an internship program, and we offer an externship program as well, where students have the opportunity to shadow people from their desired field for a day, a couple of days or a couple weeks, depending on what the employer allows. That is another way to gain valuable job search skills, in addition to visiting their career office.

I also think students really need to try to maintain their academics as much as possible, especially if they are going to try to get into graduate school or will ever want to work for an employer that requires a certain GPA. If students don't maintain their academics, it may take several jobs to get to their desired position.

Jill Randolph: Are the employers you speak with using their current employees or current networks to find new employees for job postings, or are they still using traditional sources like newspaper ads most often?

Michael Doty: It depends on the employers' needs. If they are doing a large hiring, they may list an online job posting so that they get a plentiful applicant pool to pull from. If they are looking to only fill one position, they will probably try to fill it through networking. It depends on the size and the needs of the organization.

Jill Randolph: What advice do you offer to students regarding how to have a work-life balance once they start working full-time?

Michael Doty: I think quality of life is always an important component to any job. There are some careers leaning more towards the "work" than balance side, and it may not create the situation that everyone wants. Quality of life alone is somewhat difficult to pin down for some individuals. I think it is important for students to know what they are getting into ahead of time. If someone who values family and personal life chooses to be a lawyer, they may not by very happy with their career, especially early on. I think it is extremely important to have a balance between the two, and I think the mentality of the entire United States population is becoming more focused around work, work, work. This recession, I feel, has helped people realize that there needs to be a balance, and life isn't just about work, work, work, because people don't know how long work might be there; they have to take care of their personal lives too.

Jill Randolph: Do you have any career-related books or websites you recommend to your students?

Michael Doty: On our website, we have a list of other career-related sites under the resources link. There are a lot of websites posted that we find very useful for our students. I'm a firm believer in putting as much content out there as possible in order to help students, no matter where they are at that point in time.

We also have a hard copy library in our office. One of the books our counselors have been recommending a lot lately is called "Ditch the Flip-flops", by Sylvia Landy. It's a fun book that talks about professionalism in the workplace. "Getting Your Foot in the Door" by Rob Sullivan, and "What Now?" by Ann Patchett are good resources for students as well, and all of these are relatively new publications. Another book that is still very popular, especially among our School of Management students, is called "Uncovering the Hidden Job Market" by Martin Lieberman. Our Career Services library contains a variety of publications, plus our regular library contains additional job search resources.

Jill Randolph: How has your university has changed from the past? I know you had talked about how your school has developed recently and from master's programs only and has expanded into other areas.

Michael Doty: UT Dallas is "backwards" in that it grew from a graduate program to an undergraduate school, as opposed to the other way around. The most notable thing is the mix of our student population, as we went from being a highly technical engineering and computer science school to becoming more of a full liberal arts school. However, UT Dallas maintains a consistent one-to-one gender ratio, when many public universities have seen male enrollment drop. Many technology-centered institutions, though, have a two-to-one or even three-to-one gender ratio with women in the minority. According to data from the U.S. Department of Education, UT Dallas grants more computer science degrees to women than any other private or public university in the nation.

UT Dallas was founded originally as a scientific research institute, and now we are a liberal arts university with seven different schools. Our goal is to be a tier-one school, which means we will be one of the top schools in the nation for research, and that is what our president is striving to accomplish. The intention of the school is to fit in completely with other prestigious and well-respected research schools across the nation. In some ways, we believe we are already there and we just need to let the rest of the nation know. However, we are not there yet in terms of how most people view us. The whole university is working to educate the public about the wonderful offerings we have, including the work of the Career Center. When people think of a research institute, we want the University of Texas at Dallas to be one of the first to come to mind.


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