By Jill Randolph
November 16, 2009
The following is an interview transcript with Becky Ross, Director of the Twardowski Career Development Center at West Chester University of Pennsylvania. Ms. Ross has been a career counselor and administrator within higher education for 15 years. She earned her master's degree from the University of Minnesota's Counseling and Student Personnel Psychology program and is also a graduate of The Pennsylvania State University with a B.S. in Psychology. Ms. Ross has built her career around helping college students identify, explore and pursue their career goals. She is experienced in working with a diverse array of undergraduates, graduate students, and alumni and has a significant role in managing employer relations and recruiting activities at several universities. Ms. Ross is an active member in the Eastern Association of Colleges and Employers, National Career Development Association, Pennsylvania Association of Colleges and Employers, and the National Association of Colleges and Employers. Her experience in career services includes positions at Princeton University, University of Pennsylvania, University of Florida, Drexel University, and University of Minnesota.
West Chester University of Pennsylvania is the second-largest school in Pennsylvania's State System of Higher Education and the fourth-largest university in the Philadelphia area. Its 400-acre campus is situated in the Brandywine Valley. With roots dating back to 1871, West Chester has evolved into a comprehensive university, with programs in teacher education, business, health, natural and social sciences, music and the arts. Ranked at number 53 in Kiplinger's 100 best values in public colleges for its academic quality and affordability (one of three schools with that distinction in Pennsylvania), the University serves the educational needs of a diverse student body. West Chester University offers more than 80 undergraduate and 70 master's degree and graduate certificate programs.
Jill Randolph: What are the three most important things students can do to prepare to find a job after graduation?
Becky Ross: I recommend students invest time looking inward and assessing themselves, exploring options, and trying to clarify what they really want to do. This can be very challenging, but there are a lot of tools, strategies and resources available to help students with this. It is ultimately much easier for people to find a job if they know what they are looking for, so I recommend students identify clear, concrete goals, and stay open to possibilities. They might be surprised at what they learn, the more people they talk to.
The second is to start early and spend a little time preparing every week throughout their college career. During their first year of college, students are told that they should acclimate to school and to their roommate, however they shouldn't wait until their junior or senior year to start thinking about a career. It is a really big decision, but it is not set in stone; that decision is fluid. Making it an ongoing process, not a one-time activity, makes it much less overwhelming. Students should use their career centers, and I think a lot of students don't even know we exist, or some may think we are only for seniors who are looking for jobs. Career Centers are in place to help students break the process down year-by-year, where there are steps they can be completing gradually to make forward progress and avoid being overwhelmed in the months leading up to graduation.
The third most important thing is networking. Students should always be talking to different people about potential job opportunities, and if there are mentoring programs on campus, they should get involved with them as well. For example, our multicultural affairs office has an amazing mentoring program, with faculty and staff members involved. Students involved in the program have better grades, better decision-making skills and better leadership experience. It really makes a difference to have a regular network of people to tap into so students can be certain they are building their skills and clarifying their goals. It is a very specific form of networking, but I think students should really be focused on talking to people and learning from their experiences.
Jill Randolph: Why do you think most schools do not mandate students take classes to help clarify the job search and networking processes? There is such a wealth of information students can gain from career services offices, so searching for a job doesn't have to be a mysterious process. Universities want to encourage students to continue going to school, but eventually students are going to graduate and need a job.
Becky Ross: There are a variety of different philosophies in addressing this issue; some philosophies support a more-structured delivery of career related information, while others are more academically focused with the hope that a quality education will cause other things to fall into place in someone's life. A lot of it has to do with resource constraints. I have a staff of five people, and we have over 11,500 undergraduate students, so my office will clearly not be able to provide one-on-one services to everyone. Therefore, we really have to forge collaborations by going into classrooms, partnering with other student-affairs colleagues, and providing help in a group setting. I think one of the biggest issues is resource constraints. It is challenging to put something in place that will touch every student who comes through an institution. Even if there is a lot of importance placed on career services, logistically, delivery can be a challenge.
At West Chester, 85 percent of incoming students say the primary reason they are going to college is to get an education that will help them secure a good career, and I find it very interesting that there are a lot of students here who don't use our office. I do, however, think some of the students who don't use our office are receiving quality support through their departments. Nursing is a great example. Those students have a very structured program, they have to go through clinical rotations, and they have a very practical connection between what they are studying and their direct career path, so they are already taken care of in a lot of ways. For an English or philosophy major, however, it is a different story. Those are very different fields of study than nursing, and with a liberal arts degree, a student can go onto a number of fields after graduation. Those are clearly the students who I think would want to use our resources more. They may have a clear idea of what they want to do, but typically not as much as nursing students, who have their paths mainly laid out for them. However, even if a student is studying nursing or accounting, there are different settings in which someone can be a nurse or an accountant. Even though a student has already chosen a major, it is pretty likely they still have a lot of options in the path they wish to take, and that is where an office like ours can be helpful. I think people come to us when they feel like they have a need, and when they are feeling overwhelmed because it is too big of a decision for them to make on their own. It is very common for students to avoid trying to make their career decision because it is too much for some people to deal with.
It is really complicated, but requiring students to take career classes is complicated as well, not just because of resources, but because there are no guarantees. I can't guarantee every student is going to find a job after graduation because there are too many variable factors. If we can help students build the skills they need, then they can be adaptable in their career choices, including if they happen to lose their job in the future.
When making a career decision, people have to figure out what their interests are, what they like and dislike, what their skills are, what they want to improve upon, and also what their values are. Some people value working for a top-tier firm, being on the fast track, advancing inside the company, and earning lots of money and power. Another student may want to work in a small firm with more of work-life balance and better opportunities to have a family, because that is what they value, but neither option is right or wrong. Because of this, I think it is very important for students to really think about their own value system. Then they also need to understand their skill set so they can be versatile and adaptable. There may be someone who always wanted to work for a top-tier firm, but if those companies are cutting and laying people off, they have to be able to adapt. If their number one choice isn't a possibility, they have to have other options available to them.
I have worked for Ivy League institutions, large public state institutions, and for smaller universities. The whole dynamic between liberal arts versus a more career-oriented major is one that I have seen at play at all of the different institutions. I am not going to say either school of thought is right or wrong, but that is what I meant earlier when I said there are different philosophies at play. West Chester is oriented toward valuing the quality of education and the skill sets students are able to build throughout their college career, and there is definitely a lot of focus on how a student's major prepares them for a particular career path. Students may not always know this going into college, but that is part of finding the right fit. If someone is very career-oriented, and they don't see a lot of messages about career preparation at the colleges they are visiting, they should ask a lot of questions about it when researching schools.
Jill Randolph: Even if students don't have enough experience to be able to ask those kinds of questions before college starts, they are going to develop over the course of their college career so they will learn which questions they should be asking.
Becky Ross: Yes. People mature at different stages and at different times in their lives, it doesn't just depend on their age. I think some people are ready and they know which questions to ask, and some students don't figure that out until they are about to graduate.
Jill Randolph: What are the most important things high school students should do in order to be accepted into the best possible college or program, and how soon should they start on their paths?
Becky Ross: I'm glad you added "their paths", because the 'best' colleges are not always going to be the same for everyone. There are so many rankings and methods for classifying colleges, so it is really important for students to find a good fit for what they want to study, and also for each individual's personality.
Students should start focusing on that plan early in their junior year of high school, and should start asking questions to find their best fit. Hopefully, students are trying to figure out what they might like to study and their future career path by their sophomore year. This way, by the time they are into their junior and early senior year, they have started to figure out some of the crucial aspects of a college search: if they want to be in a rural or urban environment, if they want to go away to school or stay close to their family, or if they want to go to a small or large school. This can sometimes be very difficult for students to think about during their first and sophomore years of high school, but if they think they want to go to college in the future, they should be taking advantage of every resource available to them at their school. This includes guidance counselors, advisors and teachers.
They are not expected to have it all figured out by that time, which is why they should be talking to people about what kinds of options are out there for them and what they should be doing to pursue those options. If a student has friends or family members who have done something that seems of interest to them, we recommend that they have a conversation with those people about their profession. That may give them information that allows them to decide which school or experience is going to be the best for them. I recommend that high school students should start visiting schools towards the end of their junior year and into the beginning of senior year. They should visit a variety of different colleges or universities so they really have a feel for what the campuses are like. When I was a junior, I applied early admission to one school and got accepted, and I never looked at any other colleges. In my particular case, I wish that I had done more exploring because I think I would have made a different choice.
Students also need to be involved in their community during high school. It should not just be involvement for the sake of involvement, but instead a way for students to explore what they want to do. For some it is athletics, for others it is service clubs and programs. Colleges want to see that applicants have been engaged in a variety of activities, but they also want to see some depth. It is probably better to do one or two activities and take on roles of responsibility, than to be spread thin, joining ten or twelve different clubs or organizations. I think students put a lot of pressure on themselves to do a lot, when one or two quality, in-depth experiences can be just as, if not more valuable.
Jill Randolph: What are the biggest trends you are seeing among incoming students?
Becky Ross: I think a lot of students are looking at the current 'hot jobs' or 'hot majors.' I have always advised students to be cautious about this, because what is hot now may not be viable three or four years from now. Health science programs like nursing and a lot of healthcare positions are still pretty solid, but I don't think there is as much of a nursing shortage as there used to be. West Chester has a wonderful nursing program, but because of the requirements of the program, where students are required to obtain field experience, it might be limited in enrollment to ensure the quality of the academic experience and the fieldwork that students have to complete. Therefore, if students want to go into a 'hot major,' they should be prepared to apply to more schools, because enrollment in those areas may be even more competitive than before. In a way, this is a trend, because when there is a popular sector, more people are applying, and students may have to adjust their application strategies.
The economic environment is the biggest trend and challenge, because more and more students are looking to attend affordable colleges and universities where they can still obtain a quality education. West Chester was ranked 53 on Kiplinger's best values in public education, up from No. 93 last year, and there are only two other universities in the state of Pennsylvania that made the list, Penn State and Pitt. For us, that is really valuable, because students are clearly looking for an affordable college education to help advance their academic career without compromising the quality of their education.
In college today, students are very over-scheduled, and there is a lot competing for their attention. On the positive side, however, I think another trend among current students is that they are very involved and very service-oriented. More and more students are coming in with a lot of volunteer or internship experience, and these experiences will be very valuable to them in their careers. They are actively involved in student organizations and anything where they can make an impact on the community, so I think that the overall profile of students is a lot different than it was 5 or 10 years ago.
Jill Randolph: What are some suggestions you make to students to help them stand out from other job applicants, whether in a stack of resumes, with online resumes, or at job fairs?
Becky Ross: That is the million-dollar question. Students always want to know how to push themselves ahead of the pack. I know with interviews, one of the most common pieces of feedback we hear from employers is that students didn't know enough about their company, or that they really didn't seem to understand the job they were applying for. Therefore, the number one way for students to shine going into interviews or career fairs is to research the company. Students will usually have access to a list of which companies will be attending local career fairs, and they should at a minimum be looking into those organization's websites to find something about them that sparks an interest. An employer doesn't want to hear students telling them they want to work for their company simply because they saw online that the company is one of the top three financial firms. Employers want to hear students say something genuine about their company, where students can speak about something that sparked their interest in the position and how their skills will be an asset to the company. Even if students are researching the employer the night before, they will at least know something about the company that they can then convey to the recruiter. As far as resumes go, a lot look the same in terms of consistent formatting and presentation, so the key is to focus on accomplishments. Some people feel very uncomfortable with skills-oriented wording because they don't want to blow their accomplishments out of proportion. We don't want them embellishing or making anything up, but in this case students have to be the ones to toot their own horn. They should focus on the critical and transferable skills they have gained, and not simply list their duties without attaching accomplishments to them.
Students also may become nervous when talking with a potential employer, whether on the telephone, at a career fair, or during an interview, but we still want them to be able to convey enthusiasm and confidence. Enthusiasm because employers want to know that the people they hire have a genuine interest and commitment to the job, so students should be asking questions and smiling to express enthusiasm. Confidence is especially important now, as people who have recently lost their jobs may be feeling desperate will take almost anything. In a way, employers can pick up on that feeling, and anxiety or desperation to find a job can influence how confidently one comes across in an interview. It is also very important to practice questions and to go into an interview with positive affirmations. Even right before the interview, people should be telling themselves why they would be great for the job to pump themselves up. That way they can be confident and convey their confidence clearly. They can also practice their 30-second elevator pitch, which will give them a chance to rehearse what they want to say. The main precaution is not trying to memorize the speech word-for-word though, because then they might become hung-up if they forget the exact words.
Jill Randolph: Over the last two weeks I have read at least three articles about how 80 percent of newly hired employees are finding their way into companies through word of mouth via their network. Companies aren't posting jobs because they don't have the money or because they are too inundated to look through the vast amount of applications, so they are asking their current employees if they have any suggestions as to whom may be a good fit for available positions. Are you hearing this as well, or do you think students are finding jobs through traditional methods?
Becky Ross: I think networking has always been the number one way to find a job, because a recommendation from a known entity is always preferred to the unknown. The Internet has made the job hunt really complicated and easy at the same time, as it has become much easier for people to quickly apply to hundreds of jobs. However, there are so many applicants who are unqualified for positions because of this. Applying to as many jobs as one can as quickly as possible is not a good strategy. I heard Tory Johnson, the CEO Women For Hire, recently refer to this as the 'spray-and-pray method,' where people are literally spraying out a hundred resumes and praying that one of them will take.
Because recruiters are inundated with resumes, it is still important to officially apply to a job. If someone wants to work at West Chester University, for example, they have to submit their resume through the HR system. Most companies are like this as well because they also have compliance requirements for tracking applicants, so no matter what, it is not a waste of time to apply directly to a company for a position. To maximize success, however, students have to network. It is not always easy, and people are not always going to find a contact, but time and energy should be invested in trying to find personal connections students can reach out to. At minimum, at least the student has demonstrated their initiative to find that person, let their interest be known, and perhaps it will help that person's resume get read out of the hundreds or thousands submitted.
Jill Randolph: What advice do you offer to students regarding how to maintain a work-life balance once they start working full-time? In the current economy, there are fewer employees to complete the same - if not more work than before, so I think having a work-life balance is becoming more difficult.
Becky Ross: A person's first professional job or internship should be looked at in a number of ways, because it is a learning experience for that person. Early on, they should be taking advantage of the fact that they're new and observe keenly while asking relevant questions whenever possible. I tell students they shouldn't go into a job thinking they are going to change the world, because older employees may resent that. At the same time, however, new employees shouldn't shy away from asking questions and making some suggestions along the way. During a first job or internship, people still have to prove themselves and probably will have to work harder than they ever expected. That doesn't necessarily mean they have to go overboard and work 80 hours a week, which will vary from industry to industry, but it's not necessarily always about hours. It goes along with the adage of working smarter, not longer. New employees don't always have to put in extra hours, but they want to be sure to be aware of situations when they are needed and to be especially helpful during those times because it will go a long way in the eyes of their employer. New employees should also listen carefully and network with colleagues. They should learn what everyone in the organization does so that the new employee will know how to take advantage of opportunities and get work done more effectively by collaborating with colleagues. That doesn't address work-life balance, but I think in any first job, those are goals that have to be accomplished.
It is also important for new employees to ask co-workers to go out to lunch or to take a coffee break rather than eating lunch alone at their desk. It's not always about work; forging better interpersonal relationships with people across an organization is ultimately going to benefit people with career advancement. I also think it helps with the issue of maintaining a work-life balance. If a supervisor knows his or her new employee is a hard worker or knows the employee on a personal level, the supervisor may be more understanding to the employee's personal needs or requests. This doesn't mean people are going to be friends with everyone they work with, including supervisors, but a personal relationship is probably going to cause the supervisor to be more supportive and empathetic towards the employee's needs.
Jill Randolph: Do you have any career-related books or websites you recommend to your students?
Becky Ross: It really varies depending on the industry. Because I work with a lot of undecided students, I personally really like O*NET. It is run by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, like the Occupational Outlook Handbook is, but it describes careers in a bulleted format and focuses on KSAs, which are knowledge, skills and abilities. It breaks job descriptions down in a way that helps students explore careers and write an effective resume. Everything on the site is written in very much the same language of writing job applications and resumes. I think for people who are just beginning to explore options and careers, it is one of the best resources available. I am a big fan of JobWeb, a meta-website provided by NACE, because of the variety of articles they have. It covers a lot of information specific to certain industries, including the Federal Government, which is an area people should be considering because there are a lot of jobs available in that sector. The Partnership for Public Service has a great website that helps connect students with a lot of valuable information about federal government and public service careers. I have always really liked the advertising educational foundation because of the information they provide about careers in advertising. They have always had an exceptional website, and it is consistently being updated.
Jill Randolph: How has your school changed in general from the past?
Becky Ross: I have been at West Chester for just over a year, so it's hard for me to speak to bigger picture trends here, but I think we have already touched on a few of them. We have been increasing in enrollment, and I think West Chester University has tried to respond to regional and industry needs through the creation of new programs in the past several years. Several years ago, the school created an applied statistics program and a pharmaceutical product development program. For the product development track, we have a lot of pharmacy industry experts teaching content to the students in a way that is focused on careers in the pharmaceutical industry, specifically product development and marketing activities. Also, our College of Education recently restructured itself to meet new Pennsylvania certification requirements. I think our college is entrepreneurial in that we closely examine regional and outside needs and adapt to fill those needs.
We are also constantly looking at how we should be using Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and BlackBoard to reach students. We really have to be on the leading edge the latest technology that students are embracing, and it can be pretty challenging to stay up to speed. Everyone comes to school in a much different environment than students did in the past, and how we communicate day-to-day has changed drastically.
Jill Randolph: How do you recommend that the average person keep up with technological networking trends and how do you personally stay on top of the latest technology trends?
Becky Ross: A good way is to forge connections with IT, academic computing and our marketing departments, and to be aware of communication studies. We have to look at our institution's needs to help us prioritize. I think that is why it's great that the university has a mission statement and a strategic objective, because we could follow a million trends, but we have to put everything in the frame of the university's mission. In our office, with only five of us and 13,000 plus total students and alumni, we know there are ways we can expand our reach through technology. We also have to carefully weigh the impact that adopting that technology may have on us. We have to have the wisdom to say "no" to something that may sound like a good idea, but is actually a passing fad.