Purdue University Career Director Interview: Mentors Ease Transitions

By Jill Randolph

The following is an interview transcript with Timothy Luzader, Director of Purdue University's Center for Career Opportunities. After gaining experience in sales and sales management in the private sector, Mr. Luzader began his tenure in university career services in 1981 at his alma mater, West Virginia University. His career services work includes positions at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and at Indiana University in Bloomington. Immediately prior to his appointment in 2000 as director of the Purdue University Center for Career Opportunities, Mr. Luzader served as the career center director at Stony Brook University on Long Island. He has authored chapters in four textbooks treating career planning and job search-related topics. In 2005, Mr. Luzader received a Fulbright grant and traveled in Germany and Poland.

Purdue University's main campus is located in West Lafayette, Indiana and was founded in 1869. Purdue offers more than 200 minor and major areas of study and is especially noted for its programs in agriculture, engineering, business administration and professional writing. These programs are considered to be among the best not only in the country, but also around the world. One of Purdue's famous graduates is Neil Armstrong, the first person to walk on the moon.

Interview Transcript

Jill Randolph: What are the three most important things students can do to prepare to find a job after graduation?

Timothy Luzader: I believe every college or university in this country has some form of a career center. The first overarching strategy is for students to find out where the career center is on campus. It will provide services and resources to help them not only in their career decision-making, but also in developing their job search tools and connections to employers.

A career center is the place where students can receive assistance in developing their first résumé, along with being able to view materials in order to gain an idea of how to successfully present information. Students can also learn how to interview effectively, using online programs or by role-playing with career counselors. Often, career centers will also conduct workshops on how to perform well at job fairs, how to effectively work a room and how to deploy different kinds of job search strategies, which can be very helpful as well.

The second most important thing for students to do to prepare themselves to find a job after graduation is to utilize their network and mentors, and informational interviewing is part of that. Sometimes I will talk to students who are frustrated and think they don't have many connections, but their family, extended family, neighbors and former teachers can be potentially helpful to them. If students spend ten minutes thinking about how they connect to people in a variety of ways, they find they can identify with people who are in a position who can share expertise with them or maybe help connect them to someone professionally. Utilizing one's network is very important.

Finally, it's important for students to continually assess themselves. They need to learn as much as they can about themselves and what is important to them. This goes beyond what they are interested in, because that will change over time. They need to identify and know their personal values and work values. The more time students invest in learning about themselves, the better they will understand what is a good fit for them career-wise. As they grow older and develop professionally, students will understand that no one is in the position to know more about them than themselves.

Jill Randolph: So although it's important for people to be loyal to their employers and to be team players, they also have to look out for themselves?

Timothy Luzader: That's true, but part of that is recognizing that there are people who, as their mentors, will put forth a lot of effort and look after their interests. Sometimes the mentor can see down the road a bit, and what they see as being good for the student may be disagreed with at the time.

"A lot of students are discouraged to pursue majors in the liberal arts because there might not be a specific career track associated with it, but this is mostly because people misunderstand the value of those transferable skills and how they are valued in a variety of work settings."

Students should remember that their mentors might have a lot of years of experience in the field. I think part of students' self-assessment is to know when to listen and how to surface the value and relevance of the information they are receiving. They should consider the knowledge and background of the people trying to help them. Listening to trusted advisors and to one's own heart and learning when to pull the trigger and when to make a change is important.

Jill Randolph: Do you think students may not have enough life experience to be able to really hear or understand what their mentor is saying to them?

Timothy Luzader: It depends on the student, but if a student hears something he or she seems to quickly want to disregard, he or she may benefit from asking the mentor how they think similar advice would have been handled when the mentor was a student. I think students engaging their mentor at this level will allow the mentor to help the student better understand what they are really saying.

Jill Randolph: What do you recommend to students who may be shy about asking for a mentor's help, when they feel they have nothing to offer in return?

Timothy Luzader: I advise shy students to start with people with whom they are already comfortable such as family or family friends, then branch out from there. They should also understand that mentors find it so gratifying to see that young people want to know what older professionals think based on what we've learned from our life experiences. That may sound trite, but in nearly all cases I really believe it's true. The fact that students care enough to solicit our mentorship and advice is gratifying, and that is what we get out of it. I don't know that there is anything else expected by genuine mentors. It is important to us to impart our wisdom and benefit others from our life experiences.

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

Timothy Luzader: One of the things I witness as a career counselor is the number of students who select a major based primarily on what they project its value to be in the job market once they graduate. I think it's fair to have job market projections play a role in that decision, but I really caution students to not base a decision primarily on this factor. There are a number of reasons for this advice, one of which is that it's really hard to predict what the job market is going to be like in four or five years.

In the same vein, I think it's really dangerous to relate a major to its value in the job market. In the case of liberal arts majors, most students develop strong soft skills, such as verbal and communications, problem solving abilities and analytical skills, and this really serves them well in a variety of career choices. A lot of students are discouraged to pursue majors in the liberal arts because there might not be a specific career track associated with it, but this is mostly because people misunderstand the value of those transferable skills and how they are valued in a variety of work settings.

"Everyone seems to know that it's a good idea to write a substantive thank you note, but very few people take the time to do it. I'm convinced that those who write a thank you note help make their case as a candidate."

Jill Randolph: Do you have any tools in place to help guide students to appropriate careers, such as the Strong Interest Inventory or Myers Briggs?

Timothy Luzader: Yes, and that's a great question, because there are a variety of tools that can be very helpful for guiding students.

The Strong Interest Inventory is particularly good. Not only does it allow students to gain a sense of how everything from their leisure activities to school subjects relate to potential careers, but it also gives them an opportunity to see how their interests and their perceived skills and values fall into different occupational categories.

I think the best feature of the Strong Interest Inventory is the scale that compares students' test scores to people who are in specific fields and have taken the same assessment. It gives students the opportunity to gauge how similar their interests are to people who are currently working in the fields they are considering after graduation. A test like the Strong Interest Inventory isn't going to tell them what to do, and it's not designed for that. However, it can give students a lot of insightful information, both about themselves and their potential occupations, and it really helps make their career decision-making process much more informed.

We also use the Myers Briggs Type Indicator and other instruments that help students better understand themselves, including their interests, values and personality, and how this information relates to potential careers students may choose.

Jill Randolph: Students are not always fully aware of how much time that work will take up in their lives, so it's important they are happy doing it. So you are recommending that their choice of work needs to be good fit for them and their personality, rather than choosing hot careers that might not be hot in five years?

Timothy Luzader: Yes, I couldn't agree more. In talking to students over the years, I have always found it interesting how many different factors motivate students to pursue a particular major or career. There are a variety of reasons, and if they really invest some time to explore other aspects of that career, it makes for better decision-making. If students invest time to utilize tools such as the Myers-Briggs or Strong Interest Inventory and review the plethora of career-related resources available to them, including informational interviews and materials provided by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS.gov), I really think it will make a huge difference in the students' decisions.

Jill Randolph: What are some suggestions you recommend to students to help them stand out from other job applicants?

Timothy Luzader: There are a few common mistakes students make on their résumés. For instance, when they are describing their work experiences, they make it sound like a job description. A great way for students to stand out through their résumé is by thinking about what's important to the employer who is reading it. Instead of giving a simple job description, they can chose to present their résumé in a way that represents the skills they've developed and how they contribute to the organization. It is important for students to present their description in a way that helps employers draw a link between what they have to offer and what their company is seeking. In an interview situation, it is helpful if students discuss personal examples to give authenticity to their interview answers.

Another thing that never ceases to amaze me is the percentage of people who interview and never follow-up, even with a simple thank you. Everyone seems to know that it's a good idea to write a substantive thank you note, but very few people take the time to do it. I'm convinced that those who write a thank you note help make their case as a candidate.

"A follow-up campaign can make a huge difference in a job search."

Going beyond that, let's say a student is interested in an organization that does not come on campus to interview. If he or she sends a résumé via snail-mail with a cover letter, one way the student can stand out is to initiate, instead of invite action at the end of that letter. Instead of stating, "here's my number and I look forward to receiving your call," the student can instead write, "I welcome an opportunity for an interview and I will call you on this date to set an appointment." Then if the student makes the call, even if he or she doesn't talk directly to the employer, the student will have a good excuse to follow-up, whether it's an email, message or letter.

A follow-up campaign can make a huge difference in a job search. If students are really selling themselves and their experiences well on the résumé, interviewing effectively by giving a lot of good personal examples, and if they have a good follow-up strategy in their job search campaign, they are going to stand out.

Jill Randolph: What advice do you give to people who aren't having any success in their job search?

Timothy Luzader: I encourage them to be proactive. I think it's important to make a phone call or to try to make a connection through any other medium. I think students are catching on that LinkedIn is a very good tool. Many graduates and seasoned professionals already know it is. If students are interested in a company and they are not getting any response to their application, doing a search on LinkedIn to see who may be in their network and is affiliated with that company can really make a big difference. Students can research the company's employees to see who is an alumnus of their university or college and reach out to those employees to ask to add them to their network.

There are other databases and online services students can explore to get a sense of the culture and atmosphere of a company. I encourage them to check out their campus career center and see what services they subscribe to. If they can connect with someone who will give them some insight about how to break into their business, that should be very helpful to them as well.

Jill Randolph: Do you think employers view it as acceptable if students apply directly to the person who is hiring, through a networking site like LinkedIn?

"...it's also very important not to skip over HR, because of anti-discrimination laws and the company's perception that the applicant may not be a team player if trying to take a shortcut."

Timothy Luzader: My advice to them is to start with the HR Department and do whatever it is that organization asks applicants to do. The idea of going to LinkedIn to connect to people in the company is a way to strategize or supplement the job search process, but first and foremost, people need to submit their résumés and other requested materials online. If there are any screening tests they need to take, they need to complete those first. People who have already applied and have everything on file are positioned to receive more helpful feedback versus applicants attempting to circumvent the HR process.

I think it's also very important not to skip over HR, because of anti-discrimination laws and the company's perception that the applicant may not be a team player if trying to take a shortcut. Because of federal compliance issues and guidelines, job seekers need to apply online (if employers offer an on-line system) and make sure everything requested is in place. If people don't apply online in these circumstances, oftentimes they are not included for future candidate searches.

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

Timothy Luzader: That's an interesting question. I sometimes will encounter students who can't wait to go to work because they think it's going to be easier than college and they will have a 40-hour week. In reality, that's usually not going to happen, especially early in one's career with a company.

What I really encourage students to think about is not so much regarding work-life balance, but the life quality at work, or work-life quality. Students need to choose a work environment that is stimulating and fulfilling to them and understand that work hours won't likely follow a traditional 40 hours per week format. There are many organizations that work very hard to address work-life balance, from providing meals to offering gyms, spas and dry-cleaning services at work. If people really love their jobs and they find their work environment very stimulating, simply defining work-life balance in terms of hours spent at work is looking at things too narrowly.

On the other hand, it is important for students to research and understand the field they want to go into and the type of jobs they want to pursue. They need to be clear as to what potential employers require in terms of the level of commitment and hours per week. Students should be prepared to be flexible and, as previously mentioned, they need to look after their own career development and utilize their networks in order to stay informed.

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

Timothy Luzader: Students should visit their career center's website and gain a sense of both its breadth and depth. Nearly all career center websites will be able to connect students to great sites including JobWeb, O*NET and others. Typically, school websites will also have links geared towards their own students and recent graduates. These are often broken down by specific fields and can offer answers to broad career or job-search-related questions.

In terms of books, I recommend one that has been around for a long time and is updated on an annual basis: "What Color Is Your Parachute?" by Richard Bolles. It is good for students as well as mid-life career changers who are trying to clarify their career goals, along with those hoping to be strategic or creative in their job search. I think it's as relevant to the job search today as it was when I read it in the seventies. Mr. Boles completely rewrites the book every six or seven years. He has tracked the job market as well or better than others have.

Jill Randolph: How do you think your school or colleges and universities in general have changed from the past?

"One of the most important resources students can use to make their transition into the work world go more smoothly is their career services office."

Timothy Luzader: I think colleges and universities have generally done a very good job keeping up with changes and evolving with the times. At Purdue, we're known for having very strong engineering, agriculture, technology, management and science programs and being at the forefront in making changes as we transform into a global society. Those changes are being reflected in our curriculum, and in some cases in the development of new programs and new institutes. Like Purdue, many colleges and universities have also done a good job of maintaining a strong online distance-learning presence.

When I think of changes, I think about how students operate technologically on a day-to-day basis. In the last five to seven years, the impact of social networking on their lives has been profound. I've been impressed with today's students and how well they multitask and am amazed at the frequency in which so many interact on Facebook and other social networks. I heard a statistic last week that there are nearly as many people on Facebook worldwide as there is currently living within the USA. There are career services implications to this social networking behavior and most career centers are positioning themselves to provide services and resources to students through Twitter, blogging and Facebook. The Career Wiki at Purdue, which is a web 2.0 application, and is an effective way for us to manage information. This impact of web 2.0 offers our students help with their decision-making.

In summary, the most important points are that students have so many services and resources literally at their fingertips, especially while they are on campus, and they would be wise to take advantage of those tools and opportunities. One of the most important resources students can use to make their transition into the work world go more smoothly is their career services office, which is also open to alumni at most universities. Career centers can help students develop their job search skills, connect them with potential employers, and also find mentors who can be life-long career advisors and can facilitate change in the students' careers.

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