Rutgers Career Director Interview: Liberal Arts Degrees Also Attractive To Employers

By CityTownInfo Staff

Rutgers University is the eighth oldest college in the United States, founded in 1766, and is New Jersey's flagship public university. There are campuses in New Brunswick, Newark, and Camden, New Jersey, with a total statewide enrollment of a record 54,000.

Rutgers has the honorable distinction of being the birthplace of intercollegiate football. The first-ever intercollegiate game of football was played between Rutgers and Princeton Universities on November 6, 1869, where the Rutgers gymnasium now stands in New Brunswick, New Jersey. Rutgers won the game 6-4. The sports teams of Rutgers University - New Brunswick are nicknamed the Scarlet Knights.

Rutgers' Office of Career Services serves over 35,000 students and alumni with its staff of 28. The office provides a wealth of services and information to students and alumni: over 5,000 career counseling appointments per year, in excess of 3,000 resume critiques, over 300 seminars and panels, 14 career fairs, more than 10,000 job and internship postings, and over 4,000 on-campus interviews with over 200 employers. Additionally, Rutgers has a strong alumni career network with over 1,700 mentors. A wealth of career advice from the Career Services team can be found on the Career Services website, which features over 400 pages of advice relevant to today's job search.

Dr. Richard White has been the director of career services at Rutgers University-New Brunswick since 1990. He oversees three offices, providing comprehensive career counseling and employment services to students as well as alumni. Prior to Rutgers, Dr. White worked for nine years in the corporate world, managing college relations and recruiting programs for International Paper, Nabisco Brands, and Brown Brothers Harriman. He is an expert on employment trends and job search strategies.

Dr. White has an A.B. from Dartmouth College, M.A. from the University of Kent in England, and Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania, all in English. Additionally, he is a past president of the New Jersey Association of Colleges and Employers (NJACE), and a member and former chair of the Eastern Association of Colleges and Employers (EACE) Consulting Committee. He has participated in external reviews at 15 colleges and universities.

Interview Transcript

CityTownInfo: How do you think universities have changed from the past?

Dr. Richard White: Rutgers is a colonial college, and most colleges founded before 1800 were affiliated with a church and dedicated to preparing young men for the ministry. Early curricula were heavily focused on the humanities, including such subjects as ancient languages (especially Greek and Latin), religion, literature, philosophy, and history. The sciences were not considered very important (except for medical students), and the social sciences did not yet exist. Following the Civil War, land grant colleges and universities were established in the Midwest and other parts of the country, and there was a new emphasis on agriculture and industry resulting in more technically-oriented courses and majors. The twentieth century brought a new focus on engineering, business, science, and the social sciences. Today, many colleges and universities retain their liberal arts roots and traditions by requiring their students to take a small number of courses in the three major academic classifications: humanities, sciences, and social sciences. The goal is graduate broadly-educated and broadly-minded individuals with a range of communication, analytical, and language skills.

CityTownInfo: In the past two weeks I've read three separate articles about how at least 80 percent of applicants, regardless of major, are finding job leads through their network. Companies are asking their employees if they can recommend candidates for open positions.

Based on what you've heard from employers, do you think that they prefer using employees' networks, or are students still having success with old-fashioned application methods?

Dr. Richard White: Both employers and job seekers must use a variety of recruiting and job search methods. Focusing on just one facet such as an Internet job search without any in-person networking may not get an applicant very far. Increasingly, we are seeing more alumni coming back, both recent graduates and those with experience, who are using a multifaceted job search, including newspapers, the Internet, knocking on doors, and personal and professional networking. Additionally, many schools, Rutgers included, have an alumni career network.

I recommend that students build a network by making a list of the people they know, including neighbors, relatives, church members, local merchants, high school teachers, coaches, camp counselors, former supervisors, current bosses, professors, administrators and local politicians. At first glance, some of these contacts might not seem like they have anything to do with finding a job, but they may know other people who can lead to a career. The first step is not to ask for a job, but for time. Students can ask for twenty minutes either on the phone or in person if the contact is local, and that twenty minutes may become forty or sixty because people tend to be generous. What may have been a "no" if the student had asked, "Do you have a job for me," will usually be a "yes" if the student asks for a brief conversation. If, however, the answer is still "no," the student needs to keep asking the question, but find the right time to do it. Networking is an incredibly powerful tool, and if students talk to enough people, they will meet others and expand their network and potential job lead pipeline. We also want students to remember to leave each interview with a handful of referrals, so that their networks will keep growing.

Another important aspect of a traditional job search is a career fair. In this Internet age, face-to-face contact is more important than ever. At Rutgers, we provide 14 job fairs every year, including 5 events that are open to the public. Students need to check regularly with their career centers to see what's on their campus, as well as public events on other college campuses.

We are offering three more public events during the 2009-10 academic year. On January 7, we are sponsoring our New Jersey Collegiate Career Day. We expect about 150 employers representing a wide range of industries. On February 19, we are offering the New Jersey Diversity Career Day. Students and graduates of color, disabilities, LGBT, and women will meet employers that are very committed to diversifying their workforces. Finally, on May 26, we host our second New Jersey Collegiate Career Day. Hopefully, the economy will be turning around, and we'll see a bump up in employers at that event.

CityTownInfo: Have you heard any projections for your area regarding an increase in hiring?

Dr. Richard White: Like the rest of the country, the Northeast is still facing layoffs, but the job losses seem to have slowed significantly, and it seems that we may have stemmed the tide of massive cutbacks. The economy is also growing again. One bright note for all college graduates is that the unemployment rate for degree holders is half the overall unemployment rate, regardless of the graduates' experience level. This argues in favor of getting a college degree because it opens doors and secures employment.

Related Article: Ten Ways to Market Your Liberal Arts Degree

By Katharine Hansen, Ph.D.

Liberal Arts degrees sometimes get a bum rap from friends wondering how you're going to market your skills. However, most employers say that unless the field is highly specialized, it doesn't matter what the employee's degree is in, just that they have a degree.

Here are three of the ten ways to market your Liberal Arts Degree, according to this article:

  1. "Say It Loud: You're Liberally Educated and Proud."
    Specialized skills required of other degrees may be of limited value considering most people change jobs an average of six times. Having a liberal focus means the candidate is likely to be flexible, well rounded and can see the big picture.
  2. "Sell Your Passion." Chances are that if you chose a Liberal Arts path, you did so out of a love for that subject. That love probably yielded good grades, and a passion for learning in general, which is very attractive to employers.
  3. "Sharpen Your Focus." Although Liberal Arts graduates have a wide array of skills to choose from, their resumes should convey a focus to the employer's needs.

Read more details on these tips and the complete article.

For a person who is unsure of the educational path he or she would like to take, the liberal arts may be a great place for the student to start. It is sometimes frowned upon because it's not always clear how liberal arts majors relate to employment and opportunity. I know in my case, however, an education in liberal arts gave me a level of curiosity that made me more open to taking risks. At one point, while pursuing a career in higher education, I was offered an opportunity with a corporation, so I made the switch and moved into a very different work environment. It was my liberal arts background that gave me a willingness to try a new path.

CityTownInfo: I have recently heard positive things about liberal arts majors, stating that employers believe a degree in liberal arts means that the student or candidate is well rounded. Have you heard or read similar news?

Dr. Richard White: We've all heard and read about the national decline in reading, writing and analytical skills. This has been going on for many years, initially with the impact of television, and then, of course, the Internet and other modern methods of communication. There are students who still write well, but overall as a nation we seem to have declined in our ability to write, and that's where the liberal arts continue to add value to one's candidacy and performance on the job.

CityTownInfo: What do you think are the most important things high school students should do to get into the best possible college, and how soon should they start working on their plan?

Dr. Richard White: The single most important thing is getting good grades. By working hard and taking a conscientious approach to one's studies, students will not only build the grades that will help them get into a good college, but they'll also develop personal and academic interests, and possible career interests.

Second is to get involved in school and the community. Twenty years ago, this wasn't as important for getting into college. The requirement was pretty much just a high school transcript, but now colleges are increasingly looking for well-rounded people. I am not only talking about student athletes, but also students who get actively involved in their local communities. Become engaged in the school newspaper, the yearbook, or a language club and take a leadership role in the organizations. Community involvement is one of the big growth areas among colleges and universities looking for talented young people who have a record of service. Volunteer work can be done locally, in another state, or in a foreign country.

Third is to try to find a part-time job, preferably but not necessarily paid. Any opportunity where the student needs to show up on time, work with other people, and perform tasks outside of an academic setting will strengthen the overall application.

CityTownInfo: What advice do you give to students who might not socially or financially be able to reach out on their own and volunteer so that they can gain those valuable experiences?

Dr. Richard White: I recommend seeking local opportunities, either through the student's home church, synagogue, a friend's church, or a social service agency. There are so many people with so many needs. The student doesn't necessarily need to travel to New Orleans, Costa Rica or anywhere else in the world; there are needs in the students' hometowns or surrounding communities. Volunteerism doesn't have to mean a mission trip; it can be a few hours after school helping kids. For example, in my community, our church brings a van of seventh graders and eighth graders from Newark, and our local high school students provide tutoring. It means so much not only to the kids coming from Newark, but also to the volunteers who are providing the tutoring and helping to build study skills.

CityTownInfo: What are the most popular majors for today's students and what are some other trends you have observed?

Dr. Richard White: At Rutgers, the top five majors are psychology, biology, history, economics, and communication, which have been fairly consistent over the last ten to fifteen years.

In terms of student financial aid, we are definitely seeing an increase in requests. I just saw a report that at Rutgers there has been a 20 percent increase in the request for loans. We are trying hard in these difficult economic times, with less support from the state, to do whatever we can to accommodate the requests.

During tough economic times, we also always see more students looking at graduate school. Just as all work has value, I believe all education and degrees have value. Students need to know, however, that not all master's programs enhance job prospects. Furthering one's education postpones the need to get a job, but as much as I am in support of education, certain master's degrees might not in fact be a big boost to income or job placement once the economy turns around. Students need to look at their circumstances, future job prospects, and the degree program on a case-by-case basis.

The last trend we're seeing is more students seeking internships. The good news is that over the last 15 years or so, pre-professional internship opportunities have grown considerably for undergraduates. Business, engineering, technical areas, and communications have experienced considerable growth in internship opportunities. There has been a slight decline during the recession, but the nice thing about an internship is that it is not a long-term commitment on the part of the employer or the student. Internships are probably holding their own more so than full-time jobs, because an employer can bring an intern in for a summer - often paid, but it could be unpaid - and can get a contribution from that person. Students are also provided with challenging work, which could also be eligible for school credit.

CityTownInfo: Do you think there are less internship opportunities in general or are you seeing more companies offering unpaid internships?

Dr. Richard White: The recession has resulted in a slight decline in the total number of internships. However, the number of unpaid opportunities has increased, as well as companies willing to work with schools to provide credit. Through the Rutgers Internship and Co-op Program, for example, students need to complete 180 hours of work, either paid or unpaid, to earn three credits. They also need to complete an online course with a weekly journal entry, an informational interview, and a reflection paper at the end. There is also a learning agreement during the internship and an evaluation at the end, with the student evaluating the experience and the employer evaluating the student.

CityTownInfo: Do you think most employers look for students who have completed an internship for school credit instead of pay?

Dr. Richard White: Certain employers, particularly in the media, strongly favor or even require credit-bearing internships. They enhance the commitment on the part of students, who tend to work harder. A paid internship can achieve the same thing. If students are depending on some income, they are going to take the internship pretty seriously. In the financial and engineering industries, almost all internships are paid. Students may often be able to get credit as well as pay from some opportunities.

CityTownInfo: Besides interning, what do you think are the most important things students can do to prepare to find a job?

Dr. Richard White: The first is to research employers and positions. So much is available now online. It used to be much harder to find out about an organization. Unfortunately, students are extremely busy as they juggle jobs, student organizations, sports, or helping out at home. There are so many demands on them that they might not find or make the time to research employers before an interview or career fair. However, the more they can demonstrate that they've looked at an employer's website and have an understanding of the organization and the industry, the more they will stand out. I suspect only 20 percent actually take the time to thoroughly research an employer before an interview.

Secondly, the student should discuss what he or she accomplished on the job. On the resume, use action verbs and be succinct and specific. The student then needs to be prepared to demonstrate three or four key skills with specific examples. Everyone may acknowledge that they have skills in communication, management, teamwork, and critical thinking, but the most effective candidates provide detailed examples demonstrating these skills, both on their resume and in the interview.

CityTownInfo: What do you recommend to students to help them stand out from other job applicants?

Dr. Richard White: At a career fair, make a positive initial impression with an effective 30-second introduction. It shouldn't sound rehearsed, but should convey confidence, interest in the organization, and how the student can contribute to the organization.

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

Related Article: The Benefits to Businesses and Employees of Working at Home


Below is a summary of an article published by on the advantages for working from home:

For Employers

  • Increased productivity
  • Less absenteeism
  • Lower turnover
  • Larger base of qualified candidates
  • Reduced office space and equipment requirements

For employees

  • Better work-life balance
  • Less stress and subsequent illnesses
  • Better focus
  • More time in the day and an average savings of $688 a year in gasoline costs

Potential drawbacks to working from home

  • Employees must have a high level of self-discipline to complete projects effectively and efficiently and not get distracted by home demands
  • Difficulty in distancing oneself from work, since it is only steps away
  • Employees may feel out of the communication loop and have to work harder to overcome it
  • Employees must have appropriate technology in place at home

Read more details on these tips and the complete article.

Dr. Richard White: Before accepting a job, and preferably even before requesting an interview, we want students to be informed about their potential employer's expectations and the workplace culture. It might not be the easiest information to find out, but networking with an employee will be very helpful. The last thing someone wants to happen is to complete the interview process, receive an offer, excitedly accept the offer, and then find out that 90 or more hours a week is expected for that position. At the point of the offer, it's fine to ask about flextime, which more and more employers are willing to consider. The most important thing is to get the job done, and maybe it doesn't require working from 6:30 in the morning until 10:30 at night. The best companies are finding a way to offer telecommuting because it's good for recruiting and it's good for employee retention.

I do not recommend that students walk into the initial campus interview and immediately start talking about work-life balance, because it will probably send the wrong signal. It is acceptable, however, to inquire about the working conditions and values of the employer. Being on site allows the applicant to get a feel for the employer's atmosphere, but of course nothing compares to doing an internship or co-op. Working on site will give the student the best sense of the workplace culture. The student will be able to see how hard and how long employees are working, and can talk to the full-time employees as well.

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

Dr. Richard White: At Rutgers, we subscribe to Vault and Wet Feet, which are online sites that look at industries. They provide a lot of inside information on everything from the financial industry to the pharmaceutical industry to the food industry. There are even some profiles of specific companies with comments from current and past employees, which are generally, but not always, positive. Two other really good sites to which many career centers subscribe are Going Global and CareerShift. Going Global is for people looking to relocate either within the U.S. or internationally. It has detailed profiles of 25 of the largest and most prosperous countries in the world where people might be relocating, including everything from chamber of commerce to visa information and job search tips. Going Global also lists about 40 major U.S. cities that are profiled in-depth. CareerShift enables its visitors to manage their job search by listing each employer applied to and when, as well as employer responses. Another great feature is that it combs different job boards and brings jobs that fit the visitor's profile from many different resources.

I think it is important for students and graduates to be geographically flexible with their job search, to think outside of the box and beyond their major, and to highlight their transferrable skills. These factors will make them as marketable as possible to a broad range of potential employers.

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