NACE Journal, May 2021
In response to the general outcry about return on investment of an undergraduate college education, there has been renewed focus on career development from university administrations.
At Metropolitan State University of Denver (MSU Denver), a predominantly undergraduate, urban, Hispanic-Serving Institution, university leadership has established a goal of engaging 100% of students in career preparation and career readiness education. Such aspirations are beyond the scope of what a traditional career services office alone can provide.1 However, we know anecdotally from conversations with colleagues across the university that faculty members have taken on some of this work, and intentional career preparation is happening within many academic disciplines already. Such preparation ranges from academic and career advising, to classroom activities, to experiential learning, e.g., internships and service learning. To understand faculty activity and attitudes related to the task of preparing students for post-degree employment, we decided to survey our faculty.
During the fall semester of 2019, eight faculty members and staff representing various departments, colleges, and student support services initiated a faculty learning community focused on faculty practices at our university related to student career preparation. As a starting point, we looked to the published literature to understand what other undergraduate institution faculty were doing in the area of career preparation. We quickly discovered that there was little professional or scholarly literature specific to career preparation strategies faculty are using in the classrooms. Given the increasing institutional efforts to meet students’ career preparation and readiness needs, we chose to investigate faculty members’ perceptions of these efforts and their perception of the role that faculty should play.
Classroom career preparation and career readiness
An initial search of the literature did not yield much information on career preparation or career readiness training that is occurring in the classroom. We cite a few examples that centered around having a dedicated career development course, particularly for specific disciplines, such as psychology or biology. Ciarocco focused primarily on course-based psychology career preparation, with brief mentions of threading career preparation throughout the curriculum.2 The Winters team likewise focused on a biology career preparation course and reported gains by students in both primary plans and alternate plans for their careers.3 Appleby addressed the evolution of the American Psychological Association standards about preparing students to be workforce ready.4
Employers emphasize the importance of graduates having essential skills, such as communication skills, critical thinking and so on, and organizations like the Association of American Colleges & Universities and National Association of Colleges and Employers have been advocating for more career readiness instruction.5, 6 Perhaps some of the more promising efforts in this regard relate to high-impact practices as identified by Kuh.7, 8 Service learning, undergraduate research, internships, study abroad, and other types of experiential learning bridge the gap between classroom theories and real-world application. In addition, these types of educational practices usually require students to engage in ways that help them connect classroom learning to applied situations. Unfortunately, students do not always see the benefits of these practices and often challenge such activities and their place in the course. Faculty should explicitly point out to students that classroom-learned skills, such as writing and oral presentations, and community-learned skills, such as working with diverse groups of people or dealing with problems, are skills they will use in the workplace.9 This can be done somewhat seamlessly without the need to rework each entire course.10
Historically speaking, faculty of decades past would commonly provide students with professional guidance and direction as well as the disciplinary-specific trainings through their courses.11 However, with burgeoning numbers of students and increased faculty workload, much career direction has been outsourced to professional career advising staff.12, 13 Faculty concerns related to modern-day advising of any kind center around workload, lack of recognition for advising or supervision, and inadequate training for career counseling.14, 15
Even though most institutions have addressed faculty concerns and student needs by offering services provided by professional career counselors, students still report that they receive most of their advising from faculty. For example, in one study, student respondents indicated they had more contact with faculty members than with academic advisers or career services in the past year.16 Although faculty often consider themselves underprepared for advising, they will likely influence more students than will professionally trained career counselors.
Whether this paradox is caused by students’ lack of awareness of the career services office or by their familiarity with faculty, it is clear that understanding how faculty members approach career preparation and the challenges they face providing that support is a first step toward improving student success. However, there is little empirical data describing faculty involvement in career preparation. We could not find studies that attempted to determine faculty beliefs in their role in providing career preparation or career readiness activities.
The Current Study
Although we suspected that much is happening in the classroom to develop communication, critical thinking, ethical judgment, and other essential skills that students will need in the workforce, it is unclear whether instructors explicitly tie these skills to career preparation. We wanted to describe a baseline of instructor involvement and attitudes toward their role in providing career preparation and career readiness instruction at our own university.
Some of the literature referenced above used surveys directed at student advising, but they were not suitable for assessing faculty incorporation of career readiness skills in the classroom. The topics covered in the career preparation courses were more specific, but we realized that other competencies might be covered either in class or in advising conversations with students.
Based on our collective professional experience, we wrote items for a survey of classroom or advising activities related to student career preparation. Revision was an iterative process, with input from all research team members. The main categories of questions were: 1) faculty demographics, 2) the responsibility of the university and its various units in career preparation, 3) strategies faculty were currently using in the classroom and advising, 4) barriers to doing student career preparation, and 5) interest in future professional development on the topic. The resulting survey comprised 20 questions, with a combination of qualitative and quantitative questions.
All 1,490 faculty members—tenure/tenure track, lecturers, and affiliates—were emailed a link to the survey early in the spring 2020 semester and sent a follow-up reminder two weeks later. Respondents took the survey anonymously via Qualtrics. They had the opportunity to register (separately) for a drawing of one of 10 $50 Amazon gift cards. They also had the opportunity to register (separately) to be included in future discussions, workshops, and professional development on student career preparation.
We received 229 responses (15.37%) from faculty in 42 academic departments. Tenured/ tenure track, lecturers, and affiliate faculty were represented, with 60% of the respondents indicating they were tenured/tenure track, 16% indicating they were full-time instructors/lecturers, and 24% indicating they were affiliate/part-time instructors. Faculty reported teaching courses at a variety of levels, from introductory-level undergraduate courses to graduate-level courses.
Responses to quantitative questions were analyzed by calculating the number of people who selected each option as a proportion of the total number of respondents for each question and are reported as percentages. A general inductive approach was used to analyze qualitative questions, in which textual data was first read and coded to identify broad categories, and then further categorized into themes. Segments of interview text were selected as “representative quotes” to illustrate specific themes.
Responsibility for career preparation: The first set of questions focused on responsibility for career preparation. As can be seen in Figure 1, 77% of respondents agreed or strongly agreed with the assertion that it is the role of higher education to provide student career preparation. Nearly three-quarters also agreed that it is their role as faculty members to provide this preparation (See Figure 2.)
Knowing that career preparation is addressed by various units across the university, we asked for faculty perspective on which offices or programs carry the most responsibility for student career preparation. (See Figure 3). Here, however, the responses clearly shift the onus of the responsibility to career services, experiential learning, and other “support” offices on campus. Faculty do not consider themselves or their departments as being primarily responsible for career preparation.
Career preparation activities: In our exploratory conversations with colleagues, faculty reported engaging students in career preparation in their classes or advising. For the survey, we provided a list of common career preparation activities and asked faculty to check all of those in which they currently engage; 199 faculty members responded by indicating that they engaged in one or more of these activities. (See Figure 4.)
We also provided space for them to include additional activities in which they engage; 7% (14) reported doing engaging in other activities, such as mock interviews, career panels, and certification preparation.
The results indicate that faculty engage in a range of activities, with the understanding that not all faculty find all activities relevant or appropriate for specific classes.
Barriers to providing career preparation: Despite the fact that faculty report being supportive of career preparation in the classroom and during advising, they do report facing significant barriers to the successful implementation of this content, including lack of time, compensation, and knowledge of how to successfully implement career preparation strategies. Time was the issue: Of the 192 respondents to this question, nearly 70% indicated that a lack of time was a barrier. (See Figure 5.)
Survey participants were invited to provide qualitative responses related to barriers in career preparation. Responses were reviewed for common themes, which are summarized in Table 1 with illustrative quotes.
Survey participants were invited to provide qualitative responses in regard to suggestions for addressing identified barriers. Faculty responses generally fell into five broad themes.(See Table 2.)
Professional development and resources: Faculty were invited to describe what resources or professional development opportunities they would use to allow for more engagement with career preparation activities. Open-ended responses were categorized into four broad themes, described in Table 3 with illustrative quotes.
Finally, faculty were asked about their interest in future workshops or professional development opportunities to develop activities and ideas around career preparation activities. Fifty percent of faculty who responded indicated that they were likely or very likely to attend a future workshop or professional development opportunity around this topic.
Results of the survey were extremely positive in that faculty are interested in providing career preparation and readiness instruction. In addition, they believe it is their role to provide it. In fact, we found little evidence to support the widely held belief that faculty members view career education as outside the mission of higher education. Instead, our respondents endorsed the idea that college is where students should learn skills that will help them as they transition to the workforce and excel once there.
An overwhelming majority of the faculty members (74%) that completed the survey reported a desire to have a role in the career preparation of their students. In addition, according to the survey responses, many already do. Nearly 81% of the faculty explore career options with students, and more than 50% have activities or course content that assist with academic advising and career preparation. (See Figure 4.)In terms of career preparation, faculty provide experiential learning opportunities, guest speakers to discuss careers, professional etiquette training, and research opportunities. Procuring internships, developing resumes, and providing connections to employers are other career preparation activities that a majority of faculty provide.
Our findings demonstrate that faculty believe career preparation is part of their job and that they are already participating in those activities. However, there is some nuance to these findings that needs to be highlighted: Even with the acceptance that their role is to provide career preparation, faculty members fell short of believing that it is their responsibility.
In other words, they see themselves as supplemental to the overall efforts of their institution in this regard. A key finding is that the responsibility for career preparation must lie elsewhere. Career services professionals should take this as a sign that faculty are willing to be allies in this task but cannot be expected to take the lead. Taken together, we interpret these results to mean that career development professionals who provide faculty with proper guidance and support can count on faculty to assist in preparing students for careers.
To work effectively with faculty, it is important for career services professionals to understand the challenges that faculty perceive in this work. In the survey, faculty were given the opportunity to write their thoughts about real and perceived barriers to providing career preparation as well as actions the university can take to remove those barriers. There were common themes around barriers and potential solutions, including:
- Course load and other responsibilities of their job: In today’s higher education environment of constricted budgets, reducing the course load might not be an option. However, faculty, in partnership with career services professionals and institutional leadership, could work to ensure that career preparation activities are recognized in the faculty evaluation process. If involvement in these activities could count toward positive performance reviews, there might be more incentive for faculty to participate other than the belief that it is a good thing to do.
- Applicability: Some courses are not perceived to be applicable to provide career preparation activities to students. This is an area where the career professionals could work with faculty to show them what activities currently used in the classroom are career preparation activities. Problem solving, teamwork, communication, and professionalism are all areas that have been desired by employers.17 Faculty need to be shown that what they are already doing might apply to career preparation; they just do not know they are doing it.
- Some faculty do not have connections to the workforce. Career services has the connections and can help match faculty members to workforce professionals who can add to student learning and success. Involvement with local organizations, institutions, and businesses might provide excellent learning opportunities for students and can possibly lead to funding sources. In the changing landscape of higher education, where less funding is available, it might be beneficial to help faculty develop relationships with potential employers. Better relationships with the external industry and nonprofit partners can lead to more support in the long run.
Additional themes emerged around ways to overcome barriers, including:
- Providing workshops and additional training to faculty on how to provide career preparation and readiness instruction. These suggestions ranged from continuous trainings by the career development office to once-a-year training with the faculty from each department. Faculty committed to career preparation could be used to help with these trainings.
- Providing stipends or awards to faculty who participate in career preparation. Faculty workload is a very common theme and providing incentives to participate is needed.
- Avoiding making participation in these opportunities mandatory. There is a group of faculty members who do not feel providing career preparation is their role or their responsibility. This is about 25% of the faculty in our survey. Requiring participation would be counterproductive. We suggest that a better approach would be to support those who are already interested and showcase their work and the rewards of their work. Perhaps this type of incentivizing and support would result in a culture change that would make these activities more attractive to a broader group of faculty members.
- Providing travel money for students to attend professional conferences with faculty and/or support student clubs in their activities in the areas of career development.
It is also important to note that in our survey, a large group of faculty members felt there was no barrier keeping them from providing career preparation activities. These faculty need to be found, acknowledged, and supported by the career programs on campus. Having this pro-career preparation group of faculty members on board can help to spread the value of the work being done by career professionals to the rest of the faculty.
Results of this study found that faculty members were very interested in assisting with career prep of their students but do not want to be wholly responsible for it. Career professionals at higher education institutions can count on faculty being partners in this task. As a result of this study, MSU Denver is working to close the gap between student affairs and academic affairs. Some of the ways we are working toward that goal include:
- Publicly celebrating faculty who are involved with career services;
- Creating a network of faculty interested in this work and leveraging existing relationships to expand interest and share experiences;
- Providing professional development opportunities for faculty and for academic departments that want to integrate career education in their work;
- Providing small internal grants to faculty who want to learn how to embed career preparation activities in courses;
- Connecting faculty with potential employers of students and providing support for cultivating these connections;
- Creating faculty learning communities where career preparation can be discussed and methods to improve it can be planned; and
- Creating a faculty advising council to career services to see how they can work together.
These activities are designed to create effective collaborations between faculty members and the career services staff. With the university’s goal to provide 100% of our students with career preparation and career readiness instruction, we have realized that a united campus approach is needed. To reach this goal, academic and student affairs must work together in the best interest of our students.
Working as Partners
All areas of the university are focused on student success. Faculty work to improve student success through the development of their classes, advising, and, in some cases, in their professional development and research. Career professionals at universities are also focused on student success and work to help students get internships and jobs and to help them develop their careers after college.
Unfortunately, a gap between student affairs and academic affairs commonly exists. These silos prevent collaboration, with each working for student success but not knowing what the other is doing. The findings of this study show that faculty believe that teaching career preparation and readiness skills is important work; further, they feel it is their role to provide it. But they do not want to do it alone, and that is where career services can take charge. Ultimately, career services can count on faculty to be a partner in providing career preparation and career readiness instruction.
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