Went back to Purdue for the School of Science annual alumni advisory board again. More interesting insights.
While the tide seems to be changing, we have all heard (or lived) the woe’s of recent college graduates. Students graduating with many hopes/promises of employment that never panned out. Compounding matters, we see that in some fields a masters or PhD is the minimum entry bar. Some have even asked if a BA college degree has been reduced to the new high school diploma. The school you go to also seems to matter as we see huge unemployment rates coming from some degree-mill colleges.
So what is a potential student to do? The good news seems to be that for half the equation you should do what you should have been doing all along, and the other half is new but may well make your time at college better.
Stuff you should do when looking at a future college (or your own if you’re already there):
- Am I going to college/university to simply learn as my goal, or am I expecting a job out of this?
First questions first – what you want to do in life? Not what major you want – but what you want to DO for a living. Where you want to be 5 years after school is over – envision a whole day from getting up to bedtime. Are you working with people? What things are you working on? Academia or in industry? Writing as much of this down can help you clarify. This, after all, is the whole point of school anyway. If you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll never know if the steps you’re taking will get you where you’ll be happy. While going to college to ‘find yourself’ or solely for personal growth can be noble and good – it may also be a bit dangerous if you’re racking up a huge bill while doing it. Getting as much clarity of where you want to go (or if not that – at least what you DON’T want to be doing) goes a long way to preventing being tens of thousands in debt in a field you just learned you hate or isn’t what you want to do.
- What does your chosen field require to be considered employable and ‘successful’?
With step 1 done, now you need to find out what you need to know/skills needed to do that work you described in #1. Talk to a good counselor from your perspective school, look at job postings for your desired position(s) on Monster and other job sites, look at resumes of those in the field on Linked-in, and talk with people in that industry or job. What skills and education do they require? Do you even need a college degree to get into your field at the level you want? You’d be surprised which fields don’t need a college degree or that sometimes a degree actually forces you down a different part of the field than you want. If a degree is required, what major and what level/specialization would get me into the field I most want? In some fields, a masters is the minimum bar of entry for getting hired. In others, getting a PhD actually closes doors to industry but opens academic work open to you.
I’ve seen many a folk get badly burned by mismatching their desired area of work and their degree. One fellow desired to do social work ran off and got $100k in debt to get a PhD when all they needed was a 4 year degree. I’ve seen folks get a degree in a major to find out what they wanted to do could have been done with a simple certification. Yes, there is always the pursuit of learning for its own sake – which is always good. But don’t confuse just getting more education with desired outcomes.
- Is your school known for good work in that major/field?
Not to give offense to the professors at these schools – but if you’re going to Julliard to learn engineering, or going to MIT for inter-racial studies – you’re probably not making the best choice for your buck. Like it or not, I have seen the name of a school open doors. While they do not get you a job, but they very well will open you to an interview you might not have gotten before. You should pick the school on your list that has the best reputation for the field you’re hoping to get into (and that you can afford).
- Is the school you’re considering likely to get you the job you want?
This is the pragmatic side. You should be able to ask and see the placement rates (and hopefully) the average salary ranges of those getting hired. If they have a career center, you should be able to get a list (or at least a good idea) of what companies come to hire from the school. If there is nobody on the list you want to work for, or the placement rates are bad (under 50%), you better consider looking elsewhere. It will also tell you what you should expect to earn your first few years out of college and be a good basis on how much debt you should/shouldn’t be getting into.
A good rule of thumb is that you should only take on the amount of debt that you would hope to earn in a year’s average salary for your major (disregarding taxes/etc). A doctor? $100,000 in debt might be totally acceptable. An engineer? Depending on the type – maybe $30k-60k. If you start going over this amount – things start getting more difficult. I recently saw a guy well over $100,000 in debt getting a PhD in social work who will be making $25k-35k/yr. He will barely be able to pay off the interest each month and his hopes of starting a family are pretty much nil unless he marries someone who can help with that debt. Don’t get yourself in over your head – you can end up paying for it the rest of your life.
So what more is someone to do to really seal the deal? Last year, Purdue hired a social networking expert who was working on Purdue’s Linked-in and various other social networking sites. She came and talked to us – and she touted an idea that adds a new arrow to your quiver of employability.
It starts with a realization of the world you are now in. There are quite literally 1000’s of people around the country walking across graduation stages at the same time as you with the same degrees. You’re no longer unique just because you got a degree or even if you got a near perfect GPA. Instead, you need to now stand out from that crowd – just as you did when in high school. How does one do that?
You could get on the deans list and get a perfect GPA. Those do help – but in reality those kudos are not quite as important as you think they are to employers. Instead, we can take cues from very highly competitive fields: movies, design, and art. In those industries, a portfolio of great work and a name are keys to success. Sure, they need to have done well in their studies, but now employers are also going to want to see what you can do. They have less time/money to train, there are more people out there applying, and they want to know more than ever that a hire will pay off. Despite what you think, your college education just lays the groundwork for success – your employer still needs to get you up to industry-grade snuff.
- A portfolio works wonders
If possible, build a portfolio of your work you can show off. This is essential in any art field – and becoming more so for other fields. If you’re a programmer: got any apps you wrote that you can throw on a laptop or mobile device and show? A demo reel? Do you have any news articles/clippings of work you’ve done or been part of? Pictures of things you’ve done you can show on an iPad? Websites of open-source projects you’ve worked on? Being able to physically hand something to an interviewer/prospective hiring manager is HUGE. It’s tangible proof you can and have done things. This one alone has sold us on a candidate at my place of work. Here’s a link that might help you know what to put and not put into a portfolio.
- Find what you are passionate about and do some work in that outside of school work.
This is already happening in Computer Science. Graduates distinguish themselves by finding and contributing to an open-source project they like, leading a group in their field, presenting at conferences, writing web articles on specific topics, having a body of programming work and applications they can show off. Hopefully (if you’ve found a field you actually like to study), this shouldn’t be a terrible burden – even if you only do this stuff in the summers/breaks. You are trying to build and do things that can build up #1, and #3
- Brand yourself for today’s social media world
Like it or not, social networking is here to stay. The first thing that many, many employers do is Google you – so you need a robust and professional ‘brand’ for your name. You absolutely should have a Linked-in account that is professional looking, filled out, and used regularly to make connections with people in your field At networking events when exchanging business cards, ask if you can connect with relevant people via linked-in. A blog, a personal website, Facebook and Twitter are also good. Spend some time on them an update them with relevant content. Your portfolio, interesting links and discussions on your field, etc. Make a habit of this – it’s real obvious when someone just starts updating those sites when they’re looking for a job (i.e. no posts for 3 years then a flurry every day). You want what they find to be professional and appropriate. A history of entries relating to your field shows you’re actually interested in it. This work, unfortunately, starts well before you are job hunting. Actually, it started from the day you opened an account on the site.
I don’t want to give a lecture, but drunken pictures of parties and your stance on controversial/illegal activities isn’t what should be showing up. Let’s just be clear: Nothing you posted on Facebook or other social media site is private. Nothing you put on Facebook or other site can be completely deleted. People can copy pictures, link against your content, take screen-caps of your IM’s, and quote you on other sites – and you have no way to stop them. Just don’t post anything you don’t want employers to read or see.
- Selling yourself
All the above do this, but we haven’t talked about one final thing. This particular tip hasn’t changed; but it’s not the indie 90’s anymore. Don’t be fooled into thinking your personal appearance is an individuality thing – it’s a reflection of your knowledge of the field.
Dress: Dress nicely, yet appropriately casual/professional. It shows they know about the field enough to know what is considered the ‘norm’ and shows respect for it and the employer. You’d also be surprised how even a good photo of yourself on your profile can change things when someone is determining whether to email you based on your profile. Again – appropriate is the key word. Too fancy makes you look like a tool, too casual makes you come off as sloppy and unprofessional.
Appearance: I hate to have to say this, but take a shower, get a haircut, trim unsightly hairs, clean your nails, etc. Make sure your nice clothes fit you and you look natural/comfortable in them. Wear them out for a day a couple of times before going to the interview so you can find any trouble spots and learn how to eat without spilling things on them. Even in the frumpy fashion world of computer science, being at least able to wear a button-up shirt with non-tennis shoes can give you a leg up.
Speech: Practice your answers – in front of a mirror or camera if you need. You must spend a good bit of time going over and being able to talk well about every single thing on your resume. Expect to be quizzed on it all. Keep your speech light, be clear and concise, and show excitement.