Supporting the Unique Career Development Needs of Graduate Students

December 1, 2023 | By Yas Hardaway, Michelle Ponce, and Megan Crowe

Graduate Students
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TAGS: best practices, graduate students, journal,

NACE Journal / Fall 2023

Careers are fluid; the economy is fluid. For adult learners navigating today’s world of work, this fluidity will often lead to pathways never anticipated. This can be both hopeful and daunting. While both undergraduate and graduate students must make the school-to-work transition, their priorities and approach vary. This article brings light to the unique career development needs of graduate students and the strategies to support them in an ever-evolving world of work. It builds on an understanding of the current economic market and explores various approaches to ensure services are inclusive for graduate students. Specifically, the following areas are addressed: 1) the unique career development needs of graduate students, 2) customized service delivery strategies, and 3) organizational strategies.

Navigating an Ever-Changing Economic Landscape

Careers can be significantly affected by the economic forecast. Being prepared and having accessible resources and support through sheer inclusivity is essential. Delving a little deeper into the direct correlation and effects of the economy and its relationship to careers, one must view it through the lens of supply and demand. When the economy is flourishing, there is ample, sometimes excess, job availability. When the economy is thriving, businesses are more inclined to offer opportunities throughout various industries. As a result, jobseekers have more agency over their options.

Conversely, during a struggling economy, organizations may lean toward hiring freezes and layoffs, ultimately making it difficult for internal and external movement and succession. This lack of employment also influences wages and benefits. A strong economy equals higher wages and greater benefits. Economic downturn equates to wage and benefit cuts to control and reduce costs.

Industry growth is another way in which the economic forecast has a significant impact on careers. Industries embrace changes differently. During a recession, some industries, such as education and healthcare, tend to be more stable and see an increase in opportunities, while auxiliary industries and positions may be affected negatively. Subsequently, career growth prospects and employment may vary significantly during fluid times. Although the effects are endless, it is important to acknowledge the demand for skills and competencies.

As the economy evolves, expertise that is in demand will change and evolve as well. We are teaching, training, and guiding individuals for jobs and industries that do not exist today. It is essential to be cognizant of the economic forecast changes and be prepared to anticipate fluctuations in the job market while proactively developing the skills needed to stay competitive. Staying current on the economic trends and being agile with an ability to pivot as needed will position individuals for long-term career success.

Furthermore, as career services professionals, we are dedicated to guiding, leading, and mentoring individuals as they navigate their career journey. Each person has their own unique path, which requires career services professionals to elicit an authentic approach and listen, conceptualize, and provide strategies and resources for their clients. A significant amount of “learning as we go” has taken place over the last few years, and COVID-19 forever changed the way our world operates. Individuals, organizations, and industries entered unchartered territory. Career services professionals instituted new approaches to counseling and coaching, while transitioning from an in-person to a remote world. Higher education in general had to learn an entirely new meaning of the word “agility.”

Looking forward, how can career services professionals support the career trajectories of graduate students as we continue to transition from these recent changes? Graduate students encompass a unique career space. Some are emerging leaders, some are exploring internal succession within their organizations, and others are changing careers altogether. In addition, they often navigate myriad identities and life roles, so support services must be customized accordingly.

Understanding the Unique Career Development Needs of Graduate Students

Compared with traditional undergraduate students, graduate students are likely to have more work experience and family responsibilities, potentially leading to role strain between competing life priorities. These factors can create unique challenges in the job market and often require more nuanced career development support. Career development practitioners can provide personalized support, flexible service options, and connections to industry networks and resources to meet the needs of these adult learners.1

Traditionally, many graduate students have needed support in navigating the academic job market, including understanding the application process, preparing for interviews, and negotiating employment offers. However, the changing landscape of academia and the impact that faculty career restructuring has had on graduate education and career development have led to traditional models of faculty mentorship that may no longer be sufficient to address the diverse needs and career goals of graduate students.2 One option is a more flexible and personalized approach to mentoring that considers the individual needs and career aspirations of each student and highlights the importance of providing graduate students with opportunities for professional development, including training in teaching, research, and leadership skills.3

Those graduate students who are not on the academic pathway need support in exploring industry options and, in some cases, with navigating the political landscape among their faculty and advisers. A 2016 study highlighted the importance of providing graduate students with career guidance in fields where traditional academic careers may be limited or unstable, discussed the need for greater awareness and support for alternative career paths, and underscored the importance of promoting transferable skills and experiences that can be applied to a range of careers.4

More recent studies highlight the importance of addressing the mental health and well-being of graduate students in their career development process, as the stress and uncertainty of the job market can have negative impacts on their mental health. A 2020 study examined the relationship between perceived discrimination and work/school/family conflict among graduate students who are parents. The study highlights the challenges that graduate student parents face in balancing their academic and family responsibilities, particularly in the face of discrimination.5

The study’s authors suggest that universities and employers can take steps to support graduate student parents, such as providing flexible work and study arrangements, promoting family-friendly policies, and addressing discrimination and bias in hiring and promotion. Overall, the study emphasizes the need to address the intersectionality of identities and experiences among graduate student parents, and to create more inclusive and supportive environments that allow them to thrive both academically and personally. Depending on the structure of the institution, support services and strategies may look different.6

Customizing Service Strategies

In supporting graduate students at academic institutions, it is important to consider the organizational structure of the institution and the framework within which graduate-level career development support is positioned. Some colleges and universities have a centralized model, whereby one career center services all graduate student constituents, which might be further qualified to include industry liaisons specifically designated to one or more graduate programs.

Other colleges and universities have a decentralized model, in that one or more graduate programs has its own career services department, hub, or dedicated staff housed within the school. Below, we will compare two separate models: Pepperdine University's Graduate School of Education and Psychology (GSEP) is an example of a decentralized school, and the Career Center at Florida State University (FSU) an example of a centralized model.

The decentralized model

Pepperdine has five schools, four of which are professional graduate schools with their own career services support. In servicing the needs of its graduate students, GSEP’s career services department has identified five career tracks with which graduate students can identify to address their unique career development needs:

  • Track 1, the career transition track, which involves changing job functions, industries, and/or employers.
  • Track 2, the career advancement track, which focuses on repositioning their professional brand for promotion.
  • Track 3, the career clarification track, which involves determining the next goal in their career journey.
  • Track 4, the workplace navigation track, which focuses on navigating intra-/interpersonal dynamics and organizational culture.
  • Track 5, the entrepreneurship track, which involves launching their own business or practice.

Based on these tracks, GSEP career services helps its graduate students create a customized plan from their offerings, which include career design sessions, where students can clarify their purpose, create a strategy, learn about current online resources, and develop an action plan. Additionally, document feedback sessions provide consultation on resumes/CVs, cover letters, and LinkedIn profiles. Students are further encouraged to participate in signature career programs, such as GSEP’s “Jamii Communities of Practice,” exclusive alumni panel interviews and interactive learning sessions, as well as group vocational discernment experiences, such as the “Career Designing Retreat for New Students.” To promote employer engagement, virtual and in-person industry-specific conferences and employer meetups are also provided. Overall, these resources help graduate students address their unique career development needs, successfully navigate their chosen career path, and connect to a larger network of industry professionals.

The centralized model

FSU’s Career Center represents a more centralized model and uses a career liaison framework with staff embedded in the different academic colleges. This model facilitates connecting Career Center staff with graduate faculty and students directly in the distinct colleges, while operating out of one central career center. Advising hours and appointments are held in their designated colleges, creating greater ease of access for students. The career liaisons partner with the colleges to present programming related to career development and to bring relevant employers to campus. One such program is the Employer-in-Residence Program: Employers come and conduct resume critiques and often lead a targeted activity with groups of students interested in a specific industry area or topic. Overall, the goal of the partnership between the career liaison and colleges is to ensure that students are connected to available, relevant career resources.

For appointments, FSU offers graduate students two types to accommodate different pressures on graduate student schedules and increase accessibility to career advising. The first is drop-in—no appointment required. These are offered weekdays from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., and Tuesday evenings virtually from 4:30 to 7 p.m. (during fall and spring semesters) to allow for availability outside traditional 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. business hours.

The second is through scheduled appointments. Because graduate students must plan around courses, family obligations, work responsibilities, and other priorities, it is important to consider operational hours and what options are provided for the graduate population.

Exploring Organizational Strategies

Moving from the micro-level to a macro-level perspective, there are also institution-wide strategies for creating more buy-in for the continued support of graduate students’ unique needs. Two examples of organizational strategies are provided below, including Claremont Graduate University’s Campus Partnership Program and FSU’s use of data storytelling.

Claremont Graduate University’s Campus Partnership Program: This is an all-inclusive program that brings new meaning to the connected campus. It is an intentional and direct form of communication to bridge career services with the larger campus community. The process is designed to disseminate internships, research, employment, and project-based opportunities to specific internal divisions, departments, organizations, and individuals. This collective program relies on internal and external stakeholders dedicated to sharing and communicating opportunities. Large or small, this program can be successfully implemented at all universities. However, its success will be dependent on each university to find its niche and what works best for it, from development through execution, yet encompassing full-team participation, clear structure, open communication, and ongoing evaluation.

The program should be an opportunity for all members of the career services team to engage. When the entire career services team is invested in the process, each member will feel connected to the overall campus and develop relationships otherwise limited to their specific position and responsibilities. It also allows for communication and responsibilities to be equally distributed.

In addition to the career services team, it is essential that the institution’s community is engaged in the process. Building authentic and quality relationships within the structural makeup of the college will provide a seamless execution of partnerships.

Reach out to each division, department, and organization, or create a shareable spreadsheet with the team to add, edit, and pivot as needed. Each area will have its own method of connection and communication. It is important to discuss the best method to support communication of opportunities. Implement a soft launch, and start with school/division and select departments. Continue with remaining departments and student organizations in subsequent terms. Marketing and branding will be essential before and after the launch. Connect with internal advocates individually, and listen to responses and pivot as needed. Begin verbal and written promotion of the program.

Communication comes in different shapes and sizes. When developing the communication plan, think differently about the departments and divisions that have not engaged with career services. Aim for the communication of opportunities to be reciprocal. Some ways to disseminate the opportunities are through presentations, workshops, and meetings (faculty, department, clubs, organizations), and with leadership, trustees, and external stakeholders.

Integrating program evaluation early in your program’s development is important: Within the first two months of launching the program, check in with your advocates and evaluate what is and is not working, then pivot before engaging more community members. Redirect your efforts and focus on the communication styles of individual schools and divisions: One size does not fit all. With the Claremont program, after the initial evaluation, the career services office pivoted and readjusted specific communication methods as the program evolved throughout campus.

At Claremont, the implementation of the Campus Partnership Program—and for communication and connections to become seamless—took time, but the return on investment has been worth it, with a connected community that supports the students, alumni, faculty, staff, and administration.

FSU’s data-driven storytelling: When considering the climate of the job market and the unique needs of graduate students, it can be beneficial to review your annual career advising and graduation outcomes data to inform stakeholders and better support graduate students. One approach to consider is crafting an annual report to share with those who interact with graduate students in key areas. At FSU, the Career Center crafts annual briefs to share with the different college deans to highlight the engagement of their students in different career services activities.

These briefs include areas such as total advising appointments and unique students seen; most common topics for advising; and participation in shadowing days, career fairs, and other programming events. This provides a narrative for career liaisons to engage in conversation within the college to celebrate student success but also to target support in high-need areas. Consider how data can help communicate graduate student needs to different campus stakeholders. For example:

  • How many graduate students are accessing career resources?
  • What are the trends in topics for advising?
  • Which colleges/concentration areas have notably high or low engagement?
  • How do these data correlate with outcomes and graduation data?

*****

As the world of work continues to evolve, career development professionals must evolve their resources and services accordingly, based on the communities they serve. While the school-to-work transition is common for both undergraduate and graduate students, these two subsets of students often have distinct career development needs, based on their identities, developmental stages, and life roles, among other distinguishing characteristics. For colleges and universities to effectively promote the career success of their alumni, a customized approach will not only make services more accessible to graduate students, but more relevant as well.

Endnotes

1 Cases in Career Services: A Working Guide for Practitioners. Maietta, H. (ed). Bethlehem, PA: National Association of Colleges and Employers, 2021.

2 Pandit, K. Mentoring Graduate Students in an Era of Faculty Career Restructuring. Innovative Higher Education, 2016;41(3):233-244. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1080/03098265.2020.1771548.

3 Ibid.

4 Woolston, C: “I don’t want this kind of life”: Graduate students question career options. Nature 2022; 611(7935):413-416.

5 Dolson, J.M., Deemer, E.D. The relationship between perceived discrimination and school/work–family conflict among graduate student-parents. Journal of Career Development 2020;49(1):174-187. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1177/0894845320916245.

6 Ibid.

Yas Hardaway is executive director of career services at Pepperdine University Graduate School of Education and Psychology. She is also an adjunct faculty member at Pepperdine and the course lead for a master’s-level career development theories and techniques course.

Hardaway earned a dual master’s degree in counseling and human systems from Florida State University and a bachelor’s degree in psychology from University of Kentucky. She is a national certified career counselor, a certified career counselor, and holds an executive leadership academy certificate from University of California, Berkeley, and an equity and social justice certificate of achievement through 2U.

Michelle Ponce is director, career and professional development, at Claremont Graduate University. With more than 30 years in career services, she has dedicated her career to coaching and guiding students and alumni toward exploring and engaging in their career journeys. Her roles have included assistant dean and director positions in southern California.

She has served on various professional committees and authored a chapter about adult learners in NACE’s Cases in Career Services: A Working Guide for Practitioners as well as articles to support the career services profession.

Megan Crowe is assistant director of career advising and counseling at Florida State University (FSU). Crowe holds a dual master’s degree in counseling and human services from FSU, where she also earned her bachelor's degree in history.

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