3 Unexpected Ways College Students Think About Jobs
The first time I stepped foot in my school’s Career Services office was February of my senior year. In spite of efforts by campus administrators, this isn’t a rare pattern; few underclassmen take advantage of career resources. It’s tempting to speculate about timelines of student needs, but we gave students the chance to explain them directly. Surveyed students answered several questions designed to measure their prioritization of several academic and career-oriented goals. The results of this survey showed us 3 unexpected ways college students think about jobs.
The results in themselves aren’t shocking, but – when we look at key goals separated by graduation year – some interesting patterns emerge.
Examining this data sheds light on what students are thinking about and exactly when they’re thinking about it. These three (sometimes counterintuitive) findings should inform the way schools offer career support.
1) Urgency always trumps importance.
Collegiate career centers constantly echo the refrain “career services aren’t just for juniors and seniors.” Nonetheless, disproportionately few underclassmen take advantage of campus resources. Comparing year-by-year changes in students’ focus on finding a job/internship versus exploring careers reveals that they’re in near-perfect opposition.
When pressure to find an internship spikes sophomore and junior year, prioritization of career exploration plummets. So why is career exploration a low-urgency to-do for students? Two reasons: there are few deadlines, and there aren’t obvious next-steps. Deadlines generate urgency. A possible explanation for the relatively high prioritization of career exploration freshman and sophomore year is the deadline for declaring a major, which students presumably consider a step toward a certain set of careers. Seniors and recent grads feel the urgency of understanding what careers suit them, but it’s overshadowed by the more tangible urgency of actually finding a job. While applying for a job has clear, concrete steps, the process of exploring careers often seems unclear. Career centers can help by giving students specific, approachable steps to career exploration and attaching them to approximate deadlines.
2) Confidence in a career path doesn’t increase throughout college.
In fact, if we take prioritization of career exploration as a metric for uncertainty in a career path, career confidence falls by a factor of four between junior and senior year. Traditional thinking assumes college serves as a linear path to a fulfilling job, but the data hints at a more cyclical pattern. Why do seniors suddenly regain interest in career exploration (even relative to finding a job)? Shouldn’t junior-year internships solidify students’ career goals? In reality, many students find their first work experience to be an unwelcome wake-up call. You wanted to be an accountant since you were 6? Turns out you don’t like working at a desk. Nursing has always been your plan? Maybe interacting with patients all day leaves you feeling drained. The most important takeaway here is that career centers need to present first jobs as a continued exploration, not a light at the end of a tunnel.
3) Students want personal connections.
Modern students face a job market where high GPAs are less meaningful than ever before. As professionals increasingly view the workplace as a social space, sharp social skills and deep personal connections are every bit as important to landing a job as technical skills and good grades. Almost every write-in top priority – ranging from “learning how to advance within a company” to “balancing a career and a new marriage” – could best be accomplished by talking to someone who’s had relevant experience. Few respondents identified a need for material resources.
While many facets of life as a student are unpredictable, priority timelines are surprisingly consistent, and career resources should be tailored accordingly.