Assessing career action plans: improving graduate employability

Career action plans are assignments designed to guide students in making informed choices and preparing for future jobs. Alexander Bradley explains how they work

Alexander Bradley's avatar
The University of Portsmouth
23 Mar 2022
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Career action plans: assignments to inform students about job options and start preparing them to their preferred careers

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Graduate outcomes are becoming increasingly important to universities, with their impact felt on league tables, in the new teaching excellence framework (TEF) and in the Office for Students’ B3 condition of registration consultation. Career action plans are designed to facilitate students making informed choices about what career is right for them and to support them in putting together a realistic plan of the steps they will take during their time at university to make their career aspirations a reality. The career action plan comes in four sections.

The career comparison table

Students are asked to choose three careers that appeal to them. In this table, they must provide the details for each career on seven key career considerations, which are:

  • starting pay
  • pay with experience
  • qualifications/experience required
  • availability of the jobs
  • job locations
  • type of employment contract
  • work/life balance.

In addition, I also usually ask students to briefly state how the proposed job fits with their character strengths, which can be assessed for free at viacharacter. A better alignment between work and character strengths predicts high job satisfaction, increased productivity and reduced job stress, according to research. This table allows students to easily compare their chosen careers across multiple dimensions, which helps them to make informed choices based on their circumstances, interests and priorities. For example, many students on my course were interested in probation officer, crime scene investigator and forensic psychologist roles, which vary considerably in their salary, qualifications required, location of work, and work/life balance. Ultimately, their choice of career then will shape in profound ways the debt they incur studying, the disposable income they enjoy over their working life, the places they work and how much or little free time they have to enjoy with friends and family.

Weighing up the pros and cons

Next we encourage students to weigh up the relevant merits and disadvantages of each of their three chosen careers, based on the eight dimensions in the career table from the first section. By the end of this mini 750-word essay, students are required to pull together a range of supporting factors that support their decision to pursue a specific career. For example, one student prioritised their need to find a job closer to home and one that could be entered straight after their degree to allow her to start earning for her young family and to enable her to care for her children. This was despite the fact that the job, early years teacher, did not pay as well as a speech and language therapist or an education psychologist and her average weekly hours would be slightly longer.

The work experience table

Next comes another table that asks students to consider:

  • the relevant work experience they will or have acquired, such as volunteering, internships or placement years
  • the selection tasks they will need to pass for their chosen career, such as application forms, interviews, assessment centres and so on
  • applications they will need to make to secure work or further study.

The columns of the table represent blocks of time until students graduate, so, for example, summer term of second year, second-year summer, winter and summer term of third year. Students complete each of the rows to give a clear indication of when they will apply for different volunteering or internship places, what selection tasks they will practise when and using what resources, including career service sessions or online training, and what graduate schemes or job search engines they will use to search for vacancies. Students who can provide more specific details about work experience opportunities, how they will practise selection tasks and who or what they will apply for, score higher marks.

Reflecting on areas for improvement or development

Finally, we ask students to reflect on whether there are any gaps in their experience, qualifications, ability to pass selection tasks necessary for their chosen career and to make plans to address those gaps in the future. For example, the student hoping to become an early years teacher noted that the modules she planned to take led to graduate practitioner competencies that would allow her to take a shorter assessment route to gain early year teaching status. She reflected on the experiences she had gained within schools, but noted that she had not yet gained any experience with children below the age of four, which prompted her to put in place a plan to volunteer within a local nursery during her second and final year of study. As a mature student, she had experience of interviews yet had not heard of psychometric tests, so she made a plan to practise them with the help of the career service.

Career action plans allow students to make informed career decisions that are tailored to their preferences and to develop a practical, specific plan of how to make their future career a reality. The beauty from a university perspective is that the data from career action plans allow us to start reverse-engineering the process for our students. For example, we can start searching for relevant volunteering, internship and graduate schemes for our students that align with their preferred career options.

Alexander Bradley is a senior lecturer in the School of Education and Sociology at the University of Portsmouth.

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Read more of Alexander’s advice on improving student career planning in his other THE Campus resource, “Career corners: a simple way to improve student job preparation”.


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