Preparing students for an uncertain future through career planning

Lessons in engaging students in future career planning and preparation as part of their university studies, shared by Stephen Warrington, Katherine Cameron and Matt Vickers

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University of Edinburgh

University of Edinburgh
26 Oct 2021
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Advice on getting students thinking about and preparing for their future careers
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Trying to encourage students to think about career aspirations can be difficult. Many feel that effort exerted before they start applying for graduate positions is wasted. Others erroneously think the requirements for their chosen career path are obvious. Many concentrate solely on grades and forget about all the other opportunities, on and off campus, to increase their employability and skill sets.

We run a six-month course to get students thinking about, researching and planning their future careers. The hope is that the skills learned will help them plan their development throughout their lives. This article shares lessons from the initial rollout of this course.

How we teach students to plan their careers

The course consists of presentations and hand-ins: two formative and one summative. The submissions are natural progressions that build up to the final assignment. The first two formative submissions are:

  • an application, consisting of a CV and covering letter, for a graduate job or MSc/PhD of the students’ choosing (so as to be meaningful);
  • then a group reflection on members’ applications.

The final assignment is a personal development plan (PDP) and a reflective piece on lessons from the course. The PDP details students’ plans for the next six months to enhance the applications they will make at the start of the next academic year, whether for industrial placements, employment or further study.

We worked with the careers service to integrate their existing services and expertise into the course.

Developing a successful career planning course

Make the course structure clear

Have a clear structure and progression for both the hand-in assignments and the presentations. To support the assignment, we included presentations on finding work experience, CVs and covering letters, networking, personal development planning and reflection.

Around these we added additional presentations designed to make students aware of options for boosting their employability during their studies, such as volunteering, part-time jobs, internships, participation in clubs and societies and paths through our degree programmes; and at the end of their course, such as degree-related and non-degree related careers, self-employment and further study.

These presentations could be delivered by academics, the careers service, returning placement students, current postgraduate students and the student-focused section of the university’s innovation and entrepreneurship arm. Each presentation builds on the students’ understanding of the options available and how to achieve them.

Let the students take ownership in order to see the benefits

For the CV exercise, we allow students to choose which vacancy they will apply for, to make it more meaningful and relevant. This could be a summer internship, placement, graduate job or postgraduate course. These opportunities could be in any specialism or industry. For many students, this is the first time they will have considered their future career and employability and it provides a wake-up call. Many realise they need to take ownership and responsibility for planning their careers, and that employability is more than academic grades.

It may also be their first time compiling an application. Supporting them with input from the careers service and signposting to further resources online such as job advice, sample CVs and feedback software, as well as to in-person feedback will help them draft an effective CV. This will allow them to approach future application processes more effectively. Completing this task after hearing informative presentations from the careers service meant that almost all students felt they had benefitted, and been well supported, from the teaching and the exercise.

Include the practicalities of an application

There are a number of things students need to learn about completing an application.

  • CVs should convey not just what you have done or where you have worked, but the skills and competencies this enhanced, with supporting evidence.
  • Be specific about your skills, for instance, Python rather than programming, and provide evidence for them.
  • CVs and covering letters should be targeted at the company. Recruiters want to see that applicants know all about and are interested in them, for the right reasons, not just because they are based in London.

This is best achieved through an initial presentation or explanation, then asking students to peer-review each other’s CVs, taking on a recruiter’s perspective. This is supported with a CV and covering letter rubric to guide students in what to look for in each application. We form small groups for the peer-review process, which allows students to gain ideas from seeing others’ CV styles but most importantly, they learn a lot from reading and comparing the content of other CVs outlining their peers’ experience and skills.

Encourage students to explore opportunities at university beyond their courses

The sole focus of many students is to attain high grades. Everyone wants that 2:1 at the very least. However, with many employers interested in broader skills, it is important that educators help students to understand this and identify the skills sought. Ask the students to look through job adverts and discover the skills sought by recruiters. Then, through group or class discussions, examine how these could be developed at university, such as by joining appropriate clubs and societies, carrying out online not-for-credit courses, volunteering and part-time work. Also provide guidance on where students can find such opportunities.

Links beyond the course

Any programme designed to get students thinking seriously about their future career and how to improve their chances of attaining their goals should include links to frameworks that will support them beyond the course. We rely on the University Careers Service’s Careers Compass which is designed to help students identify potential careers and offers toolkits and guides for boosting employability. Find out what support your institution’s careers service offers and link students to useful resources.

It’s not a one-off exercise

Embed the idea that career planning is a process that can and should be continued throughout students’ degrees and beyond. This mirrors the continuing professional development requirements for many industries, including Chartered Engineers, but is very useful whatever direction students’ careers take.

This in turn encourages students to consider a Plan B given the uncertain world we live in. Asking students to reflect on how unforeseen events could upset their future plans seems more relevant now than ever. But reflective writing does not come naturally for engineering students who are used to writing factually correct reports as opposed to dealing in feelings and uncertainties. They found it hard to grasp the concept that it comes “more from the heart than the head”. To help them, we used language more familiar to engineers, framing it as a “review”, in the same way they might review a design.

The need to upskill on an ongoing basis is being driven across almost all sectors by rapidly advancing technology so students should be prepared for a lifetime of learning. Undertaking the PDP process during third year can only benefit them on graduation.

Final thoughts

Everyone’s programmes, career aspirations and experiences will be different. However, all educators can put together structured approaches to career planning and preparation, with similar goals, that suit the particular needs of their student cohorts. Work with employability advisors and other colleagues across your institution and integrate their expertise into the exercises.

One factor that helps enormously with student engagement in the course is making the final submission, in our case the PDP, a marked assignment that counts for credit. That focuses minds more across the whole course than any of the current and future benefits of the techniques covered.

Stephen Warrington is senior lecturer and dean of student experience in the School of Engineering; Katherine Cameron is an industry engagement manager in the School of Engineering and Matt Vickers is a career consultant for mathematics, all at the University of Edinburgh.

This blog is based on an article first published on the University of Edinburgh’s Teaching Matters blog: How we prepare Mechanical Engineering students for an uncertain future.

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