As the student came into my office, I could see that something was wrong. She was pale and her shoulders sagged. “Are you OK?” I asked. “Not really,” she said. “I’m graduating in two months and I don't have a job. I've been looking everywhere and networking like crazy, but nothing is panning out for me."
Sadly, this is not an uncommon story. Many graduates and postgraduates feel anxious about their future. They worry about landing a job, especially one that is fulfilling; finding mentors; networking effectively and paying off their student loans. Much of this angst derives from the failure of colleges to prepare their students for the real world. Colleges — and professors like me — must do more to help students succeed after they leave college, both in life and in their careers. We need to help students find out who they really are, what they're passionate about, and how to articulate their life and career goals.
Students also need the skills to advance. Technical knowledge and good grades are important. But it is equally important to be professional, hardworking, reliable, trustworthy and collaborative. Employers want to hire people who have good communication skills, are able to solve problems, and work well with others.
These attributes are sometimes referred to as “soft skills,” but that takes away from their rigor and substance. “Employers want people who can think critically, work in diverse teams, and who can take complex information, come to a conclusion and make a recommendation,” former US Secretary of Education
told the Wall Street Journal this autumn. He worries that students are not graduating from college “career-ready.” Two years earlier, the Chronicle of Higher Education stated, “Employers care more about ethics, critical thinking, creative thinking, and common sense … along with a mindset of lifelong learning and a strong work ethic’ than about, for example, an employee’s college major.
Wall Street executive and author Ben Carpenter made an excellent recommendation in the New York Times, saying, “Colleges need to create, and require for graduation, a course in high quality career training that would begin freshman year and end senior year.” Several colleges, such as Connecticut College, are now doing this with much success.
My new book
Now What, Grad? Your Path to Success After College
helps to address these issues and helps prepare graduates for the job market by teaching them more skills than those learned in their required courses. The book is designed to set students up for success and begin to reduce the anxiety so many students have upon graduating.
A postgraduate student recently told me, “The biggest hurdle I have to overcome is my constant fear of failing.” I often hear this from students. But failure has a stigma it doesn't deserve. Failure is an unpleasant, but essential, part of striving and learning. Failing does not mean you are a failure. It means you are trying hard, taking risks and getting out of your comfort zone — all necessary precursors to success. Colleges are neglecting to teach real world lessons like these. We must do better.
Chris Palmer is a professor at American University's School of Communication and the author of "Now What, Grad? Your Path to Success After College"; his email is
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