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How to promote student career development

With a little bit of caring, patience and apt feedback, faculty can change the lives of their students. It may just take some tough love.

Kody Powell, Ph.D., is an assistant professor in the Department of Chemical Engineering and the winner of multiple “Career Champion of the Year” awards. Below, Powell shares his journey to becoming a “Career Champion” and promoting career development in his classroom.

When I started teaching my first class I was nervous and sometimes (gulp) under-prepared. I had never taught a course before and it took me some time to get comfortable as I iterated on my pedagogical style. I worked hard my first semester but I’ll admit that I was flying by the seat of my pants at times, sometimes even scrambling to finish off my lecture preparation just minutes before class started.

That first semester I was fortunate enough to have had a cast of characters in the class that weren’t afraid to speak up, ask questions, tell me when I hadn’t explained something well and sometimes joke around with me. I was so grateful for their patience as well as their feedback as I learned how to be a good teacher. I was grateful for their tough love.

I had just come from an industry job so I occasionally filled class time with a discussion of my experiences, coupled with advice to students on how to prepare for the real world. I didn’t think much of this until, a couple of months after the class ended, I was nominated for a Career Champion Award by a student in my class. This student mentioned that these casual discussions had a big impact on her as she not only sought a degree but also a meaningful job afterward.

Noting the impact that this had on one of my students, I have since taken it upon myself to pay extra attention to all my students and their general career preparedness. I love my students but I often find that they may be under-prepared for the real world in ways that we don’t formally teach about in class. Their resumes may be rough. They may have little idea how to go about searching for jobs or how to network. They may not have polished their interviewing skills.

As a professor, I have found myself to be in a position of influence and often with a captive audience who may need help and not even know it. It is highly motivating for me to be able to make an impact on someone else’s life and I have found ways to try to help these students. These include:

  • Offering to review students’ resumes for them, usually via coordinated resume workshops.
  • Organizing career-related events on topics like networking, interviewing, LinkedIn, etc.
  • Having career conversations with students including advising them on where to apply, what factors to consider and how to talk to employers.
  • Regularly announcing job opportunities that I hear about from employers.
  • Getting to know the folks at the Career Center and regularly coordinating with them.

No, none of these things are in my formal job description. I don’t get compensated for doing them. However, it is always immensely rewarding to hear back from former students about how fifteen minutes spent with them changed their career paths and, ultimately, their lives.

Like me during my first teaching experience, students may not know exactly what to do. But, with a little bit of caring, patience and apt feedback, faculty can change the lives of their students. It may just take some tough love.