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Life after the liberal arts

After conducting a broad-based review of career services across the Bi-Co, Haverford is now searching for a new Dean of Career and Professional Advising to re-vamp the Career Development Office.

“The dean position will draw [the Career Office] more into student advising,” said Dean of the College Martha Denney, who supervised the review. “We want someone who is involved in advising students academically as well as professionally… [and] is interested in how a liberal arts college stays relevant.”

The search committee hopes to fill the new position by the end of the academic year.

The Bi-Co could be joining a number of other liberal arts colleges looking to integrate career development into their programs. In November 2011, the Two-College Council, a mixed board committee drawing from both Haverford and Bryn Mawr, hired a consulting firm to conduct a review of the CDO.

Consultants scoped out the Bi-Co for a week, conducting interviews with a sampling of students, faculty, administrators and alumni. The resulting report (confidential, because it discusses specific employees) gave no specific recommendations, but rather points out a few areas of need.

While the CDO is awaiting a new dean before it will make any big changes, Denney says so far they’ve used the report’s recommendations to rework how the two career offices work together and reduce inefficiencies, mostly by consolidating staff positions. Previously, Bryn Mawr and Haverford shared an umbrella Bi-College Career Development Office. Now, the two offices are separately run and staffed.

According to numbers provided by the CDO, in the last two years some 50 percent of students and 75 percent of seniors engaged in CDO activities, such as attending events, counseling appointments, or cover letter and resume reviews, etc.

Bryn Mawr students tend to utilize the CDO more frequently, at about 58.2 percent last year.

“Myths are as powerful as truth,” said Liza Jane Bernard, director of Bi-Co Career Services. “A lot of students will not use our services because they heard something negative.”

Bernard says that although the College has been discussing a comprehensive review of the CDO for several years, it was only when the recession hit that the CDO decided to push for an overhaul.

“Because of the recession, and there’s been an awful lot of attention [on] increases to the cost to higher education…outrageous tuition fees, what the outcomes [are], and how responsive and accountable institutions are being,” said Bernard. “There’s heightened awareness to the value of embracing real-life experience, and integrating how, to be very blunt, liberal arts can be useful.”

While those with a college degree have weathered the recession better than people of any other education level, the employment outlook for recent graduates is still grim. According to figures analyzed by the Economic Policy Institute, unemployment for young college graduates was 9.4% in 2012. Monthly data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that unemployment for degree-holders overall was at 3.7% in January, nearly double the pre-recession rate.

“The current recession has made the entry-level job market more competitive; employers are cutting back on training programs and expect their new workers to arrive with more specific skill sets, [and] more [small-to-medium] size firms are hiring which has an impact on campus recruiting … traditionally done by the larger organizations,” said Katherine Brooks, director of Liberal Arts Career Services at the University of Texas, Austin and author of You Majored in What? Mapping your Path from Chaos to Career (Viking, 2009).

Because liberal arts students have few direct paths into the workplace, they have to be prepared to articulate to employers the value of their degree, says Brooks. Learning for the sake of learning is an important part of the liberal arts experience, but it does mean talking about careers can get pushed out of the picture, and that’s where career centers can come in.

“Courses don’t focus on career-related issues and many professors don’t talk about the value of what they’re studying so it’s left to the student to figure that out,” said Brooks.  “Again, that may not be the role of professor, so career centers really have to form the bridge between the academic world and the employment world.”

At UT Austin, Brooks teaches a major-specific course for juniors and seniors designed to help them make connections between their education and career path. The course uses “chaos theory as a metaphor for the job search,” an approach which holds “that employment is too complex a system to be distilled into one factor like a major,” Brooks writes in a 2009 article.

Other colleges are making similar moves. Wake Forest University recently added an “Innovation, Creativity and Entrepreneurship” major where students create a comprehensive business plan. Earlier this year, Clark University introduced a four-year Liberal Education and Effective Practice (LEEP) program, which integrates professional-skills development, research opportunities and internships, the Wall Street Journal reported.

But the CDO’s ability to support students is limited by the College’s current academic policy, says Bernard. For example, offering academic credit for internships would have to be approved by faculty on the Education Policy Committee.

“We’ve been grappling in the back scenes with the concept of internships for credit, [which is] a hot potato here, because the institution is relatively conservative in how they want to see academic credit given,” said Bernard.

Currently, neither Haverford nor Bryn Mawr offers academic credit for internships, which is required by some employers who offer unpaid internships, in order to comply with federal labor laws.  Bryn Mawr does offer notation on student transcripts, which shows the completion of an internship rather than giving credit.

The college has, however, had classes in the past which incorporate internships as a part of the learning experience. For example, Stephen McGovern’s political science seminar, Grassroots Politics in Philadelphia, places students at internships in community-based public interest groups and city government entities to inform their study of grassroots activism.

“Not that any of our faculty would assume that the vast majority of our students are going to go on to be Ph.D’s or research and social scientists – but there is still that ethos that lives here, even though in reality we’ve got almost as many people going into for-profit professions as into education,” said Bernard.

For now, Denney says, any big changes to the CDO will have to wait for new leadership – not only for a new dean, but also for the next president.

The Board and senior staff are currently engaged in the early stages of strategic planning, the extensive process of examining the College’s priorities and needs moving forward, and deciding where to allocate funding. Incoming president Daniel H. Weiss will complete the Plan after he is inaugurated this coming Fall.

“Senior staff of the college needs to be behind any reenergizing of the CDO,” said Denney. “It’s everybody’s issue.”

Disclosure: The author of this article has received funding through the Career Development Office.

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