Career Counseling: From Transactional to Transformational

Written by
Emily Tobey

Nov 29, 2021

Nov 29, 2021 • by Emily Tobey

Ask students if they’ve used campus career services during their years at college or graduate school and they may or may not say yes. But perhaps a more important question is this: Did those who visited the career counseling office think it was helpful to them in preparing them for postgraduate life? According to a Gallup-Purdue Index Report from 2016, only 16 percent of college graduates report that their career services office was “very helpful.” And in many cases students avoid the center altogether or until senior year.

Whether because of fear, discomfort, or just not feeling ready, students often wait to visit a career center until they feel desperate. With an “I need help NOW because I’m completely at sea” mindset, it’s no wonder students aren’t getting satisfaction when they finally do reach out to (or are pushed into) career centers.

Institutions of higher learning are currently dealing with a confluence of events and circumstances that demand systemic change. With the cost of higher education climbing every year, students and their parents understandably want to know what the return on their investment will be. And, with the uncertainty and competitiveness of the current, constantly evolving job market looming over every soon-to-graduate student, pressure to get a good job and make a good living after college or graduate school can instill fear, and a good dose of anxiety, in the most even-keeled and accomplished students. Mental health statistics across college campuses bear this out. Sure, having a job lined up will likely alleviate panic, at least in the short-term. But maybe moving away from a mostly transactional approach to a more holistic one would promote long-term well-being and career satisfaction—and help students find a job.

Career Centers Face a Reckoning

Instead of seeing résumé or CV writing and job placement as their primary roles, career centers on many campuses are increasingly seeing their goal as more than enabling students to “get a job.” Career centers are taking a more holistic approach that starts when a student first enters college or graduate school. It’s a process that uses mindfulness and self-reflection and draws on the entire educational community. The idea is that career centers’ services should be embedded throughout the higher education experience from day one.

Two Experts in the Field Weigh In

Lorna MacEachern – Manager, myPath Career Program at McGill University

At McGill University in Montreal, students create an Individual Development Plan (IDP) that helps them learn about themselves, their interests, their strengths, and which skills they still need to acquire or hone. Lorna MacEachern and her team ask students what they want to get out of their degree and educational experience to make it meaningful to them. Her belief is that one’s career should be a manifestation of this kind of self-reflection. Reaching conclusions about where you are going and what you’ll be doing after graduating happens as a gradual process, not in a neatly defined moment.

With her colleagues at McGill, MacEachern created myPath, a series of tools and programs to assist students in creating their IDP. Throughout their time at university, McGill students are asked to use these tools to engage in some form of meaningful intention setting every year, with goals for career and professional development and, importantly, a focus on well-being. In feedback surveys, students report that working with the myPath tools has allowed them to feel less anxious about decision-making and their future. The program is guided by counseling psychology practices and career development theories, such as social cognitive career theory, and by the teachings of the renowned Stanford psychologist John D. Krumboltz. According to MacEachern, If you know who you are and what drives you, you will see the opportunities. It’s not that people are lucky, it’s that they recognize the opportunities that will be a good fit for them, and those that won’t.” If students develop this self-awareness, they will be better able to capitalize on chance events and turn serendipity into opportunity.

Marianna Savoca - Assistant Vice President for Career Development and Experiential Education, Stony Brook University

At Stony Brook University, State University of New York, career services is about creating an “ecosystem” that includes students, professors, departments, administrators, and coaches, all working as a multifaceted organism toward attaining the knowledge and skills needed to identify and get fulfilling jobs. Marianna Savoca describes it as a centralized and comprehensive career service. Their model is based on career communities, which are tied into the university’s academic programs and which often encompass several departments. For example, a student interested in product design might be advised by a career community composed of mentors in the English, engineering, and psychology departments. “Industry is interdisciplinary,” Savoca stressed. “It’s not siloed vertically the way academic departments tend to be.”

Savoca and her team use the phrase career development to describe what they do. Like McGill’s MacEachern, she avoids the more traditional structure of career counseling as job placement. She likes to think of herself as a curator of sorts, bringing the right people together as a network to support students. One of the ways she does this is by giving workshops to faculty and staff members on how to have “good career conversations” with students. The faculty members gain knowledge of how the integrated ecosystem works so that they can refer their students to the appropriate career coaching modules within the university.

Maybe Instead of Career Planning We Should Call It Life Planning

Attaining a job after graduation from college or graduate school is obviously important. It’s arguably one of the main reasons people invest in higher education. But getting a job for the sake of having a job shouldn’t be the endgame. Achieving a degree while looking toward the future should not be a student’s undoing. Well-being and self-fulfillment must go hand in hand with getting that job, or that job isn’t likely to pan out. If we recognize that career planning might be better thought of as life planning, these underutilized services on many campuses might go from transactional to transformational.