Jane Gawthrope is
the Manager of
the English Subject
• Do you know where your institution’s Careers Service is? (1 point).
• Have you ever been there or visited its website?
(1 point plus a bonus point if it’s in the last year).
• Can you name the careers adviser responsible for English? (1 point).
I suspect that most readers are struggling to score more than a point or two, which is why the English Subject Centre has been trying to encourage English departments and Careers Advisory Services to work more closely together for the benefit of students. Although, as an English lecturer, you may see yourself as spending much of your time ‘unfitting [your] pupils for the lives they will eventually have to lead’ (John Carey in the Listener, 1974), they generally expect to obtain a graduate-level job. To obtain that graduate-level job students need to be competent not only in their chosen subject, but have the self-confidence to apply the generic skills and subject knowledge they acquire at university to a changing workplace. (And before you turn over at the mention of the ‘skills’ word, I should remind you that the ‘skills’ most commonly highlighted by employers include problem-solving skills, communication skills, analytical skills and critical appraisal, exactly the sort of ‘skills’ you look to develop in your students.) A common theme running through my encounters with careers advisers is that English students have these skills in plentiful quantities, but are poor, or perhaps lack confidence, in understanding how they might be applied to the workplace. When it comes to articulating to a recruiter what they have gained through three years of studying literature, many graduates struggle to get beyond, ‘Well, I’ve read a lot of Victorian novels, but you won’t be interested in that ...’. (The Student Employability Profile, published by the English Subject Centre helps students to link the skills listed on the English Benchmark Statement to those typically sought by employers.)
We know that most students who choose to study English do so because they enjoy the subject rather than to fulfil specific career ambitions, but they are no different from other students in their expectation that higher education study will enhance their chances of getting a good job (see http://tinyurl.com/2ofblm). This perhaps explains the other comment frequently made by careers advisers, namely that English students are often reluctant to engage in career planning, are under the misapprehension that their degree alone will be sufficient to get them any job they want, and that they appear frightened by the employment treadmill.
This is the backdrop to the Subject Centre’s work with Careers Services: we wanted to bring academic departments into closer contact with Careers Services; to make the Careers Services on offer more tailored to the inclinations of English students; and also to ensure that student take-up of these services was encouraged by the department. In the summer of 2006, following a networking day for careers advisers working with humanities students, we offered small grants of £750 to Careers Services for one-year projects that enhanced their services for English students. This attracted 25 applications, but budgetary constraints meant that we could fund only 10. This number of applications indicated to me the high level of commitment, enthusiasm and professionalism abounding in Careers Services, and I was disappointed that we could not support more projects.
In some departments, English lecturers and careers advisers met for the first time in order to put together a proposal, so even some projects we were unable to fund benefited from the way that the grant created a focus for a joint meeting. Several of the funded projects initiated active collaboration between Careers Services and departments for the very first time. The projects running some sort of event had to involve departments simply because of timetabling arrangements, but careers advisers acknowledged that students were more likely to attend if invitations were issued by the department through e-mails or on its Virtual Learning Environmental (VLE) pages or in lectures. “Buy-in from academic staff is key,” said one adviser. In other projects, academic staff had a higher level of involvement. At Birmingham, for example, they helped to recruit alumni speakers through personal contacts, and Northampton staff participated in the delivery of workshops supporting the Personal Development Pack (PDP) pack that was developed. The ‘Careers Action Day’, run at the University of Reading, was a co-operative endeavour between the department and the Careers Service, and inaugurated a new era of collaboration.
As with academic departments, the growth in student numbers has meant that Careers Services are trying to do more with less, and it is often the fitting of services to the needs of particular discipline groups that has been sacrificed. As well as building relations between departments and Careers Services, several projects reported that being able to tailor an aspect of the service specifically for English students raised the profile of the service as a whole. Stephanie Darking at Brunel said, “I have seen more English students than formerly as a result of the higher profile of the Careers Service and had more frequent contact with students.”
Student involvement and new technology
Gone are the days when Careers Services consisted of rooms lined with ring-binders stuffed with information on occupations and companies. Most information is now delivered online, and supplemented by a battery of profiling tools and practice tests. And it’s not just a matter of replacing printed with web resources: the ‘Graduate Prospects’ project in Manchester ran a series of nationally available online chats with careers advisers; although the numbers participating in real-time were disappointing (43 in total), over 800 have accessed the archive versions since.
Several of the projects aimed to generate web resources specifically for English students, and in some cases these resources were produced by students themselves. “Student commitment and enthusiasm has been inspirational,” said one project leader. There is obviously a double benefit with these projects in that the students involved gain valuable experience of teamwork, project management and using IT as well as producing a resource of value to others. English students at Liverpool University produced a set of podcasts on commercial awareness based on interviews they conducted with employers. At the ‘Careers Action Day’ at Reading, students expressing interest in journalism were asked to write articles and were then given feedback by a professional, so active student involvement was a feature of several projects.
Get ‘em early
Three of the projects had the explicit aim of engaging students in career planning at an earlier stage in their university experience: a project at Edinburgh, for example, delivered a careers workshop specifically for first years. Although it may seem burdensome to confront students who have only just negotiated the bewildering university-choice-hurdle with yet another set of dilemmas about careers, it is necessary if they are to make the best of their time at university. The Edinburgh workshop informed students about the skills and experience in demand in the job market and how they might be developed through work experience, voluntary and extra-curricular activities while at university. A survey of second- and third-year students conducted by the Hertfordshire Careers Service concluded:
A significant majority of students were not well-established in their career exploration, and many were planning to enter careers in which they could draw on the skills developed in their degree, but without clear understanding of the additional skills and expertise they would need to cement their application in a highly competitive market.
In fact, only 8.7% of students surveyed had any work experience in the sector they wished to enter. “This is worrying in particular given the large numbers hoping to enter highly competitive sectors in which one works one’s passage through unpaid or low-paid work for a lengthy time,” said Catrin Davies, although she goes on to say, “those who did have experience linked to their aspirations and in a relevant sector had obtained highly impressive and serial experience”.
Another 8.7% could report no work or voluntary experience at all, even while at school. Catrin said:
Several of these students nonetheless assessed themselves as informed on the requirements for entry to their future career, and ... erroneously in my opinion, as prepared for entry (‘I have researched skills sought and have identified several examples of how I have demonstrated these’). Many of this minority appeared misinformed on the value of a degree alone without underpinning evidence of application of their skills in the wider world … Interestingly, in general, those students with more senior work experience were more modest in their claims to have the skills and experience to enter it. Those students with little or no work experience assessed themselves as well informed and prepared to meet the demands of their chosen field.
We know that most students who choose to study English do so because they enjoy the subject rather than to fulfil specific career ambitions, but they are no different from other students in their expectation that higher education study will enhance their chances of getting a good job.
Although we may resent the fact that students are placed under these pressures at a time when we would wish they are focused on study, in order to obtain a graduate-level job it is becoming increasingly necessary for students to demonstrate a blend of self-understanding, generic skills and subject understanding and to be able to provide evidence to back up claims or assertions. In more leisurely decades, students were able to provide this evidence in the natural course of engagement in student clubs and societies, but in today’s more pressurised environment careers advisers can offer support in identifying gaps in experience and suggest more structured ways of addressing them. PDP can be a way of guiding students through this process: the project at Northampton aimed to make clearer links between academic study and workplace skills through exercises aimed to encourage PDP processes piloted in workshops.
The projects we supported in 2006/2007 enhanced the range of resources available to assist in the personal and career development of English students. Notably, they were not narrowly focused on crude targets, such as improving the first destination statistics. They generated innovative ways of delivering services, and these innovations and the wider experiences of the projects were shared at another Networking Day for Humanities Careers Advisers, held in July 2007. One of the aims of this day was to encourage other Careers Services to adopt some of the ideas pioneered in the funded projects. The bridge-building between department and Careers Services, which the projects initiated, will in many cases be sustained beyond the life of the project, and several of the resources developed will of course have a shelf life beyond the year of funding. Because of the success of the last round of projects we are supporting a further six in 2007/2008.
I hope that this article encourages readers to make contact with their Careers Service or at least welcome any approaches from them. At the Networking Days it is evident that careers advisers are keen to build closer relations with academic departments, as well as being full of ideas for new ways of engaging humanities students. Very often, it is just endorsement and timetabling support they need from the department rather than any resource-intensive input. At the very least, you should see if you can increase your score in the introductory quiz!
More information on all the 2006/2007 careers projects can be found at:
and on the 2007/2008 projects at
Funded Projects 2006/2007
|Birmingham||Melanie Billingham||Alumni event|
|Brunel||Stephanie Darking||Careers magazine and website written by and
|Edinburgh||Janet Forsyth||Careers workshop and handout for first years|
|Gloucestershire||Nicki Castello||Web resources|
|Graduate Prospects||John Bellerby||Online chatroom|
|Hertfordshire||Catrin Davies||Survey, workshops and web resources|
|Liverpool||Diane Appleton||Podcast and printed guide on commercial awareness|
|Northampton||Andrea Duncan||Resource pack of PDP materials|
|Reading||Claire Jones||Careers Action Day|
Funded Projects 2007/2008
|Portsmouth||Julie Bush||Identifying and developing employability skills|
|London, Birkbeck||Diana Omololu||Podcast for mature students|
|Aberdeen||Regina Jäschke||Media vodcast|
|St Andrews||Bonnie Hacking||Enterprising English – using your degree to start your own business|
|Salford||Peter Ireland||Employer-led workshops for Creative Writing students|
|York St John||Liz Whitaker||
Resource for English language graduates