Q&A: Be true to your school: The career office is there for a reason

March 13, 2009

If you're preparing to graduate from college this spring, I imagine you've developed a new obsession: Employment.

According to Marthe Druska, Senior Associate Director of Career Advising and Planning Services (CAPS) at the University of Chicago, the job hunt is in full swing on the South Side campus. She helps students and alumni secure internships and full-time opportunities, connects employed alumni with job-seeking undergrads and maintains a CAPS blog to answer students' questions. Below, she talks about her experience at CAPS and offers advice for those doing the "job thing" for the first time.

1. How has the recession affected the demand for your services, both by soon-to-be grads and alumni?

The economic climate is certainly at the forefront of everyone's minds, especially for students about to graduate. We've seen an increase in the number of alumni who have contacted our office, both recent alumni who are 1 to 5 years out of school and more experienced alumni. These are individuals who have either been laid off, are concerned about being laid off, or are considering a career transition. Student demand for our services has remained strong as students are thinking about summer plans and planning for internships.

2. What are the biggest obstacles facing your students and how can they overcome them?

The obvious answer is the economy, and the fact that fewer organizations are hiring. We're advising both graduating students and alumni to start early and to be open minded. Students who may have been determined to go into a particular industry, or even to work at a specific organization, really need to widen their search. In addition, more than ever, networking is such an important career search tool right now. Companies are still hiring, but the more connections students can make with alumni and other professionals in their fields of interest, the better. We're really encouraging students to reach out to alumni, and to go on information interviews. Even if there isn't a position open at this time, it never hurts to learn more about an organization and express your interest in working there.

The other piece of important advice is not to get discouraged. This can be difficult when it seems as if there aren't many jobs available right now. Being organized is very important: keep a spreadsheet of the positions that you've applied to, the people that you've met with, and the follow up that you've done with each organization.

3. What are the 3 most important pieces of advice you give to imminent grads looking for jobs?

1. Expand the areas that you are looking at. Especially for students at the University of Chicago, where a liberal arts education is so important, they have strong, transferable skills. So consider fields or lesser known organizations that you may not have planned to apply to. Education and healthcare are two areas that are doing well right now, despite the economy. And even in hard hit areas like financial services, there are smaller, boutique firms that are hiring.

2. Make sure you have a targeted resume and cover letter. For every position that you apply for, the resume and cover letter that you submit should reflect that you've read the job description carefully and researched the organization. Sending a generic resume or a generic cover letter to an organization is one of the fastest ways to remove yourself from consideration. It's also important to relate the experience that you already have back to the position you are applying for. It's not enough to state in your cover letter what you've accomplished in previous positions - you also have to explain why those skills are relevant to the position you are applying for. Imagine that you tell a potential employer about a skill set you already possess. Now imagine that employer asks, "So what? What can that do for me?" Try to answer those questions in your cover letter.

2b. It goes without saying, NO TYPOS in your resume or cover letter. Have a friend, roommate, partner, someone read your materials to make sure you're not missing any grammatical or spelling errors. 3. Follow up. Following up includes sending a thank you email or note AND checking back in if you don't hear from an organization or individual. You don't want to be pushy (calling or emailing every day is not acceptable) but you also want to stay on people's radars. I can't tell you the number of times that I've heard from a student "I submitted my resume, but then I never heard anything back." But that student never called to follow up and emphasize his or her interest in the position. 3b. Say thank you. Always. You'd be surprised how many people don't send thank you notes after an interview. It doesn't guarantee that you'll get the job, but it does make you stand out from the pack.

4. How has the recession affected the level of on-campus recruitment and recruiters' interest in your students?

We haven't really heard that recruiters would prefer to hire alumni, as opposed to graduating seniors. We have seen a decrease in the number of organizations who came to campus for full-time recruiting this past fall. We've seen a slight decrease in the number of organizations who attended our fall and winter career fairs this year, but that was very slight -- for the most part those numbers have remained strong. However, at the same time we're still seeing quite a bit of interest in internship recruiting. We currently have over 250 Jeff Metcalf Fellows Internships available to our students -- these are paid, substantive summer internship opportunities exclusive to University of Chicago undergraduates -- so while it's been challenging, we have still seen some growth.

5. For the coming school year, how does CAPS plan to continue helping students through this difficult time?

Our mission continues to be to connect undergraduates, graduate students and recent alumni to opportunities in a wide range of fields -- this has not changed. At the same time, we do want to provide as much support as possible to both students and alumni during this difficult time. On the undergraduate side, we are developing new programming for this spring that will address looking for positions in a difficult economy, and strategies for seeking out those "hidden" positions in this job market. On the graduate side, there is a similar series of workshops planned for this spring, for students both interested in continuing in academia, and for those who are looking to enter the post-academic job market. To read more about the undergraduate programming, you can go here; for upcoming graduate student programming, you can visit here. And for alumni who are entering the job market, we are continuing to work with our colleagues in Alumni Relations and Development to provide both one-on-one advising and programming for individuals with more experience. This includes offering more appointments for more experienced alumni, and developing regional networking events for alumni across the country who are seeking job resources.