How to Become a Professional, Future-Proof Graduate

theuniversityblog professional future-proof graduate

When you’re stressed out and too busy to do all the things, what’s the first thing you would drop?

Students shun extra-curricular activities in favour of good grades, according to a GetRevising poll. Nearly three-quarters of respondents said they felt pressured by others to drop activities so they could perform better in exams and coursework.

When worried parents tell me their child puts professional projects first, they think it’s a bad thing.

Who is right? Those who ignore the activities or those who prioritise them?

How about understanding priorities across the board?

Priorities do change and you need to keep in mind WHY you’re doing all the things you’ve chosen to do. If it’s not good use of your time and you spend too much time on frivolous activities and fun, drop something!

But when you’re developing important new skills and building a portfolio of great work, why would you want to drop that?

You want the best grade possible. You also want to spend enough time doing new things. I’d choose a 2:1 and relatable experiences over a First and little else to showcase.

I’ll tell you what this DOES NOT mean:

  • Doing new things for the sake of new;
  • Too many new activities all at once;
  • No engagement with study because you’re spending all your time on other work.

What I DO mean is working toward one or two targeted activities that you can capitalise on.

Whatever ‘capitalise’ means for you, that is a big deal. I’m not just talking money, but experience, relationships, learning, and so on.

looking beyond

Looking beyond the degree

You’re paying for the academic side of university. You may think non-academic ventures could be conducted some other time. But university is a great place to encounter these frameworks.

What you get from university is far more than what you actually pay for. Not everything grows on fees.

Maybe this is a contextual problem. Perhaps the ‘degree’ should be packaged as more than the degree. Pathik Pathak suggests:

“I’d argue that the best way for universities to foster borderless skills is by embedding opportunities for entrepreneurship into a student’s experience of higher education. To do so, university curricula will need to evolve to fuse disciplinary knowledge with applications outside the classroom, fostering an appetite for continuous learning where skills are constantly reconfigured to match the size and shape of new problems.”

Universities could do more than extol the virtues of university life beyond study.

By bringing more into play for students, professional development can become an intrinsic choice.

Would you feel more at ease if you could make extra-curricular activities part of your academic intention while you’re in higher education?

University life should continue embracing learning for the sake of learning. Future employability is important for many, but shouldn’t overtake learning at its core.

At the same time, by introducing optional modules and activities with inherent industry benefit, these elements can be part of the ‘degree process’ even when they’re not explicitly part of your subject.

This matters for employers as well as students. A Guardian editorial last year makes the case:

“…a fifth of graduates are not in graduate-level employment three years after leaving university, employers complain that they still struggle to recruit people with the skills and qualifications they need, and the next generation of final-year school students will be looking with dismay at some universities’ student satisfaction ratings while contemplating the burden of leaving university with a debt of at least £27,000. And from next September, the grants that supported the poorest students and have done so much to widen access are being replaced with loans.”

This is why you need to make the most of your time at university.

Everything you do makes a difference. It’s not worth waiting to get your act into gear just before (or worse, after) you graduate. The time to strike is right now.

big picture story

Stories and big pictures

What are the two or three big items on your agenda for impact? This is more about planning than passion.

You don’t always need to name-drop big companies on your CV. You need a narrative.

Build the story of you and tell it from the rooftops.

More could be done to help you do this. Tristram Hooley states:

“What is lacking is access to the career education, advice and guidance that might help young people to actually engage with it and make sense of it.”

If you can’t make sense of things yourself, how do you make anything clear to employers?

It’s no wonder grades get precedence over everything else. It sounds right, it makes sense, and it’s what you pay for. But it can also be limiting, misunderstood, and wrong in some cases.

There’s a difference between struggling with academic work and spending less time on academic work. Struggling needs urgent treatment and support, while consciously limiting time is a subjective matter.

I’ve seen some students plan out their moves like a game of chess. They are several moves ahead and playing the long game. Study only suffers a little, but the payoff is much bigger in the grand scheme of things. The pros outweigh the cons by a wide margin.

A big picture attitude is hard to fake. You don’t fall into it by accident. It needs work and willpower. But it’s worth making a few small changes so you can focus on the outcomes you want from student and graduate life.

In other words, current priorities have to tie in with future priorities, otherwise you have a mismatch.

Without a match, you get into trouble when you reach the next point on your roadmap. You realise too late that your priorities don’t reflect the person you wanted to be after graduation.

separate to shape

Separate to shape

One way to begin shaping your narrative and honing your professional persona could be to separate the extra-curricular and the professional.

I tend to call anything outside the degree as ‘extra-curricular’. This could be a mistake.

A survey asked recruiters what they are looking for in graduates. Recruiters (and the survey) saw ‘professional experience’ as separate to ‘extra-curricular activities’.

That’s not to say you can’t get professional experience from clubs and societies. But it does highlight the need to tell your story effectively. Especially when activities aren’t always considered so important by employers.

Over 40% of recruiters want to see professional experience from graduate applicants. Yet a mere 10% were interested in extra-curricular activities.

To impress recruiters, emphasise the business qualities of your experiences, wherever they occurred.

That means highlighting your achievements and framing what you’ve done through examples and a narrative flow. You’ll impress more when you frame your achievements in the context of professional development.

Language makes a difference. And story captures more than a list of facts.

At the same time, recruiters also said in the survey that cover letters are the least interesting thing in their search for candidates.

What, no cover letters!?

Isn’t that where you can bring your story out most?

Don’t let the mixed message confuse you. I wouldn’t suggest you abandon cover letters yet.

Just make sure to work on story and flow in your CV and other supporting documents too. At the least, give examples of your skills through professional examples.

And find ways to express them in something other than a list format. A short sentence to provide detail of each of your most important skills may be all you need to set yourself apart.

Better still, build your online portfolio and provide access to your achievements in different formats. Not every role out there comes about through a CV or application form.

bullseye

Keep refining your story

You may still be uncertain whether to focus all your time on study, or whether to dedicate a bit more time on building a professional portfolio. The survey did find that UK employers are more likely to focus on grades than recruiters elsewhere in the world. Yet that still only accounted for less than a seventh of respondents.

You’ll always find some people who look at a single metric and won’t deviate. And some applications slip through because a computer rejects a certain piece of information. But these are not the norm and you don’t know the criteria anyway. Unknowns like these shouldn’t sway your long-term priorities.

Keep refining your story and keep developing your skillset. Although your degree results are important, they are just one part of the bigger picture.

Consider all your priorities and make sure they match with each other.

The second part of TheUniversityBlog’s tagline says, “Be the student you deserve to be“. To do that you must go way beyond academic work.

That’s why the first part of the tagline says, “Life shouldn’t stop when you study“.

Why Students Must Keep Consumer Attitudes Away From Day-to-Day Academic Work

keep-consumer-attitudes-away

Jim Dickinson asked on Twitter why it’s so difficult for some “to imagine that students can both be customers AND learners”. A binary is so often assumed between students as consumers and students as producers. Why can’t people be both at the same time? After all, we see matters on a multitude of levels. Why should this be any different?

I agree. That said, I worry about the way in which some people use the consumer mindset. It’s easy to have good intentions, yet drift off toward a limiting conclusion.

Dickinson explains why the binary attitude doesn’t work:

“[Students are] usually pragmatic, complex, practical people that are bright enough to know that their outcomes need some personal effort, but increasingly hacked off enough to demand redress when the institutions they’re mortgaging their future on let them down.”

The ability to seek redress when something goes wrong is important. What’s difficult is keeping consumerist attitudes away from day-to-day academic work.

In a post on Quite Irregular, Jem Bloomfield refers to a paper which found that students with a more consumer mindset would achieve lower grades:

“The authors studied students from a range of British universities, and asked them to indicate their level of agreement or disagreement with a range of statements intended to identify their attitudes, including their “learner identity” as someone who was engaged in intellectual development, and their “consumer orientation” as someone who was purchasing a product from the university. They also asked for the students’ most recent mark for assessed work.”

The paper concludes that “a lower learner identity was associated with a higher consumer orientation, and in turn with lower academic performance“.

Traditional school leaving students are already overwhelmed by the sheer number of changes and new considerations upon arriving at university. By introducing an additional layer of complexity that compels some students to look at value for money, there are potential dangers.

degree-as-mvp-while-you-innovate

Instead of coming to university with an open mind to enjoy and experience a wide range of what’s on offer, some students see the huge investment they’re making and keep their focus on only what they consider they are paying for. They break down contact hours from lectures and seminars into divisible chunks. Divide the annual tuition fee by the number of contact hours per year and *that* is how much it costs to attend a session.

Breaking down £9k into a per-lecture framework is sobering. And unhelpful.

The sobering effect can focus the mind on putting all effort into the academic work. It’s this added consumer element that creates a jarring effect. Students are shocked by their three dimensional life and react by putting their actions in two dimensional terms.

Bloomfield says:

“It frames a degree as something which they can just add to their existing collection of possessions. This prepares them to resist ideas which might call into question their previous assumptions, since this would reduce their already accumulated “store” of ideas, rather than adding to it. It also discourages them from taking intellectual risks, since these might damage their final mark and thus devalue the “product”, even if they might also result in personal development and new perspectives which could be useful in future.”

For decades, students in different subjects have compared their workload and structure of their degrees. One spends hours on experiments in a lab and have cosy lectures with just a few other students present. Another has a handful of lectures with a hundred others, losing much of that personal feel felt in a smaller group.

Even when the contact hours are the same, other differences are a marker of better or worse value for money.

This forces an even stronger consumer stance. It’s not about getting what you need, it’s about not being diddled. If someone else can have that level of experience for the same price, why can’t I?

Sheffield’s Vice-Chancellor, Professor Sir Keith Burnett, expresses his concern:

“[A powerful] but in my mind distorting, view comes from the idea that value of a course is not measured in cost or effort but simply in the quantity of contact hours. It is in the comparison between subjects that don’t involve practice and those that do that the sharpest comments arise.”

Such a focus on this limited definition of value doesn’t provide enough context. So those who want better value for money and focus on the transaction may get less value for money as a result.

pound-coins

Even students who align their consumer focus to achieving the best academic results possible aren’t setting themselves up so well for the future. They work to the detriment of everything else for a top result when they graduate, but what other qualities and achievements can they showcase? Employers won’t be interested in how many contact hours they had.

In fact, employers are already less likely to focus so hard on a person’s academic study, choosing to look more broadly at candidates.

Yet research by The Student Room and the University of Sheffield found that 68% of A-level students now plan to take a postgraduate course after they graduate. Respondents mostly want to ‘enhance their career prospects’ and many also believe that postgraduate study will give them better chances of employment and better salary.

Spot the disparity. There are many good reasons you can give for taking up postgraduate study. Is the thought of having more chance of a job a good enough reason on its own?

The transactional side of higher education feels both valuable and damaging at the same time. Gaps could be widening at a time when people think they’re being bridged.

So how can individuals keep their positive three dimensional perspective intact? One way is to stay aware of the hidden value that exists where consumer ideas haven’t yet strayed. Another is to stay focused on the bigger picture as opposed to only what you think you’re paying for.

But if you must have it in consumer terms, think of the degree as the minimum viable product and you as the innovative business. You build your business to improve the initial product.

That product may start as a degree, but thanks to you–the business–it can grow into an irresistible package that’s worth more than the sum of its parts. Synergy-licious!

Why Bias Begins Long Before University Applications

How much applicant information do you need to remove before university admissions lose all bias?

Trick question. There’s always some sort of bias.

Anything attempting to level the playing field is better than nothing, but inequalities cannot be removed as easily as removing a name, or grades, or an institution.

As with Deloitte’s decision to ignore which university applicants studied at, the removal of names from UCAS forms is positive, but there is more to consider.

As Vikki Boliver says in The Conversation:

“Admissions selectors will still see each applicant’s home address, the school they attended, what they have written about themselves in their personal statement and what their teacher has written about them in their reference. All of this may provide subliminal clues as to an applicant’s ethnic and social background. Where applicants are interviewed as part of the selection process, the scope for unconscious bias becomes wider still.”

Social background can make a huge difference to applications. Lauren Rivera, author of “Pedigree: How Elite Students Get Elite Jobs“, explains:

“Whether intentionally or not, elite parents expose their children to different experiences and styles of interacting that are useful for getting ahead in society.” – [SOURCE]

In exactly the areas where people are meant to stand out, some find it easier to do than others. Inequality starts early and may not even be deliberate. People want to do the best they can for their children with the resources they have access to.

Those with a disadvantaged upbringing in some way are less likely to succeed in using the systems in place to build an impressive personal statement. And if they do manage to attend their university of choice and graduate, there are further hurdles to cross in creating CVs and making job applications.

For example, extra-curricular activities are often dropped in favour of getting the academic work done. Rivera has studied this too and she believes there should be “less weight [given] to extracurricular activities” as they are “a huge source of class inequality whether it’s in university admissions or in interviews”.

Striving for a First gets in the way of making do with a 2:1 while building up other achievements and industry experience. Yet these differences are what employers differentiate on.

When it comes to making name- and qualification-blind decisions, it may appear over time that the same people as before are getting the university places and job offers.

The danger here is that some people may see this as proof that some people are naturally more accomplished than others. They will conclude that the cream really does rise to the top.

If a lack of change is apparent, that doesn’t mean these new approaches to university and job applications will have failed. But it will show that applications are not the original source of inequality. Bias begins long before university applications. There are many variables, which begin much earlier in life and can be difficult to overcome.

Top 20 Email Newsletters You Need To Know About

Top 20 Newsletters

Education, story-telling, and personal development.

These three things are roughly what I’m looking for in a good email newsletter.

I want to be entertained, to be challenged, to be informed, to be intrigued, and to be taken to places I may not have already gone to through my own curated feeds.

Does that sound like something you want in on too? Well, let me give you my current Top 20 email updates. In no particular order, here’s what I’m happy to see in my inbox:

1. Quartz Daily Brief

Since Quartz started this news update, it’s been the first thing I read each day. I don’t pay much attention to the news during the day, so this is the nearest I get to a briefing. And it’s fab.

The short weekend essay they send on Saturday is consistently winning too.

2. Doug Belshaw’s Thought Shrapnel

Productivity, education, and web links worth exploring every Sunday.

3. Oliver Quinlan’s Quinlearning

Oliver Quinlan recently introduced this newsletter after enjoying Doug Belshaw’s Thought Shrapnel. Similar in nature to Doug’s, but with different edulinks and recommendations for you, Oliver has started his newsletter off with a bang.

4. A Millennial Type

In Declan and Erica’s own words, “Empowering Millennials to LIVE, CREATE, PERSEVERE, and DREAM”. I can’t improve on that…they even use an Oxford comma.😉

5. Almost Timely (@cspenn)

Full of links on social marketing, technology, society, and all sorts of other things.

Penn’s premium content adds a nice touch to proceedings, with actionable advice on how to be one step ahead of the rest. Just keep it to yourself, he urges!

6. Chris Brogan

Chris Brogan’s Sunday newsletter is a friendly kick up the bum to help support you as an owner, preceded by a comment on what he’s drinking. Be sure to tell him what tipple you’re enjoying.

7. Primility

Jerod Morris already does a great job co-hosting podcasts like The Showrunner and The Lede (check these out too!).

Jerod has recently started a Primility movement, for balancing pride and humility. His newsletter gives you a dose of inspiration to start each week, as well as a roundup of all the daily Primility shows you can listen to.

Wrist bump!

8. Educating Modern Learners

The EML newsletter showcases exclusive content and comment on education issues, as well as great edulinks elsewhere on the web. Some great thought pieces to explore.

9. Hack Education

One of the co-founders of EML, Audrey Watters, also has her own fantastic weekly update. Hack Education doesn’t focus on just the positive stuff and the hype, and that makes it a breath of fresh air. Yours in struggle.

10. On Tap Education News Digest

I mainly use this on days when I’m not checking my own curated news feeds. But if you don’t already have education news ‘on tap’, this is a great daily email for you.

Mainstream media links, government and other sources, plus international stories, all ready for you to click or tap on and be informed about.

11. Annie Murphy Paul: The Brilliant Report

I first encountered Annie Murphy Paul in 2010 when I read her book, “Origins: How the nine months before birth shape the rest of our lives“. Her newsletter has engaging content on learning, based on cognitive science, neuroscience, and psychology.

12. Further

Brian Clark of Copyblogger writes about personal development each week.

He features a big topic in every issue and includes other links on health, wealth and wisdom. It’s my favourite Brian Clark thing (closely followed by Unemployable).

13. Harvard Business Review Management Tip of the Day

HBR has lots of email alerts, including a daily roundup of all that day’s stories published on the site. But the Management Tip of the Day is useful for more than managers. As a student, you can also get a dose of useful advice on taking action, persuading others, and being your best self.

Sign up at: https://hbr.org/email-newsletters

14. James Clear

On how to improve performance and form habits, James Clear’s articles are incredibly popular (200k+ subscribers). Worth a read for a part-story, part-evidence-based, part self-help way to give you a physical and mental boost.

15. The One Thing

Each week, Iñaki Escudero says, “There are many things going on, these are a few of my favorite ones”.

A quirky, informative, and fun email. “The One Tradition I wish I had”, “The One Business lesson to learn from a 13 year old girl”, “The One Thing nobody can do”, “The One Chart to question our assumptions”…Lots of stuff that’ll stick with you.

16. No Sidebar

At work, at home, and in your soul…No Sidebar is an informative look at calming down your life so you can do more with less.

17. Storythings

A selection of stories from the week that you may not have read about. They helpfully tell you how long each piece should take to read.

18. The Daily Water Cooler

This is awesome if only for the two animated gifs you get each day. Coming from someone who doesn’t enjoy much about animated gifs, it’s high praise!

You’re also treated to links worth sharing, as well as a (US-centric) look at news in business, politics, sports, and culture.

19. The Long + Short

From innovation charity Nesta, a free online/mobile magazine that “tells stories of innovation that are thoughtful, hopeful and questioning”. Some are long reads and some are short. Hence, the Long + Short.

The weekly newsletter also has other stories of innovation from elsewhere on the web that are well worth a read.

20. University World News

Not content with your own national higher education news? Get a briefing on what’s happening all over the world, with useful comment pieces too, from University World News.

BONUS! – 21. Nuzzel

It’s not quite an email subscription, but a great alert service. Customise it to show you the most popular links being shared by people you follow on Twitter. The online service is great and the powerful email alerts tell you when a certain number of people have tweeted the same link.

You can also get daily email updates of the most popular links from the previous day.

What have I missed? Let me know what newsletters you look forward to getting. Tweet me up…I’m @universityboy.