The four career preparation behaviours of recent graduates

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This piece - and the research it cites - was co-authored by Dr Caroline Kamau, a lecturer in organisational psychology at Birkbeck, University of London. The research this paper is based on is open access - click here if you'd like to read it. 

Preparing for the graduate job market is a tough challenge that should involve career goal setting. Graduate employability is a hot topic and statistics show that, compared to older graduates and non-graduates, new graduates suffer a higher risk of unemployment.

The Confederation of British Industry reports that employers are concerned about the workplace readiness of new graduates. A report for the Association of American Colleges & Universities tells a similar story.

Businesses and government bodies are saying that new graduates lack the right skills but we actually disagree. We argue that new graduates are not actually under-skilled; rather, new graduates are facing tremendous pressure to compete with older graduates and non-graduates for a small number of jobs within a crowded labour market.

Phillip Brown and Anthony Hesketh, in their book ‘The mismanagement of talent: Employability and jobs in the knowledge economy,’ similarly argued that there is in fact an oversupply of graduates. The challenge is therefore to start career preparation as early as possible.

Career preparation – start early

An interesting article by Vicki Smith reviewed employability strategies used by students.

The strategies include getting a ‘foot in the door’ (doing under-paid or unpaid work with an organisation to gain experience), spending time in training and networking, and internalising professional standards and identities.

Like many in Higher Education, we are concerned that it is tempting for students to leave career preparation until it is too late.

It is understandable that students would like to concentrate on their studies and enjoying campus life, but delaying career preparation until the last moment is not a good idea. In their first or second year of study graduation may seem like a long way away, and it is all too common to find final year students who have only just started thinking about their future career plans – or in some cases are still yet to explore their career options.

As lecturers we emphasise, right from day-one at university that students must start thinking about their career plans.

Students’ workload actually had no negative impact on career preparation behaviour.

Students must start planning and strategising about where they want to be. Career exploration, networking with professionals, seeking career advice, and gaining experience, all requires time but this is time worth investing.

It is great to find students who are very career driven even from day one; these students start preparing for their career early on as they take on the challenge of getting ready for the tough labour market as early as the first year at university, and it gives them the edge in years to come. 

Career goal setting

Goal setting theory, developed by Edwin Locke and Gary Latham, states that people perform most effectively when they set themselves challenging, specific, and achievable goals.

These goals must be challenging in order to encourage new approaches to a problem. Goals must also be achievable in order to avoid discouragement.

These goals must also be specific in order to enable individuals to monitor how much progress has been made.

In our recent study, we investigated the extent to which undergraduate students’ tendency to set challenging self-development goals lead to career preparation behaviours.

We also investigated whether how undergraduates perceive their workload (both academic and employment-related) detracts from their career preparation behaviours.

We surveyed 432 undergraduate students from across nearly 20 universities in the United Kingdom.

The students were asked to report the extent to which they preferred to set themselves challenging goals, how much workload pressure they experienced in their studies and in employment, the extent to which they felt committed to their career goals, the extent to which they engaged in career preparation behaviour, and how employable they believed themselves to be.

Learn the 4 career preparation behaviours

We distinguished between four types of career preparation behaviour:

  • Career planning
  • Career consultation
  • Career networking
  • Skill development for the future

We analysed the data using a statistical technique called Structural Equation Modelling that examines path effects in psychological variables. 

We found the results interesting because students’ workload actually had no negative impact on career preparation behaviour.

We concluded that workload is not necessarily a barrier to career preparation.

Secondly, our results showed that students who seek challenging self-development opportunities are more likely to be spending time talking to others about their career goals, and spending time in both developing skills and building networks. Additionally, students who express higher commitment to their career goals are also more likely to be engaged in all four career preparation behaviours.

Surprisingly, only two of these career behaviours actually made students feel more employable: network building and skill development.

We concluded that workload is not necessarily a barrier to career preparation.

Our results show that making career plans and talking with others does not actually make you feel more employable unless you are doing this strategically.

What matters is that you actually put to action what you have talked about: do not miss out on implementing helpful advice.

If you are a student, make sure that you fully utilise your university’s career services. Our findings show that many students primarily speak to family and friends about their career plans, which can be helpful, but we also recommend independent advice from a careers officer.

Ambition, ambition

What does this mean for encouraging students to prepare for their careers? For those who work in Higher Education, we should be encouraging students to set challenging goals for themselves, and that means supporting ambition.

For students, have an early commitment to your career goals and start strategising towards your future career as early as year one at university. The challenges facing graduates in achieving career success are something that universities have a role to play in, to help promote graduate employability.

The employability of new graduates is a complex challenge lacking simple solutions, but we can say from our research that part of the solution is to encourage career preparation behaviours among students from as early on in university as possible. In short, set your career goals early and make them challenging.

About Andrew Clements

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