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Setting Priorities: One-Topic-at-a Time

EACE Blog contribution by Alfreda James, Assistant Director, Graduate Student and Post Doc Career Services at Stony Brook University 

I was feeling whipsawed one day. Dates, programs, people overlapped into nonsense. The remedy for this mental state? I drew columns on a sheet of paper, wrote down dates, names, and locations. The physical act of writing lowered stress hormones, released memory, and reconnected my intention with action.

Should we install personal fMRI (functional magnetic resonance image) scanners in our offices to see when our brains are overwrought? Better still, should we run our students through fMRI scanners to monitor blood flow and neuronal activity while we speak about major to career, job search strategies, professionalism, personal branding, and other topics?

Let’s set priorities and re-direct our conversations when:

  • Students confuse completion of a degree with preparation for a career. From the students’ point of view, the existence of a degree is proof of skills development. Employers do not agree. And thanks to The PreparedU Project, a survey commissioned by Bentley University, we have insight about discrepancies between students and employers. Prepared by KRC Research, PreparedU, sought to understand “why, what, and how” the current generation of students understands the workforce. Inter-generational dissonance is not new. My cohort of baby-boomers used generational conflict to identify a common enemy (the Man, the System, the Powers-that-Be) and now are in position to even define our later years against previous notions about aging. So, what’s the big deal if the current group of college students perceives reality differently than the folks in charge of hiring?

First, there are media images encouraging and validating unproductive behavior. The ‘vocal fry,’ the habit of dropping and extending vocal pitch to produce a creaky sound is a good example. Think Kim Kardashian and you’ll grasp how a media personality can influence the sight and sound of a generation. In Vocal Fry May Undermine the Success of Young Women in the Labor Market  researchers found that “young adult female voices exhibiting vocal fry are perceived as less competent, less education …and less hirable.”  What other “less hirable” traits do we witness every day but don’t address as we run between events and serve on multiple campus committee? How often do we position ourselves to offer critical feedback to students?

Second, constructive criticism of a generation risks becoming unhelpful kvetching about undergraduate and graduate students.  The public comments from the American Right and American Left about the purpose, outcomes, and goals of higher education leaves students in a muddle. It is easier to complain than to offer remedy. If career professionals are not busy each hour, then higher education critique implies we are misusing our time or underserving students or not contributing to the institution’s mission.  Whatever happened to listening, responding, and teaching?

Here’s my suggestion: rather than offer a menu of choices during each career counseling appointment, we go for depth and focus the conversation on one to two topics. Let’s give ourselves and our students the chance to define, think, and evaluate.

Alfreda S. James, PhD

Alfreda S. James, PhD

Alfreda S. James, PhD specializes in counseling graduate students about career options. She advises graduate students as well as undergraduates pursuing careers in public policy, government, and science. Dr. James is currently a member of the IDP Task Force and the WISE Admissions Committee. Women in Science and Engineering (WISE) provides four year scholarships to undergraduates pursing degrees in STEM disciplines. She served two terms as an evaluator for the Turner Graduate Fellowship Program. The Turner Fellowship provides financial support to underrepresented graduate students. Dr. James is also a member of the university’s HealthierU strategic planning committee, responsible for promoting wellness and health activities to over 14,000 employees.


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