I have been asked frequently by students for career advice as the nonprofit that I am affiliated with, Education for a Better America, has been conducting career readiness activities across the country. The tips below are written informally and meant to give students a few tangible steps to help them navigate their journey.
1. Begin working on securing employment very early in your program and not at the end.
There will most likely not be a guaranteed job after you graduate. It will be incumbent on you to do everything that you can do to create opportunities for yourself. Secure paid or unpaid internships or part time employment in the field that you want to be in while you are in school. You don't necessarily know what you're getting into if you don't have experience doing it. Even if you have a negative experience, they can be just as informative as positive experiences. We were all told to get good grades and to study hard growing up, but do not expect for your hard work in a classroom setting to immediately translate to the workplace. It is imperative that you mirror your classroom experience with real time work.
With that being said, don't put more on your plate than you can handle. There is no excuse for academic failure. You must have the ability to balance gaining work experience with academic excellence. Gaining relevant experience in your field will give you a competitive advantage in the job market and better prepare you to excel in your role after you attain it.
2. Explore and follow up on multiple career paths in case opportunities in your preferred path are not immediately available.
You want to have the widest array of career options available to you as possible. You may be aiming to secure a career opportunity in a space where there are many people vying for just a few openings. Therefore, you want to position yourself to be able to make a living in an area that is relatively close to your preferred area until a desirable opportunity in your preferred area is available.
3. Constantly focus on how concepts that you learn in your classes can be applied to real life.
I once took a Nonprofit Management course while getting my Master's Degree. I did just enough to get a satisfactory grade and didn't really apply myself to learning the content at the level that I should have. I had no idea at the time that I would find myself at the head of a national nonprofit organization a few years later. I missed the opportunity to be better prepared and more informed to operate as a nonprofit executive.
Do things that are hands on. If your curriculum does not already have activities that are hands on, then you need to take it upon yourself to find training programs that will force you to use these skills hands on. You don't want your first real test to be when your mortgage is on the line.
4. Recognize barriers, but persist in spite of them.
The doors to employment or opportunity can seem to be closed. There are policies and practices that have been deployed at many institutions that have yielded disparate outcomes even if they did not emanate from discriminatory intent. Despite these barriers, you must continue to do everything that is within your capacity to make yourself a more attractive candidate. You can do this by increasing your knowledge, skills, and abilities and putting together a tangible track record of achievement in your field of interest.
Ultimately, we know that education is inextricably linked to economic development. More than half of the new jobs that will be created in the next decade will require some type of post-secondary education. We need you all to continue to pursue knowledge and training, become gainfully employed, and create opportunities either through entrepreneurship or other means for our communities to develop.
Marcus Bright, Ph.D. is a political and social commentator.