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From College to Career Amidst the Coronavirus

How can college students move forward with their career plans?

If you’re enrolled in college right now, there’s no question that your world has been turned upside down. Every part of your life has been disrupted, whether it’s your ability to socialize with friends, attend classes, participate in traditional student activities, or develop your career plans. You might have been called back from a study abroad experience. You might have had plans to study abroad which had to be postponed. With everything so disrupted this fall, it would be understandable if you are exhausted, stressed out, anxious, frustrated, or feeling hopeless. But even though your life may have changed dramatically, you can still make progress in your career path.

Transitioning out of college and into the job market is filled with enough stress generally, much less adding a pandemic to it all. If you are currently searching for a job, you will need to devote more time than usual to the process. Don’t try to go it alone. (If your emotions are overwhelming you, seek help from your college's counseling center.)

So how do you cope? What do you need to focus on to keep your career plans moving forward even when everything around you is disrupted? Here are a few ideas to help you get started.

1. Start where you are and acknowledge what you’re going through. This pandemic hasn’t been easy on anyone. The amount of work that colleges and universities have had to undertake to continue operating is almost unimaginable. Everyone is tired. Everyone has been pushed to their limits. So it’s OK to stop a moment and breathe. It’s OK to put some of your plans on hold. Be kind to yourself.

2. Focus on what helps you—what makes you feel better. For some people, continuing the job search provides direction and a sense of accomplishment. For others, it’s just too overwhelming. So know where you are in this process and determine what must happen versus what can be postponed. Only you know that. And get support throughout the process from your friends, professors, administrators, and alumni from your institution. In fact, you might want to specifically seek out alumni who graduated in 2009—they faced a big challenge with a job market that sank after the recession of 2008. They can empathize and share with you their ideas for facing a difficult job market.

3. Use your career center to learn about which employers are still hiring. I am in regular contact with career center directors across the nation, and if there is one thing I have learned, every career center has worked hard to pivot from in-person to virtual environments. Almost every career center is seeing students virtually, holding workshops and programs virtually, and many are continuing to host job fairs virtually.

So show up. Schedule an appointment. Talk with a career coach who can help you create your own plans. Use the career center’s employer connections to find internship and job opportunities. Check out the programs and workshops. The truth is, many programs are better online because the guest speakers no longer have to travel long distances to speak to you. The Zoom environment has opened up lots of opportunities for career-development activities. And the employers are still recruiting even if they aren't physically on campus.

4. Work on improving your online presence. With in-person interviews limited, employers are increasingly using sites like LinkedIn to search for candidates, making your online brand and presence more important than ever.

  • Is your LinkedIn profile current?
  • Does it showcase your skills?
  • Have you used keywords related to the positions you’re seeking?
  • Try reading job announcements of positions you would like to have in the future. Do you have the necessary skills and knowledge? Make sure your profile shows that.
  • Read online articles in your field of interest and post them on your LinkedIn feed.
  • If you’ve written an interesting paper for a class, consider summarizing your research findings into 3-4 paragraphs and posting as an article on LinkedIn. Be sure to include your citations, and if possible, link to them.
  • Use LinkedIn to connect with alumni and others who can help you learn more about the career you’re seeking.

5. Commit to creating a professional virtual presence at online interviews or networking sessions. Make sure you have a reasonably quiet setting to conduct Zoom interviews. Ensure that your lighting is good so the employer can see you. If your room or location isn’t conveying you at your best, use a nice neutral background. Many colleges and universities have created their own logo-based backgrounds, which can provide a nice frame for you. Practice your responses to interviews and record yourself so you can see how you come across in an interview. Make sure you maintain good eye contact with the interviewer and aren’t looking down too much.

6. If you don’t have to seek employment immediately, take advantage of the “pause.” Use this time to explore possible careers and ponder your future. No employer will question why you didn’t have a job during this time period.

  • Where would you like to be in 5 years? 10 years? 20 years? Even though you can really only guess at these answers, just thinking about your life 5 years from now can give you a mental lift and help you think beyond your present circumstances.
  • If you have some ideas about what you might do in the future, what could you start doing now to prepare for that?
  • What books could you read or podcasts could you listen to?
  • How could you build up your network and start connecting with alumni, for example, who could help you figure out your future plans?

Again, this is a perfect time to have a Zoom meeting with a career coach from your career center.

7. Focus on enhancing your career readiness by building up your skills and knowledge. The National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) publishes a regularly updated list noting the key competencies employers are seeking from recent graduates. These competencies include teamwork/collaboration, professionalism/work ethic, oral/written communications, critical thinking, and digital technology. Knowing that these are attributes and skills employers are seeking, how could you build those skills now during a pandemic?

Certainly, most of us could say we have improved our technical skills. Teachers and professors have had to completely redesign their courses quickly and develop online assignments and exercises.

  • What new software or apps have you had to learn?
  • How have you successfully navigated the online environment?
  • When it comes to work ethic and professionalism, how have you had to adjust your schedule to accommodate all the changes that have occurred in your life? How have you successfully managed your assignments and papers in this environment?
  • Have you had an online internship or job? How did you manage to work from home and stay focused?
  • What are you reading and doing to encourage critical thinking? Hopefully, your classes are helping with this and you are continuing to complete your assignments and readings. But what more could you do to improve your critical thinking? Are you taking advantage of the current political situation to develop your thoughts on what elements need to change in the USA or whatever country you live in? Instead of accepting what you are told by various networks, are you reading key newspapers to learn different viewpoints? Are you listening to podcasts that help shape and challenge your thinking? What subjects concern you or interest you? The environment? Social justice? Education? Read more about these areas and study different points of view. Determine where you stand on these issues and whether your interest could be parlayed into a career.

One student I worked with had to quarantine for two weeks over the summer. Instead of just sitting in his room and watching TV or playing video games, he set a goal to read as many books as he could. He worked his way through a variety of books—nonfiction and fiction. He then started a video project taking clips of everyone he encountered through Zoom and creating a “video history” so to speak of his communications and connections throughout the summer. He is going to have some interesting stories to tell a future employer about his pandemic experience.

Bottom line: Keep in mind that things will change. This pandemic, despite its disruptions, will not last forever. Based on current predictions, a vaccine will be available at some point in 2021, and many health experts are predicting a return to normality by 2022. So if you are in school, keep going if you can. If you need to take a break or GAP period, make the most of it. Keep making progress on your degree and your personal/professional development so that when the economy opens up, you will have the education and experience you need to ace that interview and get the job you’re seeking.

©2020, Katharine S. Brooks. All rights reserved.