Creating a Niche Service for Graduate Students

In August 1999, I began a new career path in the area of student employment as manager of Dalhousie University's Student Employment Center. Having worked for 15 years at universities in alumni relations and fund-raising capacities, Dalhousie recognized that my experience in relationship building, marketing, and working with people should transfer well to servicing students and employers. My first priority, of course, was to come up to speed quickly on the current practices in student employment both at Dalhousie and within Canada. This turned out to be on-the-job-training, as the influx of new and returning students and the fall recruiting period were soon upon the Student Employment Center. Once I gained some comfort with the basics, I sought out learning in related programs and services. One of the most interesting was right in my own backyard.

Dalhousie Career Portfolio was introduced in 1998 to integrate career development, experience, and skills with undergraduate liberal arts and sciences studies. Under the direction of Dalhousie's vice president, student services, the program initially offered two career-related credit courses and a skills transcript program, providing students with documented evidence of employability skills gained through coursework.

At a meeting of senior academic representatives to communicate the vision and components of Dalhousie Career Portfolio, the question was raised, "How can we use this program to help graduate students?" The response was to include provisions for career and employment services to graduate students into a successful funding proposal to the J. W. MacConnell Foundation. So, when I took on the responsibility for general student employment servicing, I also acquired the exciting challenge of helping to implement a new service area centered on providing Dalhousie's graduate students with career and employment servicing.

As an early measure, an external researcher was contracted to determine the employment-related needs of graduate students, both on and off campus, what is currently being done by graduate departments at Dalhousie, and what models are in place at North American universities. It was found that there is a gap between what students want and what faculty are prepared to give. Some students are looking for information about work beyond academia and reported frustration in securing this information through available channels. The consultant's report confirmed that we were on the right track, and the development of Graduate Student Employment Services (GSES) at Dalhousie University was officially under way.

The first step was to define the key staff role and move to hire a coordinator to bring the research, plans, ideas, and vision to reality. This process started in late fall 2000, and an experienced career counselor and job developer started work on 2 January 2001. A support person was also hired. The result for Dalhousie's Student Employment Center is that we now have the resources to service the entire student population, undergraduates and graduates, in a way that meets their distinct needs.

Quenta Tynes, GSES coordinator, states, "I see GSES as being a gateway for graduate students into areas previously unexplored. Graduate students can obtain thoughtful and unbiased support in exploring career options whether within the academy or in industry. GSES will also provide students with direct links to employers and assist them in promoting their skills to some of the best companies in Canada and internationally."

With the coordinator in place, a 6-month implementation plan was developed that identified four main operating fronts: statistical and program research, oncampus visits, internal promotion, and Web site development. Currently in the fifth month of operation, progress has been made in all areas.

The most valuable and informative activity has been the series of meetings with faculty and student representatives. Of the 68 departments offering graduate programs, Tynes has met with faculty or students or both from 25 departments. Written contact has been made with all departments. Other connection points have been with the office of the Faculty of Graduate Studies, four administrative units, and two graduate student associations.

The common thread throughout these interactions is the positive response to the concept. The students, particularly, have been enthusiastic in their feedback, and the visits have already resulted in job-search workshops conducted or planned. Students have accessed the coordinator and service to seek information on career options, job-search tools, and connections to employers in an industry of interest. Faculty members have identified opportunities for collaboration by accessing the resources of GSES to complement department-based career-related activities.

Students have told us that there are graduate students who want to pursue roles not traditionally associated with their studies. They see GSES as assisting them in identifying transferable skills and expanding their career possibilities. An important role identified by some students is the service's ability to introduce the strengths of graduate students to potential employers. Some, too, were surprised by the scope of the developing service and its mandate to be much more than a placement service. One student commented, "At the very least, you will get grad students thinking about, and acting upon, their career options earlier rather than later."

To ensure that we stay focused on the needs of students, faculty, and employers, an Advisory Committee is being struck with representation from these key groups. Its role is to aid in the development and delivery of the service.

Now that the internal foundations have been developed, it's time to move beyond the campus and start an integral element: relationship-building with employers. Research and analysis is under way to build a database of graduate-friendly employers. We are looking at Dalhousie's current slate of employers and publications, such as Canada's Top 100 Employers and Who's Hiring 2001, and keeping informed with what's happening in business, manufacturing, emerging industries, the economy, and all that affects employment. Initial contact is being made with identified organizations, and direct follow-up is planned. Most employers are interested or at least curious enough to want to be included in future marketing activities.

Also being investigated is connecting with alumni from Dalhousie's graduate programs. Alumni can be a valuable resource to students as career mentors, information sources, or even door openers with targeted employers.

It's quite early in the design and development of Dalhousie's Graduate Student Employment Services, but those of us working on it are very satisfied with responses from key client groups and the progress made on delivering desired components. A formal evaluation is planned after the first full year of operation. This process, along with input from the Advisory Committee, will highlight what's working, what's not, and where efforts and resources should be concentrated in the future.

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