May 24, 2013

An open letter to Career Advancement

Career Advancement's recent changes are not sustainable without clearer aims and a stronger mission statement.

Dear Career Advancement,

Let me preface this letter by acknowledging your many improvements and successes (UChicago Careers in Business and the other UCI programs, a record amount of Metcalfs, etc.) and the fact that there is much potential in what your organization is capable of achieving. The latter reality is what makes the current state of affairs between students and Career Advancement (CA) so frustrating. In this letter, I hope to convey my insights about various issues surrounding CA and offer potential changes. These are insights that I have gleaned as an undergraduate student worker; they are thus limited.

1) There is a lack of cohesion in CA’s mission.

One of the most important things an organization needs is a strong mission statement that should guide its actions. The end of the “About” section of your Web site reads, “Our goal at Career Advancement is to help University of Chicago students and alumni achieve theirs.” While a broad mission statement is important in keeping the flexibility of an organization to adapt and grow, it is equally important to keep a mission statement focused enough that the organization can prioritize goals and actions.

Right now, CA is all over the place. There is an Employer Relations and Development team that works solely with employers, a general advising team that works purely with students, people who work within the respective University Careers In (UCI) programs, people who are liaisons to alumni, Admissions, and other university departments. All of these people serve valuable functions, and I understand that our school is diverse in terms of networks and interests. However, I worry that your staff has become so compartmentalized that it forgets your central mission: to connect and guide students to opportunities they want. If you bring on 50 new banks as employers and you have three students who want to work at an aquarium, you are not fulfilling the central mission of connecting students to opportunities that they want.

2) There is a disconnect between CA and students

Simply put, there are two nodes you must think about: the student and the opportunity.

Now, I understand that a large part of CA is helping students figure out a starting point, and having a vast array of employers is helpful in demonstrating what is possible and available.

However, learning more about the students plays an equally critical part in helping students figure out their career paths. For example, Hack@UChicago currently handles all the technical recruiting on campus because there is no one at CA with the technical computer skills to liaise for them. If you don’t take the time to learn about and work with students, it ends up being a lose-lose situation: You get frustrated that employers aren’t hiring students, and students get frustrated that you aren’t helping them find opportunities they want.

3) Recent adjustments have been minor or ineffective.

This summer, there was an overhaul of your brand. Gone is the Career Advising and Planning Services name. Chicago Careers In… became UChicago Careers In. Your Web site changed. Considering these changes, I hoped that I might find a brand new organization, as the overhaul suggested. Instead, you got a face-lift when you really needed a heart transplant.

While the new Web site looks nicer, the Chicago Career Connection (CCC) Web site, where all the jobs and internships are listed, is as broken as ever. The new features added to the CA site did not add any significant functionality. I would rather have CCC look like Craigslist—which is extremely functional, albeit ugly—than be sleekly designed but dysfunctional. We have many students who have the skills to build a perfectly functional CCC—take advantage of that! I guarantee that if you paid a couple students the amount you pay Symplicity, CCC would be fine.

4) CA has a poor organizational culture.

The high turnover rate among CA personnel does not bode well for an organization. Few CA advisors from my first year are still here, and that has serious consequences for students, for whom continuity and working relationships with career advisors can be the difference between finding the right career path and fighting unemployment. And the effects of this turnover can be felt across the CA spectrum—that is, it doesn’t just damage relationships between students and full-time employees. Take the Career Peer Advisor (CPA) program for example. It has been around for three years, which should be more than enough time to establish itself. Instead, it has been punted around as a program for the newest hire to take care of, and CPAs regularly vacillate between being endorsed as part of CA to being unpaid errand boys (and girls).

There are some solutions to the problems I’ve enumerated here. First: Self-awareness is crucial for improvement. It is important that you understand your unique place in the University—as the office in charge of guiding several thousand students closer to their career goals and futures—and maintain such a vision in your mission statement. If there is a strong and clear mission statement that permeates an organization, then the organization at large will naturally follow through.

In conclusion, CA is an organization that has lots of potential, but is scrambling to get its act together. A strong mission statement and clear prioritization would be a great start to revitalizing Career Advancement into an effective, integral part of college life here at the University of Chicago.

Alice Li is a fourth-year in the College majoring in economics.