Last fall, pursuing a career change from advertising to college admissions, Keira Vollandt enrolled in Teachers College’s master’s degree program in Higher & Postsecondary Education. She took courses in student development theory, absorbing the ideas of the psychologists Jean Piaget (genetic epistemology), William Perry (epistemological development), Lawrence Kohlberg (moral development), TC alumnus Arthur Chickering (identity development) and the late TC faculty member L. Lee Knefelkamp (college campuses as developmental communities). She earned a certificate in TC’s College Advising program and interned in the admissions department at the Columbia School of Social Work.
But another set of experiences would prove equally important.
In a course on Student Personnel Administration, the professor, Tamsyn Johnston (a TC alumna), shared her own network of professional contacts. Faculty member Monica Christensen (another TC alumna who is also Dean of Students at Manhattan School of Music) brought in guest speakers who made themselves available to discuss career opportunities. And to fulfill one of Christensen’s course requirements, Vollandt also visited TC’s career services center, which was itself undergoing a makeover launched earlier that year by TC’s new president, Thomas Bailey under the banner of “creating pathways for all to flourish.”
We have terrific strengths at Teachers College. We have brilliant faculty with impressive networks of contacts in their fields. We have passionate students who, in many instances, are already benefiting from those connections. Now, we want that kind of success to be the rule, without exception.
— TC President Thomas Bailey
Bailey’s directive has since entailed a new name, announced just this month — “TC NEXT” (“NEXT” stands for “Navigating and Exploring for Tomorrow”) — and an expanded four-part mission to help students and alumni:
- “Explore,” or engage in self-reflection about their own interests and strengths and conduct research on industries and fields to discover career options;
- “Develop,” or create and refine their own marketing materials, build an online presence, boost their skills and create a career action plan
- “Connect” with peers, alumni, faculty and industry professionals
- “Launch,” or bring together all of those assets with content knowledge from their academic courses to succeed in the job market.
“I am so pleased to see this coming together,” Bailey said recently. “We have great strengths at Teachers College. We have brilliant faculty with impressive networks of contacts in their fields. We have passionate students who, in many instances, are already benefiting from those connections. Now, with TC NEXT, we can offer all of our students the support and tools they need that will position them for career success.”
For Keira Vollandt, that outlook meant working with one of the office’s three part-time career advisors — recent TC graduate Chloe Dawson (Ed.D. ’19, M.Ed. ’17), who not only helped her tweak her resume and hone her interview pitch, but do some deeper thinking as well.
“We really talked through my goals,” Vollandt says. “Chloe understood my situation because she’d been living it herself. I totally reworked my cover letter, and people told me later that it really communicated how my values aligned with their institution’s priorities.”
By the time Vollandt fully launched her job search, she was on top of her game. Both Christenson and Thomas Rock, TC’s Vice Provost for Student Affairs, who oversees TC NEXT and also teaches in Higher & Postsecondary Education, wrote her letters of recommendation. The result: In the midst of the COVID pandemic and the worst job market since the Great Depression, Vollandt landed a position as an admissions counselor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She’s already working remotely from New York City and plans to move to Madison in mid-August.
Focus on ROI
Even before COVID upended the American economy, higher education was increasingly focused on gainful employment as its most important deliverable.
In a 2015 study by researchers at the University of California-Los Angeles, more than 85 percent of college freshmen reported that getting a better job was a “very important” factor in their decision to go to college, up from about 72 percent a decade earlier.
They, in turn, were responding to several factors. One was the growing financial burden on themselves and their families. Tuition has climbed an estimated 25 percent at private colleges during the past decade and 29 percent at public institutions. From 2004–2019, student debt quadrupled, rising from $345 billion to nearly $1.64 trillion. Meanwhile, the pre-COVID employment landscape was undergoing rapid change, with automation and the growing number of college graduates creating ever-fiercer competition.
But the need for career development, particularly outside of more defined fields such as law, medicine, teaching and business, may be even more urgent for graduate students, who carry significantly more debt.
Students are looking for a lifetime relationship, so we need to build lifetime capabilities to not only help them land that first job, but also take action at different career phases so that their careers are sustainable.
— Thomas Rock, Vice Provost for Student Affairs
In a bygone era, candidates for advanced degrees could often expect to step directly into higher ed teaching and research positions. Those jobs have grown increasingly scarce, according to a 2016 report by the National Science Foundation titled “The Survey of Earned Doctorates,” and while millions of new jobs have been created that require advanced degrees, the Council of Graduate Schools and the Educational Testing Service have reported that degree candidates typically do not understand the full range of careers they are qualified for — in large part because graduate schools are failing to educate them about what’s out there.
TC NEXT is emerging as an unusually far-reaching and ambitious attempt to address this problem.
“What we’re really doing is moving beyond ‘placement’ to instead, becoming an office that helps students and alumni develop their long-term plans,” says Rock. “Students are looking for a lifetime relationship, so we need to build lifetime capabilities to not only help them land that first job, but also take action at different career phases so that their careers are sustainable. There are not many institutions doing this kind of work at the graduate level. But we believe we can be the first and can be a best-practice model for re-imagining the career development process for our students and alumni. It is also a measure of our greatness as a school how our students are placed.”
The College is uniquely positioned to realize that goal.
“Our faculty and our 90,000 alumni are leaders in a range of fields across the country and around the globe,” says TC Provost Stephanie J. Rowley. “But that’s also a challenge. How do you get your arms around that diversity and find a way to fully support it?”
The answer, says TC alumna Nayla Bahri, owner of Nayla Bahri Leadership and Career Development, who has spent the past nine months helping to lay the groundwork for TC NEXT, is decidedly not a one-size-fits-all approach.
I’ve been truly impressed by how responsive TC NEXT has been in thinking about what students need and devising creative solutions even as job opportunities and internships have become scarce. President Bailey has made it very clear that, even in this time of retrenchment, when budgets are lean, we are committed to investing in career support for current students and recent graduates.
— TC Provost and Dean Stephanie Rowley
“About 40 percent of TC students arrive at TC fresh out of college,” Bahri says. “We need to help them clarify their goals and understand their own strengths before putting them into workshops on networking. At the same time, other students are coming back to school to accelerate their careers by sharpening their skills, while still others are here to pivot to new careers entirely. So we’re borrowing Tom Bailey’s pathways image by helping people identify where they stand along their own career pathways.”
To that end, TC NEXT can match clients with staff who represent the full spectrum of career stages. Bahri served as Dean of Students at Columbia Business School for 15 years, while starting a family, and earning doctorate in Adult Learning & Leadership at TC. Associate Director Heidi Gifford earned her master’s degree in the College’s Higher & Postsecondary Education program after a 30-year career in economic policy. Career counselor Hilary Berger, who earned her TC doctorate in Adult Learning & Leadership, is the founder of Work Like a Mother, which has helped thousands of professional women who elected to be at home to raise children. Another career advisor, Missy Lafferty, is a former recruiter with a strong background in financial services, retail and technology. Dawson, just out of school, has expertise in online user experience design and intercultural professional development. In addition to her work at TC NEXT, she’s an instructor at Columbia Business School and does private consulting. And TC NEXT’s Operations and Data Manager, Zhichao Ryan Cheng, brings to his work a particularly perspective on the current job market: Having grown up in Singapore and come to the United States 14 years ago, he can understand the plight of international students and graduates looking for work — and he's also member of the 2020 “COVID cohort,” having received his TC master’s degree, in Instructional Technology & Media, this past spring.
Other schools have had to build leadership centers to do this, but TC is different. There are rich resources here, because we’re the home of programs such as Social-Org Psych and Adult Learning and Leadership. The science of much of this work was created at TC.
— Nayla Bahri, education consultant to TC NEXT
This summer, TC NEXT has also launched a six-part curriculum that covers the full career span. Students can access it at their own pace on the TC NEXT website, or they can sign up for “Career Accelerator” groups that move through it in twice-weekly virtual sessions led by one of the coaches.
Following a general introduction to TC NEXT itself, the curriculum begins with an overview of career development — from introspection to planning and goal-setting, to job strategy — followed by intensive workshops on topics such as “Building Your Career Strategy,” “The Power of Your Skills,” “Building Your Brand to Be Employer-Ready,” “Scaling Strategic Networking,” and “Reinvention for Career Changers.”
More advanced modules include deep dives into conducting salary and work-life negotiations; jump-starting flagging search efforts; and honing on-the-job skills such as leadership, professional networking, using feedback, curating a “portfolio of successes” and making career changes.
“Other schools have had to build leadership centers to do this, but TC is different,” Bahri says. “There are rich resources here, because we’re the home of programs such as Social-Org Psych and Adult Learning and Leadership. The science of much of this work was created at TC.”
It’s very rare for a graduate school to offer something like this. TC is really modeling the best-practice approach to serving students who are coming to us at very different stages of lives and careers and helping them build a strong professional identity in partnership with building their industry expertise through their classroom experience.
— Hilary Berger, TC NEXT career coach
“It’s very rare for a graduate school to offer something like this,” adds career coach Hilary Berger. “TC is really modeling the best-practice approach to serving students who are coming to us at very different stages of lives and careers and helping them build a strong professional identity in partnership with building their industry expertise through their classroom experience. Finding your authentic voice, taking risks and having evidence of one's competencies while studying at TC is a key component to building strong career confidence and professional relevance."
TC NEXT is also working building awareness of its services across the College — starting with students themselves.
“Over and over again, we’ve heard from students, ‘I didn’t know you guys did this,’” Bahri says. “It’s a really pervasive issue.”
Case in point: Dawson, who confesses that — despite serving as President of TC’s Student Senate, which maintains a standing committee on career development, and even working for the career services office to fulfill some coaching certification requirements — she rarely used the office as a resource during her time as a TC student.
Everyone in your life is a source of wisdom and experience — and especially at TC, if you’re asking the right questions. TC NEXT can help you figure out who those people are and how to put yourself out into the world. However, you have to take the first step of asking for help.
— TC NEXT career coach Chloe Dawson
“Finishing school was hard enough, so my career planning fell by the wayside,” she says. “And that’s something I regret. Courses, assignments, exams and grades are important — but you come to TC to do something big in the world, and whether you know it or not, you’re in a constant relationship with your career while you’re here. You’re absorbing all this important knowledge and doing work that makes a real impact on people’s lives. You really need to stop and capture the details of the experience — the impact, your value added — because it’s so much harder later to remember all of the important nuances and reconnect with key people.”
Then, too, Dawson says, paralysis can overtake students as graduation approaches.
“You’re leaving a comfortable place where you know the rules for how to live and thrive,” she says. “You’re thinking, ‘What new culture will I enter? Am I good enough?’ I remember those questions rushing toward me like a tsunami and feeling very alone. But everyone in your life is a source of wisdom and experience — and especially at TC, if you’re asking the right questions. TC NEXT can help you figure out who those people are and how to put yourself out into the world. However, you have to take the first step of asking for help.”
Last fall, before the COVID pandemic hit, the TC NEXT team began making pop-up visits in the library to reach students with that message. This year, the College’s fully online New Student Orientation will afford extended opportunities to connect with incoming students one-on-one.
“Basically, we want students to welcome us into the spaces where they already are,’” Dawson says. “We're saying, ‘Let us be there with you so we can understand the power of the work you’re doing and, together, explore the possibilities of the work you’re going to do.’”
Points of Access
Meanwhile, TC NEXT is also building partnerships with faculty — “the best point of access to students and our best means for making employers aware of the brilliance and diversity of our students,” Bahri says — and their departments.
The hope is that faculty will talk about a really cool job in their lab, or a great research opportunity, or the professional consulting they do outside the university, or an important milestone in their own development, Because the light of a future career can seem so far down the tunnel.
— Rachel Fogel, TC NEXT Strategic Partnerships Advisor
“We know that faculty workloads vary at different times, so we offer three levels of partnership,” says Rachel Fogel, Strategic Partnerships Advisor, who is the office’s key liaison to the College’s academic departments. “Tier One is designed for faculty who can only commit five minutes of their time, but who have valuable contacts to share. Tier Two allows us to come into your classroom to connect with your students and explain the support offered by TC NEXT. And Tier Three is for faculty who are excited about bringing in contacts from outside the TC community for a career panel or classroom talk.”
Fogel and Dawson are also launching a podcast series called “Tell Me More,” featuring brief interviews with faculty members.
“The hope is that faculty will talk about a really cool job in their lab, or a great research opportunity, or the professional consulting they do outside the university, or an important milestone in their own development,” Fogel says. “Because the light of a future career can seem so far down the tunnel.”
In some programs, faculty are already deeply involved in helping students, “so we’re trying to understand where we can add value,” Fogel says. She cites one department in which faculty nominate students for internships in organizations run by alumni; or the College’s Social-Organizational Psychology program, which is working with outside consultants to help graduating students prepare for the tight labor market.; or the program in Learning Analytics, in which Visiting Assistant Professor Charles Lang “has made space in the degree to talk about with students how they’ll use skills in their careers.
“Not everyone can or should do that,” Fogel says. “But it shows how the College needs to have a large stake in being an employer talent source of choice.”
Where the Rubber Hits the Road
And, then, of course, there are the potential employers. “A huge opportunity for us, once we get them past ‘Teachers’ and ‘College,’ is for them to see the full breadth of what we have to offer,” says Heidi Gifford.
A huge opportunity for us, once we get employers past ‘Teachers’ and ‘College,’ is for them to see the full breadth of what we have to offer.
— Heidi Gifford, Associate Director, TC NEXT
“We really want to build the visibility of the College in industries where we produce great talent but companies don’t know we do it,” Bahri adds. “Everyone knows us for teaching, but what about, say, Motor Learning or Neuroscience and Education? Many of our own people don’t know we have that capability, so what about recruiters? What about Nike, which does a lot with prosthetics and could be an employer of choice for our students?”
TC NEXT is also trying to connect with more international employers — a task that could actually become easier in the COVID-era online landscape. The College will be holding several completely virtual career fairs this coming fall, and promised new advances in Symplicity, TC NEXT’s online platform, may enable more boutique sessions with smaller numbers of students and employers whose own online platforms may differ.
“This is a very new situation for employers,” says Cheng, the TC NEXT Operations & Data Manager. who is facilitating the technology to support the career fairs. “They want to hire people online, but it’s hard for them, because how can they be sure that the candidate they see virtually is going to come across the same way in reality? Often now, you’ll see companies conducting four or five interviews instead of one or two. Creating these more personal settings online for employers and candidates to meet is a critical service we can offer.”
Within the world of employers, alumni, of course, are a priority target.
“We’re really excited about what the services we can offer alumni, Stephanie Rowley says. “Our Alumni Relations office is doing some great work pairing alumni up with mentors and career coaches.”
[Read a story on Alumni Relations’ work in providing career coaching and career webinars.]
It’s early days at TC NEXT and many of the pieces are still coming together. With the COVID pandemic still in full force, no one can forecast where the job market is headed.
“We’re putting new things out there and seeing the demand,” Gifford says. “Hopefully we’ll be elastic enough to grow where there’s a need.”
But it seems clear that the initiative is fully underway and that there will be no turning back.
As this article was going to press, the office was in the final stages of the search for its Director and had added a new Associate Director of Employer Relations — Laura Coleman, who most recently served as Associate Director of Alumni & Employer Relations at Sotheby’s Institute Art in New York City.
Rowley says that she has been “truly impressed by how responsive TC NEXT has been in thinking about what students need and devising creative solutions even as job opportunities and internships have become scarce.” That work will continue.
“President Bailey has made it very clear that, even in this time of retrenchment, when budgets are lean, we are committed to investing in career support for current students and recent graduates,” Rowley says.
Meanwhile, the response from customers like Keira Vollandt, the newly hired admissions officer at the University of Wisconsin, is exactly what the office is hoping for.
“TC NEXT gave me so much great support,” says Vollandt. “At some point, I’m planning on pursuing a master’s in education in the same program, and I’d totally come back to them again for help.”