246. Embedding Career Competencies

Students generally enter college to advance their employment prospects. In this episode, Jessica Kruger joins us to discuss how explicitly embedding career competencies in the curriculum can engage and motivate students. Jessica is a clinical assistant professor in the Department of Community Health and Health Behavior and is the Director of Teaching Innovation and Excellence at the University of Buffalo.


Rebecca: Students generally enter college to advance their employment prospects. In this episode, we explore how explicitly embedding career competencies in the curriculum can engage and motivate students.


John: Thanks for joining us for Tea for Teaching, an informal discussion of innovative and effective practices in teaching and learning.

Rebecca: This podcast series is hosted by John Kane, an economist&hellip

John: &hellipand Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer&hellip

Rebecca: &hellipand features guests doing important research and advocacy work to make higher education more inclusive and supportive of all learners.


Rebecca: Our guest today is Jessica Kruger. Jessica is a clinical assistant professor in the Department of Community Health and Health Behavior and is the Director of Teaching Innovation and Excellence at the University of Buffalo. Welcome back, Jessica.

Jessica: Happy to be back.

John: We just saw you at CIT.

Jessica: &hellipgreat conference.

John: It was nice seeing everyone back in person again. For me, and I think for Rebecca too, this was our first conference in person in at least a couple of years.

Rebecca: Yeah. Yes, it was. Refreshing.

John: Speaking of refreshing, our teas today are&hellip Jessica, are you drinking tea?

Jessica: Iced Tea.

Rebecca: &hellipthe best kind during the summer.

Jessica: Exactly.

Rebecca: I have some nice piping hot Ceylon tea again.

John: And I have spring cherry green tea.

Rebecca: Is that a new one for you, John? Or you just haven’t had it in a while?

John: I haven’t had it in a while.

Rebecca: That sounds good&hellip

John: It is very good.

Rebecca: &hellipif you like cherries, which I don’t. [LAUGHTER]

John: It’s spring cherry, it’s not just cherry, these are spring cherries.

Rebecca: &hellipthe best kind.

John: &hellipfrom the Republic of Tea&hellip actually from Harry and David. But it’s produced by the Republic of Tea for Harry and David.

Rebecca: So we’ve invited you here today to discuss your work in incorporating career readiness into the public health curriculum. Why should there be an increased focus on incorporating career readiness in our courses and degree programs?

Jessica: I like to tell people, it’s not just our job to teach students really cool things, it’s our job to help them get a job. And so ultimately, by incorporating career readiness skills, we’re equipping our students to go out into the world and get their first job. And really, in public health, there’s so much work to be done. And so if students aren’t ready to do that interview, or send out their resume, or even talk about their experiences that they’ve gained in the classroom, they’re not going to land that job.

John: Has it been hard to convince other faculty of the need to provide this career readiness for students?

Jessica: So myself and another faculty member have been incorporating the career competencies in our courses, we both teach a 200- and a 300- level public health course. And, in those, we are getting students anywhere from sophomore, juniors, or seniors. And I think it makes sense in our profession where many students go out and get jobs after their bachelor’s to have them start thinking about this early, even as early as their second year in our courses.

Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit about the kinds of careers that your students in your program pursue?

Jessica: Yes, so we have students working all over. And I’m really proud to say we have a student who’s actually working at a safe injection site in New York City, which is one of the first that has been opened. We have students working locally in health departments, working for hospital systems, and local nonprofits. And so our students are really going out there and doing what needs to be done, especially what we’ve seen over the past two years with the pandemic. We’d had so many students work in contract tracing, and also with local health departments, and it’s growing. Public health is becoming more recognized. And that’s why we need to continue to prepare our students for what’s next.

John: For those listeners who aren’t familiar with safe injection, could you talk about what that is?

Jessica: The first facility was opened in New York City. This allows for individuals who use injectable drugs to go into a place that is clean and monitored and inject safely. Someone is there to monitor them, provide them clean supplies, and even help them if there is an overdose. So this is a harm reduction technique that prevents deaths.

Rebecca: Can you talk about the ways that you have employed career readiness into your courses?

Jessica: We use the framework of the NACE Competencies and NACE stands for National Association of Colleges and Employers. And these are competencies that were set forth by actual companies, employers out there, saying what they actually want in a new graduate. So there are actually eight different areas, things from teamwork, leadership, ensuring that students are able to be critical thinkers, have career and self development, include equity and inclusion, and be proficient and technology. And so what I’ve done is incorporate first starting at the syllabus level, incorporating some verbiage saying: in this course, you’re going to learn career competencies, and we’re going to cover seven out of eight of these career competencies. Because I’m teaching a 200-level course, I’m not focusing on the skill of leadership, that’s a little bit higher level that I’m working at in this course. But in every assessment that I have in class, I have not only the objectives, why we’re doing it, but I include what competencies we’re working towards, and how they can talk about this in a job interview&hellip to a internship site. So it’s not just that you’re writing a paper, you’re working on those written communication skills, and you’re able to articulate that

John: How have students responded? I would imagine it would increase their motivation a bit when they see how directly applicable these skills will be for them.

Jessica: It all comes down to transparency, because the more transparent and applied students feel that their assessments are, the higher quality I tend to see their work. And so by telling them, you’re not just writing a paper for me to read, you’re writing a paper to practice this skill. And you’re also going to do a presentation, because in public health, you need to have excellent written and oral communication skills. And hey, you’re also going to make a poster on Canva, because you need to know how to use technology. And so by kind of stringing these competencies together, it allows students to see that what they’re doing is not just for a grade, but to help them build those skills.

Rebecca: Can you walk us through a specific example?

Jessica: Yeah, in this course, I have students do a variety of writing samples on different problems. So, in public health we’re very applied. In one of the papers, students are talking about how public health has been influenced by other areas&hellip philosophy, psychology&hellip and so they could just see it as a paper, a 1.5 page paper, or thinking about it from a career readiness standpoint, they’re learning how to write succinctly and to whatever audience&hellip so, in this case, a lay person learning about public health. And so in writing this, I include why they’re doing it. And when I’m giving the example of what I’m looking for in the assessment, I often have the students reflect on what they’re doing and why they’re doing it. I think it’s important for them to think about that, why am I writing this paper? Why are we doing this? &hellipto improve your skills, to work on that written communication. Another example that I think is probably maybe a little bit more applied here is students write a paper, they record a short pitch of this paper using Flipgrid. So they’re doing written communication, oral communication, and in that little flip grid that they’re doing, they have to dress professionally, practice that skill, and give feedback to peers. And so all of that together, which is seemingly not a too arduous of an assignment, is really hitting on a lot of those career skills.

John: Have other faculty in your department picked up on the use of expanded career readiness in their classes?

JESSICA :Yes, one other faculty member has joined me and currently we are studying the effects of this on our students. So what we have done is ask our students at the end of the semester to complete a short survey asking them about how they felt about including career readiness into their courses. And overwhelmingly, students are so appreciative that we’re thinking about this, preparing them for what’s next. And it also shows that we care, we’re not just there to be a sage on the stage. We’re there to help them get ready for that job, that grad school, or whatever else they choose.

Rebecca: Do you have other findings from your research so far? I know you’re early in this process.

Jessica: Another major takeaway from this research is students wish they had this much earlier. They wish that we started talking about it day one. And while we could have told them about the career design center on campus, they’re not forced to practice this in their courses. They’re not tying this to that NACE Competency framework. But really, when we think about it, career readiness is everyone’s job. In our University of Buffalo, we’re working to create a career ecosystem, meaning that faculty are really on the front lines of this. They’re the first people that students are going to go to for career advice. And not all faculty are equipped to have that conversation. But at least, at the very minimum, being able to direct them to the Career Design Center and other resources that are available through the Career Design Center, I think is key. One simple way that I’ve introduced students to the actual physical Career Design Center on campus is I have them go take a selfie. They have a great little selfie station, and that’s one of their first things that they do in my course. So I can start to put a face to a name. And they can also learn about why it’s important to have a professional selfie. So they can put on their digital profiles like LinkedIn.

Rebecca: I found in some of the classes that I teach, I’ve in the past done assignments where we do professional email communication related to the work that we’re doing, or reports that might be common to the discipline. And students have responded much more positively to those kinds of writing assignments, because they can see the practical application and can connect the very specific, like, I can see how I’m doing this skill, and it’s gonna result in me being able to do this other thing. We just don’t always articulate that when it maybe is a little more abstract, when it’s maybe a more traditional paper and how that might tie to the kinds of work that they might do as a professional.

Jessica: Most definitely. And I’ll say this really was not much effort, I did not change what I was doing in my courses. I really just added a sentence or two to each of my assessments, relating it back to the NACE Competencies, I also brought a little bit more awareness to what we were doing in class. When we would do group work, I’d say, “Oh, you know what? You’re working on teamwork. That’s great, because in public health, we work in teams, and this is also related to the NACE competencies.” So it doesn’t have to be like a capstone course where you’re deliberately working on resumes or other career competency. But I think weaving this in, adding to it, and really raising awareness about some of these skills can really help students go to that next level, or start thinking about what they need to do to build some more skills before they leave our universities.

John: You’ve already answered this partly by talking about teamwork and other skills that can be done in any class. But what about those instructors in a course on abstract algebra? How would you build in, say, career readiness into that, other than the types of things you’ve already mentioned?

Jessica: Well, I think teamwork and technology would be two very easy competencies to weave in to any sort of course. Also, if you’re doing advanced level math, you’re probably using critical thinking skills. And you’re probably talking about what your findings are. So you’re hitting communication, you may not have much on professionalism, or career and self-development, but still, you’re hitting five career competencies, and not having to add anything, but really just highlight what you’re already doing.

Rebecca: Were you surprised when you sat down and looked at your syllabus and your learning objectives and looked at the NACE competencies and put them side by side and how well they aligned?

Jessica: Yeah, and in fact, it’s interesting, because in public health, we have an accrediting body called CEPH. And our CEPH Competencies for preparing students at the baccalaureate level actually align perfectly with NACE. And so it made sense, once you sat it down to say, “Oh, I’m already doing a lot of this.” And yeah, it might take part of my class time the second day of class to bring in one of the career designers so they put a name to a face, but it’s not taking away any time from my instruction. And by adding the transparency in that connection. I think it’s created more of a caring environment for my students. They know I care about what happens to them after this course. And more students have come to me than ever, asking about what’s next, whether that’s grad school, or how to apply for that first job. And that’s really rewarding. Now, I know not all faculty want more meetings with students. We all have busy schedules. But it’s also great to build those connections, because those are the students who are going to continue to be connected, have mentorship and be successful.

John: And we’ve always been preparing students for their future lives and careers. But we haven’t always been that transparent about it. And it sounds like that’s a really good approach. For someone who wants to start building this into their courses, how would you suggest they get started?

Jessica: I think one of the first things is go have a conversation with someone in your career design center on campus, see what they’re offering and see how you can collaborate with them. I found that our Career Design Center at University of Buffalo has so many resources so that faculty can literally plug in modules on career development that are already created for them. It was also really enlightening to learn what it’s like to be a student, to go to the career design center. And so sitting down with someone and understanding some of the intakes that they do, some of the questions, and even some of the tools that they have, really helps give you an overview of everything that can be offered to students. So when that student comes to you and says, I’m thinking about this career in biostatistics&hellip Oh, great, I don’t actually know a lot about biostatistics, but you should go to the Career Center, because they have a great tool where you can see what your life would be like as a biostatistician. And so first learn about your career design center on campus.. Second, I think it’s important to start slow with any new thing that you’re doing in your course. It may be that you dip your toe in the water and just connect some of what you’re doing with career competencies. So when you have students work in teams, say, you know, teamwork’s important. This is actually what people care about when you get a job. And here’s how you might want to talk about your experience in teamwork, if you don’t currently do this outside of the classroom, and provide them some of those prompts. And then if you want to dive in, and really incorporate your NACE competencies, I think for most professions, in most disciplines, the alignment will be there. And it’s not a ton of effort to highlight that, especially if you start with just your assessments and maybe highlighting some of those and then moving towards other things by maybe adding some career readiness modules, or having your students go to your career design center, take a selfie, whatever they have to offer.

Rebecca: Sometimes it’s really exciting and nice to have some ideas of ways to connect with students that are just so straightforward. [LAUGHTER]

Jessica: I’ll also say, while our students have grown up in a digital age, I find that technology tends to be their weakest category when we think about the NACE competencies. And so if your field uses any technology, talking about how to be proficient in that, how to be a lifelong learner, and how sometimes it’s hard to learn something new, but you have to if you want to keep up into the field,

Rebecca: One of the things that I have been doing in my classes that students have appreciated is when there are things like free online conferences related to the discipline, assigning them as an assignment. And to do that, and to talk about what that experience is like and encourage them to connect with professionals in the field. And a lot more opportunities for that kind of an experience has been offered over the last [LAUGHTER] couple of years.

Jessica: That’s a great way to incorporate that&hellip talks, and even as you introduce a new topic, having them recognize that maybe after this class, you’re not going to be an expert, but here are ways that you can build this skill that you may need. And it might be going out and trying something new, it might be connecting with another center on campus. But recognizing there are resources there for you.

Rebecca: I think underscoring the idea that you need to continue learning in your field is something that students don’t always immediately recognize without us pointing out. They don’t recognize that one of the things they might want to ask in an interview are what the professional development opportunities are, or ways to grow as a professional in their first job.

Jessica: Most definitely, and how they want to do that and how they can identify those areas of growth. That’s something that’s not often transparent. We send them out into the world and say, “Great, you’ve got this degree.” But there may be many areas where they can become a little bit more proficient or dig a little bit deeper into a topic. I want to also highlight that I think that this is so important for our first generation and our URM students. In our undergraduate program, we have about 37% of our students being underrepresented minorities or first-generation college students. And if we don’t talk about this, no one else is going to talk about this. And by becoming someone to turn to about career readiness and about asking those questions of “What do I do for my first interview?” or “How do I prepare for this internship?” &hellipwe’re not going to be able to build that for those students because they might not have someone at home to turn to. As a first-generation college student myself, I found that no one was talking to me about this. And so I think it’s critical in higher education that we think about this as an equity and inclusion component within our curriculum.

Rebecca: That’s a really good point. I’m glad that you underscored that Jessica.

John: And one other thing that I think many people have been doing is bringing in guest speakers&hellip and you can bring in some recent graduates to talk a little bit about some of those pathways. I think we’ve all learned how easy it is to bring people in remotely to give presentations. We don’t have to physically bring them to campuses anymore.

Jessica: Yeah, I think that’s really powerful having career panels. And it’s great to connect with our graduates. I love when they say that what they’ve learned in the class actually helped prepare them for what’s next. We’re not just shooting from the hip here, we really talk to our graduates, understand where we need to focus and continue to improve our program as we continue to grow.

John: We always end with the question: “what’s next?”

Jessica: Ah&hellip summer is upon us. And so it is my time to write up all the papers that I’ve been sitting on over the semester. One of that is the paper on incorporating these competencies into our courses. And I look forward to sharing the results when we get that out there. But I’m really interested in how we work with faculty to help them think about adding career competencies to their courses. Because I don’t think this just has to happen at the undergraduate level. I think the graduate level is also key. I teach both grad and undergrad courses. And as I’m revitalizing our graduate capstone, I really think that this is perfectly aligned, along with our competencies for our accrediting body. And so really, it’s all come together for me, and I’m really excited to see what other folks think about it as the word begins to spread.

Rebecca: Sounds like a really exciting opportunity. And I think you’re right, graduate school is a great place for some of these conversations to be happening.

John: Well, thank you. These are things I think we should all keep in mind, because even if we’re not thinking about career competency as being important for our students, students certainly are. It’s always great talking to you.

Jessica: Thank you very much.

Rebecca: Thanks, Jessica.


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Rebecca: You can find show notes, transcripts and other materials on teaforteaching.com. Music by Michael Gary Brewer.