From freshman year to commencement day, college students and soon-to-be graduates face a dreaded but increasingly important question: What are your post-grad plans?
It’s also no secret that most students attend college to earn a degree to increase their employability, if not to hopefully land a lucrative job upon graduation.
But, college tuition has continuously grown over the last two decades. As the University of Wisconsin plans to increase tuition next year, post-graduate plans serve not just as a significant marker of a student’s career-preparedness, but also justify a hefty price tag.
Whether a student graduates and goes on to earn six figures or gains admission into a top graduate program, post-graduate achievement is a source of intense financial and social pressure. It’s also a young adult’s first real step to a full-time career.
According to UW, Badgers fare quite well in the job market following graduation. The annual First Destination Survey, which has been tracking graduates’ outcomes since 2016, shows that 71% of last year’s graduates seeking jobs received an offer by the time they graduated.
Still, positive survey results do not necessarily reflect students’ individual experiences of finding post-graduate employment. Students across schools and departments with varied career interests shared significantly different accounts of career-preparedness curricula and support across their undergraduate experience, all of which impacted their current and planned post-graduate outcomes.
Major vs. Career Plans
Eleanor Moore, a fourth-year undergraduate student majoring in political science and international studies, felt she found her true career interests “too late” in her academic career.
“I wanted to go for the digital media production certificate,” Moore said. “But I just realized too late in my education that I wanted to pursue film as a career, so I did take the introductory level class over the summer, but I couldn’t fit all the other subsequent classes into my schedule in order to actually get the certificate in time.”
Though Moore utilized personal connections to gain exposure to internships related to political science, namely the opportunity to work in political campaigning, she quickly determined she did not want to work in politics and subsequently recognized her interest in media production.
Specifically, Moore recalled reaching out to a family friend working on a political campaign to gain more insight into her intended career path before realizing it was not at all what she wanted to do.
“I kind of realized when she was telling me what the actual lifestyle of working on campaigns is that I don’t want anything to do with that,” Moore said. “Going from place to place and having months at a time where you have no income working for campaigns, [it] just sounded so horrible.”
Whether it was a course load filled with political theory classes, which do not offer much insight into what professional outcomes look like, or the personal fulfillment Moore felt from her film courses, she knew she had found her niche — unfortunately outside of her long-determined majors.
“It was probably sometime in junior year when I had taken a few other film classes that weren’t part of the certificate that I wanted to get, like international cinema and comedy, ethics and film — those were always my favorite classes,” Moore said.
Now that her interests have changed, Moore realizes her “ideal career path has nothing to do with what [she] studied” and finds it difficult to navigate changing her path to one that starkly contrasts her coursework. Though, she recognizes the onus is on students to seek out career support and help.
The disconnect between major, intended career path and actual post-graduate outcome highlights what successful surveys and statistics ultimately miss — students may land jobs at sought-after companies upon graduation, but whether these are personally fulfilling roles is up for debate.
Considering the most common jobs among UW graduates are in engineering, healthcare and consulting fields, it’s clear that graduates across majors are entering roles not related to their field of study. For international studies and political science in particular, UW, the state of Wisconsin and Epic were the top three employers of graduates, meaning students are working in varied fields related and unrelated to their majors.
Beyond the Classroom
In majors and certificates with perhaps more straightforward career paths, students still struggle to find post-graduate employment and share vastly different experiences supporting their career goals and job search.
Jamie Randall is a fourth-year undergraduate in the School of Journalism and pursuing a certificate in business. Randall received hands-on experience with the inner workings of public relations and advertising through her degree coursework and outside internships.
Still, the advertising world’s full-time recruitment cycle is far later in the year than she expected compared to others — leaving Randall with an uncertain future as she remains in the application process.
“I’ve had companies tell me to apply back in April […] so I would assume that the earliest I would get my job is probably end of May, beginning of June,” Randall said.
Well before full-time applications, Randall was fortunate to have found a local internship in public relations through the school’s jobs board, which complemented her coursework and reaffirmed her career goals, effectively learning which skills are applicable beyond the classroom.
As a result of her classes in the School of Business, Randall learned how important it was to contextualize her journalism courses with basic digital skills. Through her internships, Randall realized how often Excel is used in creating media budgets and organizing administrative work — which she felt would have been a shock if not for her business certificate.
Internship experiences in strategic communications and PR were especially vital for cementing her career field interests, as Randall was able to gain firsthand knowledge of what these workplaces were like.
“I think there’s just so much pressure that your first job out of college has to be the job that you’re gonna work in for the rest of your life. I know it’s not true, but most people will probably spend two years at a company and most people will hate it by the end of their two years, maybe even earlier,” Randall said, emphasizing the importance of having multiple experiences in your chosen field as early as possible.
Internships also provide insight into what post-graduate employment may look like, which seems to be increasingly hybrid following the COVID-19 pandemic and transition to remote work.
A 2022 Gallup research study surveyed 140,000 U.S. employees, the majority of whom do not work in-person full time. As for the future, 53% of respondents expected a hybrid arrangement to continue, while 24% expected they would continue to work remotely.
This was a trend Randall herself noticed.
“Definitely when I was working this summer, a lot of the office was hybrid … My boss only came in once or twice a week. And I was like, well, that kind of blows but I’m going to go in every day,” Randall said. “Just because I think it’s so important to get office experience and just gain that proper, ‘it’s like the office,’ rules and manners and […] culture,” Randall said.
She further emphasized the importance of gaining in-person experience to better understand work and office culture, which is ultimately key to confirming if a job is truly right for you.
An Uneven Playing Field
While Moore and Randall hailed from Minnesota and New York respectively, international students face different challenges when it comes to finding full-time employment after graduation, regardless of their majors.
For Ivan Khurudzhi, an international student majoring in computer science and mathematics, attending career fairs at UW and completing internships to help secure post-grad employment can be difficult given the challenge of finding opportunities that sponsor work visas.
According to Khurudzhi, some companies at the All Majors Career and Internship Fair, a biannual fair hosted by SuccessWorks, would outright say they don’t hire international students or simply don’t know about company policies related to hiring international students.
In an email to The Badger Herald, SuccessWorks shared that across both days of the Fall 2022 fair, 198 companies were in attendance — 40 of which were either accepting Optional Practical Training/Curricular Practical Training or willing to sponsor a visa.
Similarly, the Spring 2023 fair hosted 141 companies total, with 24 companies accepting OPT/CPT or willing to sponsor a visa.
Though career fairs may pose difficulties for networking or landing positions given the added hurdle of navigating work requirements, SuccessWorks emphasized the wealth of career services support for international students.
From career fair prep nights specifically for international students to feedback on resumes and cover letters, SuccessWorks partners with International Student Services to support international students in their job search.
For nearly 6,000 international students — many of whom would like to stay in the U.S. and work post-graduation — finding a job before graduation is especially important to ensure they are within their visa and duration of stay requirements.
This past year, Khurudzhi was fortunate to land an internship at Tesla, which had employed many international student interns before and thus offered a well-established system in terms of support for students working on different visas.
But, for an internship at a crypto startup, Khurudzhi was an unpaid intern for six out of the 15 months he worked there.
“They were taking their time trying to evaluate me and making sure I was a valuable enough employee to potentially sponsor me for a work visa later,” Khurudzhi said.
Khurudzhi further explained that it was ultimately reasonable of the company to have him work under a trial period since he would only be able to work for them in the future if he was sponsored — a difficult and costly process.
In other words, his internship experience came at the cost of regular pay due to his work status, highlighting the tradeoff between valuable work experience and financial security.
For international students who may struggle to land an internship, or even other students who cannot afford to work essentially for free, expanded career-preparedness coursework or initiatives embedded into curricula can ease reliance on internships as a means of gaining work experience — and ultimately allow all students to have a base level of career awareness and experience.
People of UW: Evi Radcliffe shares how her trifecta of extracurriculars encourages sincerity, compassionEditor’s note: People of UW is a human interest series produced by features associates. The series — published online and Read…
Classrooms, Counselors, Careers
Often, despite having the ideal major for a successful career path and awareness of career services on campus, students often do not reach out for help — instead relying on personal networks or LinkedIn to inform them of future opportunities and what their intended careers look like.
Sophia Radis, a native New Yorker, does not plan to stay in Madison nor Wisconsin following her graduation. A fourth-year economics student, Radis has found it difficult to connect with employers at career fairs, most of which recruit for Midwest-based positions. Instead, she has mainly relied on previous employers from past internships for career guidance and opportunities.
Echoing Randall’s sentiments about learning essential skills early on, Radis explained that finding a non-academic or research job with an economics degree can be especially limiting for students who lack certain hard skills not taught in the classroom.
For Radis, who hopes to land a job in sustainable finance, skills in Python and data management were not necessarily interwoven in the economics curriculum, but rather something students needed to seek out on their own.
Radis said career services and courses centered on learning these skills should be embedded in the undergraduate curriculum, which she believes would ultimately lead to higher employment success rates.
Having required-skills workshops or even a designated time to meet with a career advisor would thus expose students to realities in the workplace they might not be otherwise prepared for without a strong internship experience.
Additionally, early exposure to career services — which are often a chance for students to reflect on their career and personal goals and what they want to do beyond college — is essential in forming a realistic view of the job search and post-graduate employment.
Radis shared that among her peers, in terms of finding work, “a lot of them don’t really […] know what to look for — and they’re also very anxious about the job search. I think everyone’s anxious about it.”
In a recent opinion piece for Inside Higher Ed, Founding Director of the UW Center for Research on College-Workforce Transitions Matthew Hora expressed concern that career-preparedness during college was too concentrated on internship and out-of-classroom experiences.
Instead, students, who are “100 percent” likely to attend class but only 40 percent likely to visit their campus’ career services center, would greatly benefit from career-readiness initiatives interwoven in pre-existing curricula.
“The classroom is the one venue where it is easiest to equitably reach almost all [of] an institution’s student body and where quality control and curricular coherence are easier to achieve than in an off-campus business or organization,” Hora wrote.
The impact of embedded career support and guidance is especially reflected in Randall’s own undergraduate experience and job search.
Randall specifically recalled a dedicated class in strategic communications, in which her professor — who had been on the hiring end for jobs in Randall’s desired field — set aside extra office hours to go over resumes and cover letters.
“I think when we’re looking to apply for jobs and just get footing in these big companies and fields that are just so competitive now, I think to have someone really backing you up and really just being constructive and wanting to help — I really enjoyed just having him be a resource,” Randall said. “All the professors want to see you succeed.”