Career Development, the Undergraduate, and the Academic Adviser

Joann S. Olson, Penn State

Although students may begin their undergraduate careers with varying degrees of “decided-ness” regarding major or career, “getting a job” is an underlying value of many college students (Astin, Parrott, Korn, & Sax, 1997, as cited in McCalla-Wriggins, 2000, p. 162). If an institution has recruited students by promising to prepare them to successfully compete in the job market, Wilder (1982) exhorts that effectively helping students with academic and career-related needs is part of the institution's “moral obligation” (p. 107) and “inherent responsibility” (p. 108).

If this is the case, the academic adviser plays an important role related to career planning and development throughout a college student's academic career, not only when graduation looms on the horizon. In fact, Gordon (2005) suggests “all students are in some stage of academic and career planning ... in various phases of exploration and decision making” (p. 45). While the role of an academic adviser is certainly distinct from that of a career counselor, these two domains intersect at many points throughout a student's undergraduate experience. This paper highlights several instances in an advisee's college career when academic advising and career development may connect, outlines challenges that can arise when a faculty adviser is called to provide career-related guidance, and echoes earlier arguments for increased partnerships among faculty advisers, professional advisers, and career development professionals for the benefit of the student.

Career Development throughout the College Career

Promoting effective career development involves more than handing the student a brochure of career center workshops or explaining the on-campus interviewing process, although these resources are important and should be part of the adviser's knowledge base. Since the adviser is often the “first [professional] on campus to hear a student express a career concern” (Gordon, 2005, p. 57), he or she is a key career-related resource for the student. Learning to identify “core career-related concerns from the questions students ask” (Gordon, 2005, p. 49) is a critical skill that allows time-crunched advisers to more effectively address the real needs of advisees. Gordon (2005) further indicates that the academic adviser can serve the student well by following up a student's expressions of career concern with questions that help the student develop and express self-knowledge, allow the student to process occupational information, and refine his or her decision-making processes.

The academic adviser must further be aware that the student's choice of major may influence his or her experience of the graduation transition. When asked about her plans after graduation, Denise, a religious studies major, would smile and answer, “I'm going to pray for a job.” For those who have gained job-specific or technical skills, in fields such as accounting or nursing, the path to a job and an emerging career is quite often clear. Taub, Servaty-Seib, and Cousins (2006) indicate that students with “broader, more general fields of study without clearly demarcated career paths” (p. 124) express greater levels of career concern than students who are in more career-targeted disciplines. In addition, Dahlgren, Hult, Dahlgren, Segerstad, and Johansson (2006) suggest that both the content of an academic major and the sociocultural context in which it is taught (epistemologies, values, etc.) influence not only what the student learns but also the process by which he or she learns—a process that will, in turn, affect his or her transition to work life.

Although the conversation should begin long before the senior year, the astute academic adviser will recognize that career development for a liberal arts student involves different challenges and opportunities than for the student graduating with a more technical degree. A liberal arts student may wish to augment his or her plan of study with course work that will provide transferable skills (writing, technology, communications, etc.). The academic adviser can provide valuable information to help the liberal arts student prepare for the unique challenge of his or her post-graduation job search.

In addition, career development and career decisions are often closely related to the student's personal development, including the extent to which the student has developed a sense of purpose or built a vocational identity (Long, Sowa, & Niles, 1995). Therefore, the adviser-advisee relationship may provide a unique setting for exploring these types of development issues. Advisers may also find that family influence or pressure is affecting the student's career development (Malott & Magnuson, 2004) or that isolation (Walsh, Forbes, & Cull, 1991) is the student's primary concern. As the student approaches graduation, the intensity of these issues increases; Vickio (1990) developed a “Goodbye Brochure,” specifically designed to help on-campus counselors and advisers talk through transition and loss issues with those who were about to graduate. The academic adviser must be aware of the various career related stressors that may press in as students approach graduation and should be willing to help the student recognize and deal with these pressures. The graduating senior is concerned with both the present and the future. The adviser who advises these students must be prepared to help students with both their current concerns and their future challenges.

The Faculty Adviser and Career Development

Promoting effective career development may be particularly challenging when advising is shared or split in some way between professional and faculty advisers (Pardee, 2000). Faculty advisers can be valuable assets for the student's development, as faculty members are most likely to be familiar with recent changes in their discipline. This knowledge can be utilized to the benefit of the student, as the academic community may be among the first to learn of developments and advances that will ultimately impact industry or employment trends. This is, perhaps, particularly true in technical fields, where rapid and radical changes have become commonplace. Faculty advisers may also have contacts and professional acquaintances that could be leveraged as the student begins networking and contemplating work after graduation.

However, depending on the professor's own career trajectory, he or she may have had limited exposure to settings other than academia. The atmosphere of questioning, challenge, and opposition—critical to academic discourse and often the basis of success and reward in academic settings—is neither expected nor appreciated in many corporate settings (Holton, 1998). The faculty member who pursued graduate work and the professorship shortly after his or her undergraduate studies is unlikely to have experience in corporate settings and, therefore, unable to effectively coach the student in developing skills that will be necessary for the student's long-term success. It is also possible that the faculty member, especially the tenured professor, has been removed from the job market for many years and, therefore, may be unfamiliar with current recruiting and hiring practices or norms. In addition, unless the faculty adviser intentionally pursues this type of information—expending energy and effort that is often not validated in promotion and tenure processes—he or she may be unaware of campus career-related services that are available to his or her advisees.

Working Together for the Sake of the Student

Throughout the course of a student's college career, he or she will find that a professional adviser, faculty adviser, and career counselor can all offer timely and relevant assistance rooted in their particular areas of expertise. However, academic advising and career counseling represent two distinct professions, and advising that is provided by faculty advisers originates from a body of knowledge and practice that is distinct from that of the professional adviser. It is unrealistic to expect any one adviser to be completely equipped to address the wide array of issues and questions an advisee may raise, but these “silos” of information may, in the end, hinder the student's development. Hampton (2004) suggests introducing faculty advisers to the body of academic and theoretical literature related to academic advising. By learning to “speak the language” of faculty—theory and scholarly research—professional advisers may facilitate partnerships and information sharing with faculty advisers. In addition, exposing faculty advisers to the advising literature may serve to validate advising—in the eyes of the faculty adviser—as a theoretically based and academically grounded discipline.

Taking a longer-term approach, Kupfer (2008) highlights the fact that future faculty (i.e., doctoral students) are rarely exposed to academic advising as part of their graduate training. Including issues related to curriculum and career advising in the pre-professional experience of the pre-professor will not be completely adequate for every situation he or she might encounter as a faculty adviser. However, early exposure to both academic and career advising may lay a foundation upon which future academic-faculty advising partnerships can be built.

While the college experience should never be reduced to merely issues of career preparation, career development is an outcome of higher education and, therefore, is rightly part of the adviser-advisee relationship. Perhaps meeting the “moral obligation” (Wilder, 1982, p. 107) to help with career-related issues begins simply with an awareness that the academic adviser will be involved in the career development of an advisee. The extent to which this involvement is intentional is the extent to which the adviser can provide effective and valuable assistance for the student.


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About the Author

Joann S. Olson is a doctoral candidate in Penn State's adult education program. She can be reached at

Published in The Mentor on October 15, 2008, by Penn State's Division of Undergraduate Studies
Available online at
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