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Aurora Alexander, Kent State University
Kristi Kamis, Hiram College

Kristi Kamis.jpgAurora Alexander.jpgDuring the twentieth century, when individuals had more career options and could hold the same job throughout most of their career, academic advisors performed five basic functions: exploring life goals, exploring vocational goals, choosing programs, choosing courses, and scheduling courses (O’Banion, 1994). However, in today’s 21st century economy, it is no longer enough for advisors to help students choose a major and craft a course schedule (Shaffer & Zalewski, 2011). Rather, advisors need to help students create a step-by-step plan for achieving their long-term goals and preparing for unexpected barriers along the way. Thus, career advising is now an important function of academic advising.

Some may argue that career advising should be the sole responsibility of career services offices. However, this is problematic because career services offices, although beneficial, are most often utilized by students who are approaching graduation or have no idea what they want to do. Thus, they often miss students who think they know their career goal but are misinformed or have no plan for achieving their long-term goals. For this reason, it is important for advisors to help these students extract the reality from the job title and create a plan for achieving their long-term goals. This is especially true for liberal arts students, whose degrees do not connect to a single career. For some, finding time to integrate career advising into a 30–45 minute appointment slot may not seem feasible (Menke, 2016). However, advisors do not need to be career experts to help students construct a career pathway. Rather, with five simple strategies, advisors can make career advising a routine component of their advising appointments.

Myths About a Liberal Arts Degree

Most academic advisors are aware of the myth that liberal arts students are unemployable. Although professionals who work with liberal arts students know this is untrue, advisors are faced with the chore of disproving this myth every day and helping students defend their degree choice to naysayers. Students should understand that there are several advantages to acquiring a liberal arts degree, including acquiring soft skills that employers value, having several career paths from which to choose that align with their interests and goals, and not having to attend graduate school to attain a job in their field.

Five Ways to Help Liberal Arts Students Formulate a Future

Go beyond the reason for the appointment.  Although student affairs professionals hope students attend college for the sake of learning, most are driven by the expectation of increasing their employment prospects. Knowing this, it is important for academic advisors to help students work toward this reality during advising appointments. When students want nothing more than to receive a list of courses for which to register, it can be difficult to initiate a career conversation. However, despite this setback, going beyond the understood reason for the appointment does not have to be as difficult as it seems. Rather, it can be as simple as asking four questions: “How is your semester going?” “Are you struggling with any classes?” “Which classes do you enjoy the most?” and “Which classes do you enjoy the least?” Let’s consider the following example:

As a student arrives for an advising appointment, the advisor starts by asking one simple question: “How is your semester going?” The student says things are going well, and that they received a C on their statistics midterm, which is a step in the right direction because they do not do well with math. After congratulating the student, the advisor asks “Which courses do you enjoy the most?” to find that the student LOVES their abnormal psychology class. However, on the opposite spectrum, the student hates their biology class and hopes to never take another science class again.

So, during this conversation, which may have taken 3–4 minutes, what has the advisor already learned? The student should probably stay away from STEM and research-based careers, considering they hate biology and received a C on their statistics midterm. However, the student loves learning about mental health, and may enjoy working with individuals with mental health struggles in the future. The student should probably avoid pursuing a PhD in clinical psychology because much math and science would be involved, but may want to consider finding a bachelor’s-level job in a mental health setting. Sure, the student may not be thinking along these lines yet, but these are things that advisors can talk to students about to get them to think about their futures, and they come during the first few minutes of an appointment. Then, the advisor can delve into course planning and other checkmark items (aka. the student’s intended reason for the appointment) later during the appointment.

Extract the reality from the job title. Academic advisors should ask students why they are choosing a specific career and listen to their answer to determine if they made a well-informed choice. If the student’s rationale does not seem sound, it may be beneficial to ask the student branch questions that prompt more thought, such as “Do you know what an average work day looks like for someone with that job title?” If needed, an advisor can suggest alternative careers that compel the student to explore other career possibilities.

Begin planting the seed of professionalism.  Academic advisors are not only responsible for guiding students through the tricky terrain of education, but also for preparing them for the professional journey ahead. Accordingly, when encouraging students to establish connections with faculty, instructors, graduate school coordinators, and other professionals, advisors should also be prepared to help them understand how to properly interact with these individuals.

Teach students to take small steps toward achieving their long-term goals. According to Nevitt Sanford (1966), academic advisors have a responsibility to place students in challenging situations. However, with too much challenge, a student may try to escape or ignore the situation, and with too little challenge, a student may never face new challenges. For this reason, advisors need to provide an appropriate balance of challenge and support to help students reach their goals. Let’s consider the following scenario:

An advisor is meeting with a student who is interested in becoming a school counselor. The advisor knows that the student needs to start thinking about the steps to preparing for and applying to graduate school. However, as the advisor discusses these steps, they can tell the student is panicked. Chances are, this is the first time the student has heard about the graduate school application process and feels overwhelmed.

Of course, it is important to give students all the information and resources they need to achieve their goals. However, when advisors bombard students with too much at once, it can make their once seemingly attainable goals feel out of reach. A simple solution is to break this information into smaller steps that the student can work toward now. Then, when the advisor meets with the student again, they can review where the student has gotten on these steps and discuss what the next steps should be. Let’s continue the previous scenario:

Knowing the student is overwhelmed, the advisor works with the student to set three short-term goals, which include creating a school interest list, attaining an internship, and requesting a faculty advisor. The advisor and student then plan a follow-up meeting to review what information the student has gotten from these steps.

With this, the advisor has taken a previously challenging task and broken it into manageable steps that the student can take in pursuit of their long-term goal of becoming a school counselor.

Follow up with resources. Academic advisors cover much information during advising appointments. Yet, students are unlikely to remember everything advisors discuss with them during an appointment. To help students and themselves, advisors should send a follow-up email to students after an appointment to remind them of what they discussed. Although a follow-up email can take any form, consider including the following information:

  • Greeting (Hi ____,)
  • A brief message (i.e. “It was a pleasure meeting with you! Please see below and attached for the resources we discussed during your appointment:”)
  • A bulleted list of relevant resources and web links with descriptions (i.e. “Visit this page to review the process for applying for an internship: [Insert web link here]”)
  • Additional reminders (i.e. “Remember that the deadline to apply for Fall 2019 graduation is THIS Friday, September 13.”)
  • A closing statement (“Let me know if you have any questions. Have a great semester!”)

Baby Steps to Better Advising

Although time is sparse, academic advisors should take advantage of any gap times during their work days to create resources that prompt students to think about their next steps. For instance, a handout about potential career fields, graduate school programs, or GRE preparation, given to the right student at the right time, can mean everything. Take time to develop resources that are tailored to frequently asked questions from students.

Aurora Alexander
Academic Advisor II
Department of Psychological Sciences
Kent State University
[email protected]

Kristi Kamis
Coordinator of Academic Development
Office of Career and Academic Development
Hiram College
[email protected]


Menke, D. J. (2016). Weaving career advising into academic advising. Academic Advising Today. Retrieved from http://www.nacada.ksu.edu/Resources/Academic-Advising-Today/View-Articles/Weaving-Career-Advising-into-Academic-Advising.aspx

O’Bannon, T. (1994). An academic advising model. NACADA Journal, 14(2), 10–16. doi: 10.12930/0271-9517-14.2.10

Sanford, N. (1966). Self and society. New York, NY: Atherton Press.

Shaffer, L. S., & Zalewski, J. M. (2011). Career advising in a VUCA environment. NACADA Journal, 31(1), 64–74. doi: 10.12930/0271-9517-31.1.64

Cite this article using APA style as: Alexander, A., & Kamis, K. (2019, March). Fantasy vs reality: Five simple ways to help liberal arts students formulate a future. Academic Advising Today, 42(1). Retrieved from [insert url here] 

Posted in: 2019 March 42:1


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