Using Senior Capstone Courses to Increase the Professionalization of Students

Male student in cap and gown, searching for jobsIn last week’s post,  I discussed how I met individually with each advisee and asked them approximately 250 questions. These questions focused on three broad career topics: types of jobs that sociology majors often accepted after graduating; types of people they would be interacting with while on the job; and types of working conditions (e.g., 24/7 on call; working from one’s car; an office job; etc.). The student had to respond “yes” or “no” or “maybe” to each question.

In this post, I want to describe how I constructed our major’s required senior capstone course. The first day we spent doing that same exercise I did with advisees because it was a springboard for the rest of the course. I altered it slightly so that I was not recording each student’s answers, but the student was. Then we had a class discussion about trends they saw in their own data and any surprises they saw. There were always surprises; there were some jobs that students did not know about and so I offered a description. Many were surprised to discover new jobs which interested them.

I constructed the capstone course around three broad themes: 1) each student would create a job search plan; 2) each student would create a plan for how to select a graduate school and graduate program and how best to apply; and 3) each student would spend time doing a self reflection about their life goals, how sociological skills supported those life goals, and how their financial and personal contexts would shape their future. These were broad themes and there were many smaller assignments which bolstered them.

Creation of a Job Search Plan

Laptop screen visible, showing the words "Job Search" and a search bar. Two hands ready to type also visible.Based on the jobs that students said “Yes” to on the first day of class, each student had to find a current ad for a job vacancy, in the city the student chose to live in post-graduation, for which the student was eligible and qualified. That job opening had to be approved by me (primarily for screening that it was a job a new graduate likely could land).

The first small assignment required students to create two resumes, using different styles we covered in class. They first submitted these as drafts and received my feedback and then finalized the two resumes as “resume templates.” Then the student had to apply for the job—that is to say, the student wrote a cover letter to the possible employer, tweaked one of the two template resumes to fit with this particular job—and submitted these for feedback and a grade. Then students used an Excel spreadsheet which I had created to analyze the city where they wanted to live. They had to find at least ten organizations which they could possibly join in order to professionally network and develop their skills. They had to find the goals of these organizations, a URL, and how often they met.

Diverse group of young professionals talkingSome examples were: Young Professionals organizations, specific career groups such as the local Social Workers association, or groups like Toastmasters, which could help them improve on a skill needed on the job. They also listed business and personal contacts they already might have in the city and had to analyze the strength of each of these social ties (i.e., “my current boss’ former boss of 12 year” is not a strong tie in helping to land a job). Another week students had to draft a letter to these social ties, explaining who they are, what kind of jobs they are seeking and why, etc. We talked at length about courtesy norms, how not to overly burden such individuals, etc., and I looked for those nuances in their letters

Creation of a Plan for Graduate School

The planning spanned the entire semester, again with several assignments due along the way. While obviously, not all students will choose graduate school (either immediately or eventually), but many did. In our sociology program, most students who did go on to graduate school chose social work or marriage and family therapy degree programs; fewer chose sociology degree programs. All students were required to do these assignments, in case later on in their career, they might choose graduate school. In the first week of class, they had to select a degree program and a school to use for the rest of the assignments and I had to approve (I nearly always did unless the whole class was applying to the same school/program, then we found similar programs elsewhere). Students had to download or screen capture the application and complete it. Since many but not all graduate programs required a goal statement and a writing sample, I required these from all students, in order to make the workload fair. The writing sample was to be a paper they had written in a college course that they felt showed their best analytical skills—but they could improve the paper from when they turned it in for a grade. We talked at length about how to self-edit the paper, using the professor’s comments. Some semesters we took a day and traded papers for peer review.

Another part of the requirement was that students had to create a list of potential academic references and to draft a short email they might send to those references. We spent time in class going over some “less than positive” ways to write such an email. The class came up with a template of best practices to use to ask former professors for this favor, such as reminding them of courses taken with them, grades received, and if they also were an advisee, etc. All of this was submitted as one application to me.

Plan for Self-Reflection: The Personal Is Professional

Students completed a self-assessment (graded done/not done) during the first week of class. They wrote about their strengths and weaknesses (personal and sociological). I would compare their sociological strengths from this assignment and what was listed on their draft resumes. Many would forget completely to highlight them! The self-assessments also asked about their work personality and some questions about their finances (student debt, if they were contributing support to other family members, did they have a monthly budget and if so, what was it, etc.). I kept this self-assessment completely confidential but I used it to guide discussion topics.

Sign on graduation cap: "Game of Loans"By the second time that I taught the course, one social fact surprised me—about 10% of my students had already declared bankruptcy. That worried me, and so in later terms, I made time for a one week module where we talked about “financial health.” I asked a speaker from the Financial Aid office to come talk about student loans and the legal ways to reduce their debt load, etc. The class and I spent a lot of time on the University of Georgia’s Peer Financial Counseling Program’s website (unfortunately this is no longer being updated). I have found that their downloadable resources were useful to students. During this week, students anonymously turned in financial questions they had. We spent the last day of this week finding answers. Some of their questions were, “What is a FICO score?,” “How do I start investing in retirement?,” and there were lots of questions about Social Security and its financial stability when they would retire.

Many students felt they were not strong interviewees, so I created a “mock interview for a job” assessment and had the Career Opportunities staff take the status of employer and give students feedback. Students felt they were “too brutally honest” but also told me they learned a lot about their “bad habits.”

All these out-of-class assignments were buttressed by sociological conversations in class. Students mapped our program and groups brainstormed concepts and theories they found useful from each class. They also mapped how they wished the program was and explained why. That helped students to see that yes, they had learned skills like statistical analysis, etc., that could become part of their resumes. We talked about the role transition from undergraduate to employee or from undergraduate to graduate student and what kinds of challenges they might experience during these transitions. We studied research on how to analyze their new work culture, and why seeing their new job as a site for “sociological analysis” might help their transition.

While there was an assignment due every week of the term, students stated that only after this class, did they feel ready to search for a job, know how to “read” the work culture of their new job, know how to negotiate for more salary (and when not to), understand how to figure out what graduate degrees they could attain, and how to think about their strengths and weaknesses effectively. They thanked me for pushing them academically—and pushing them to succeed in this next part of their journey.

Black text on white paper; "Its really" typed. Red pencil has circled "Its" as a grammar error.One more thing about the course. I showed students data which says that even one misspelling can mean that their resumes would be tossed. Each student received 100 writing and grammar points at the start of the semester. So I instituted this policy: for every writing error a student made, one point was deducted from the 100 points. We talked about how to use grammar and spelling checkers, etc., if they thought this was a weakness of theirs. Again, while this policy didn’t always make them happy in the moment, all stated that they appreciated it by the end of the term.

I recognize that this is but one way to help students realize the professional skills they have learned during their degree program. So readers, how do you socialize students into your profession?

Please visit the Pedagogical Thoughts website to contact me about institutional or individual consulting, dissertation editing or coaching about writing.

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