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Volume 96, Issue 1

GRAPHIC:  Campus NewsQ &A: Get in the door, nail the interview

Liz Michaels, AB’88, has been director of Career and Placement Services (CAPS) since 2001. Formerly chief operating officer for Morningstar, a financial research and publishing firm, Michaels later was president of Jellyvision, an interactive development studio and creator of the game You Don’t Know Jack. Before directing CAPS she volunteered there, interviewing students for an internship program and keynoting the 2000 Taking the Next Step program for College third-years.

IMAGE:  Liz Michaels, AB'88
Illustration by Allan Burch

Is CAPS for general career counseling or specific employer-employee matching?
In terms of the services CAPS offers, there are three main areas. There’s student preparation: “I have absolutely no clue what I want to do or what I should be doing. Help.” Once you have some idea about what you want to do, we show you how to find those kinds of opportunities, and then how to put together your résumé, cover letter, or applications, how to nail the interview, and then how to negotiate your job offer.

The second area is opportunities. A big part of the office is focused on working with employers with internships and full-time jobs and making those available and accessible to students, or that can be through simply educating an employer about what a liberal-arts degree is. We have databases, we have job fairs, internship programs, and so on.

The last area is under the big heading of “connections”—how you build a network or what networks are available to you. That network can be the 6,000-plus people in the Alumni Careers Network. It can be people at the Law School, people in the Hospitals. It can be your parents. So it’s how we help you connect, but more importantly, from the University’s standpoint, how we build the infrastructure to facilitate those kinds of connections.

What, in your experience, do students find most helpful?
It depends on where the student is. Some students know exactly what they want to do, so we can help in terms of mock interviewing. It may be a Ph.D. looking at an academic job at a small liberal-arts college, and how you interview for that, what you do on a campus visit. For others it can simply be having somebody to help think through the other pieces.

In slow economic times do you give students different advice for job-searching strategies?
The advice changes only in that you have to be realistic. Sometimes people get immersed in academics, and then they pick their heads up, and you say, “By the way, we’re in a recession.” So you just have to remind people that if they heard about the dot-com thing, it’s gone, it’s going to take a little more to get the job.

What we focus on is preparation. There are many ways that a U of C degree is going to get a door open for you. The question is, are you prepared enough, can you impress enough to close the job and get that opportunity? And that’s where we spend a lot of our time—making sure that your résumé speaks to your experiences and is relevant to the job. All of those basic things that sound really trite but are key in good or bad economic times.

The other focus—and this is probably more true when there are fewer jobs out there—networking. You can send in thousands of applications blind for a job, and the odds of that producing anything are very slim. So you’ve got to be able to both look at what’s open and made public and also learn to work the networks so that somebody will walk your résumé up to a hiring manager and say, “I think we should contact this person.”

What are examples of job sectors that are or aren’t hiring? What are employers looking for?
What employers are hiring for is the same thing they’ve always been; they’re just a little more picky because they can afford to be. Expectations for what somebody’s bringing in are higher. In terms of what sectors are hiring, consulting has always been of great interest to our students, and that’s not hiring—or the opportunities are very few and far between. And everybody else is slower.

What would you say is the most common mistake Chicago students make when job searching?
The biggest thing we notice, and what we hear from employers, is that students have a hard time articulating why they’re interested in a position and what they’ve done that makes them a good fit for it.

Another thing we notice is that there’s a lot of pressure to follow certain paths, paths that students believe are the right paths, or the paths that U of C students should follow, or the paths that—in not a small number of cases—your parents or others expect you to follow.
Those two things are interconnected. If you come in saying, “I want to be an investment banker, that’s what I want to be,” or, “I want to go to med school,” or, “I need to go to law school,” and you don’t have any idea why or you really don’t want to go, it’s the rare person that’s able to BS their way through that. And the person on the other side, whether it’s the law-school admissions office or an employer, sees through it.

How are graduate students’ job searches difference from undergraduates’?
We have three staff members who focus exclusively on graduate students and four people who work exclusively with undergraduates. While the graduate population is larger, people are at different points and more spread out. For the graduate population you may see many of the issues you see on the undergraduate side, but they are much more complex because these folks are older, they’ve been doing what it is they thought they wanted to do for a much longer time. And when someone says, “This isn’t going to work out,” or you realize this isn’t where you want to be, you may very well be married and have kids and living on $10,000 a year. It’s just a very different kind of issue.

But in terms of supporting them, one group tends to go on to academic jobs, to the faculty, and then the other side is much like the College: “I don’t know what I want to do.” What does one do with a Ph.D. in the humanities or the Divinity School? So we see a lot of that.

After getting CAPS help, what should a student leave with or have accomplished?
It depends on what you came in with. I think the one thing everybody should leave with is knowing there’s no easy route to this, unfortunately. We don’t keep a list of employers in our desk and if you impress us enough pull out the job and say, “This is for you, sign on the bottom line.” So you leave probably realizing that there’s more work involved than getting a student job on campus.

And we hope you leave feeling like your résumé’s a little better, having a better idea of how to talk about yourself in a way that anybody’s interested in, as opposed to how you talk about yourself at a bar.

How does your own past experience help you in this job?
Because I’ve been on the other side of the table—I’ve done hiring, I’ve been a hiring manager—I have some appreciation for what the recruiters are going through and for how little time you really have to make an impression. I also have an understanding of the field these students are competing against. There are other people out there besides U of C grads. Students are competing against other very capable and talented people, and they need to figure out how to get over that hurdle.

What is the most underrated tool students have?
The Alumni Careers Network is an important part of what we do. For the money they pay, in addition to critical-thinking and other academic skills, the one tangible thing that people walk away with—I really believe this—is the network of those past and presently associated with the University. We don’t do this connecting as well as our peer institutions. For a whole variety of reasons we don’t, and it’s a loss of an opportunity for the current students but also for the alumni, in terms of being able to build that network for new contacts or new business or fund raising or whatever it is that you need.



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