Graduate School adapts career workshops for COVID-19

Leaders of the NIU Graduate School’s Career and Professional Development Office regarded the arrival of COVID-19 as a call to action.

Several workshops planned for April would indeed go on as scheduled, albeit virtually – and, to the great delight of Dean Brad Bond, featuring fresh and timely content tailored in direct response to the virus.

Economic conditions created by the pandemic demanded the rapid conversion, Bond says, and NIU students, faculty, staff and alumni deserve no less.

Among the five topics that drew 275 unique participants (and 552 total views across the nine online sessions, four of which were encore presentations) were “How to Handle a Job Search during COVID-19” and “Strategies for Successful Online Job Interviews During the Pandemic.”

“It seemed absolutely necessary to be able to provide some resources, particularly to graduate students who were planning to graduate in the spring – or even later – and going to enter this job market in the COVID-19 epic,” Bond says.

“Those workshops that were offered in April were very specifically designed for that purpose,” he adds. “It’s just a responsibility of the Graduate School to be able to provide those resources.”

Bond credits Elizabeth Wilkins, coordinator of Graduate Career and Professional Development.

“Her work was really exceptional,” he says, “not only the speed at which she did it but the conscientious nature in which she did it.”

Wilkins believes that the pivot she and Graduate School colleague Gary Baker made – “We stepped up,” she says – was the only available choice for an operation committed to being “on the leading edge rather than following it.”

“These are unprecedented times for our students. We were hearing that internships and job offers were either being frozen or rescinded. Students needed help, and they continue to need help, when it comes to the job market,” says Wilkins, who also is a professor in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction.

“Our students are like a lot of people looking for jobs and internships. People are well aware of the impact the pandemic is having,” she adds. “NIU students, staff and alumni know that they have to have excellent job materials to catch the eye of a recruiter, hopefully get the interview and then nail the interview. They need to know how to stand out in a sea of applicants.”

Made available to anyone interested, including undergraduate students, staff and alumni, the workshops offered Tuesdays and Thursdays throughout April drew participants from all seven colleges and all but three academic departments.

The average attendance per workshop was 61, and the final tallies counted 24 undergraduates and 10 staff members among the nearly 300 unique audience members.

Content specific to the pandemic included strategies for successful job interviews in a stay-at-home world.

“We really unpacked that for the participants,” Wilkins says. “The growing trend now is the one-way, online interview. That has a different feel, and a student must approach that interview differently. They are not able to see the affect of the person they’re talking to.”

Better yet, Wilkins and Baker were able to provide participants with access to StandOut, an online platform where interviewees can practice.

Each 30-minute StandOut session is more challenging than the one before it, Wilkins says, and the site’s artificial intelligence delivers comprehension scores based on the words and phrases users say.

Harnessing technology is a hallmark of NIU’s Graduate Career and Professional Development office, which has earned national attention.

NIU’s tools include Burning Glass Technologies, the world’s largest real-time labor market analytic company.

“We like their work because their company provides job posting data from approximately 45,000 websites, with 3.4. million unique, currently active job postings,” Wilkins says. “Those are cleansed and analyzed to extract key job characteristics by program of study, skill, etc. We use those analytics to drive our entire curriculum.”

Burning Glass is “super-robust,” Bond adds. Wilkins and Baker, however, have developed a process for making the big data more user-friendly.

“It’s plug-and-play. You don’t have to go into the hard data and do the analysis; we’ve done that for students can find their way to their proper career path with a focus on skills,” Bond says.

Participants also wanted to learn more about the role technology commands in job-hunting.

April’s sessions also included “Optimize Your Job Search Using LinkedIn,” “Will Your Résumé Beat an Applicant Tracking System?” and, at the request of the participants, “How to Give Your Résumé or LinkedIn Profile a Boost with Metrics.”

“The large attendance at each of the nine proved we were really offering content that resonated,” Wilkins says. “The realities of the COVID impact on the job market is concerning to people, and NIU wants to help our students to do everything they can.”

The Graduate School launched its Career and Professional Development office four years ago; the office offers non-credit courses, and its scores of workshops reach about 1,000 graduate students every year both face-to-face and online.

During the polar vortex in early 2019, about half of the workshop participants engaged in online delivery of those sessions – a modality “that seems to be a natural fit,” considering that many graduate students are off-campus or pursuing their coursework completely online already.

“One doesn’t go to graduate school without having high hopes and ambitions, and I think these April workshops provided a way for students to think about how to achieve those hopes and ambitions, even in this atmosphere,” Bond says.

“We’re doing something right,” he adds. “Nothing that I’ve been involved in at NIU is more exciting than our work on career and professional development. It has the biggest impact for the most people that I’ve ever seen.”

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