How can we help students transition into graduate life?

What happens when graduates don’t get the job of their dreams? Rebecca Moynihan introduces her research on the transition into graduate life

Many undergraduate students approach graduation day filled with the hopes and possibilities of what is to come.

A move out of education and into the world of work. Bigger and better. Posters around the university campus have reassured that a career is definitely on the table. As part of my MSc research, I explored the transition out of university and into the world of work, and I interviewed twenty graduates of their experience. What they came to realise is that it’s not as simple as getting a degree and entering into your desired field. Many places are asking for “essential” experience rather than a degree, and the opportunities are few and far between, leaving some finding themselves in non-graduate roles.

These non-graduate roles can be stigmatised, with my interviewees disclosing that people would often ask them when they were going to get a “proper job”. The expectations of what their life would be like after university – the doors their degree would open – were not rooted in the reality of the working world.

I wanted to break this down, to see where these expectations came from, and why they went unmet – how well-rooted were they, and what lead to graduates leaving for the workplace ‘unprepared’ as so many articles suggest? I knew of all the support that was offered to ensure students make a smooth transition into university, but what was there to support the transition out of university?

Bumpy and smooth

I interviewed participants from a variety of degrees, from those who graduated from more professional and vocational courses like midwifery to those less associated with a particular profession, like psychology or English language. My intention was to consider whether actions the interviewee took to prepare themselves before transitioning had any effect on their post-transition experience.

Not unexpectedly, graduates of courses like midwifery and teaching, reported that their transition was more streamlined, and there was more preparation available from the university in terms of offering placements. As a result, these graduates reported greater satisfaction with their transition.

Graduates of the less vocational degrees had more varied responses. I was surprised to discover that those graduates who felt they had prepared themselves well to graduate from university and into a graduate role, were actually the ones who experienced the most dissatisfaction post-transition.

So what preparation were these graduates doing that didn’t seem to be enough? Turns out, they were doing all the preparation they thought they could – getting a degree. This finding led to the development of what I called “The Implicit Model of Transition Success”.

The Implicit Model of Transition Success helped my research answer why so many graduates were seemingly “unprepared” for the transition into the workplace, but also why so many seem to have expectations that can’t be met in reality. Throughout their journey in education, a student is taught that in order to progress onto the next level of success (education), good grades must be achieved. GCSEs lead onto A levels, A levels enable you to progress onto a degree, and thus, a degree must enable you to progress into the working world. But not just into any job; each transition is expected to lead onto “bigger and better”. Once in university, this “bigger and better” ideology is reinforced in marketing posters advertising graduate employability stats; in graduate talks for schools, and in the push for high grades.

Holding this implicit model means that graduates can be missing out on the essential planning and preparation needed to successfully transition into the working world. If students are approaching the transition, holding it in the same regard as their previous ones, the main guarantee of transitional success is the obtaining of a degree. It is at university that this needs to be addressed. There needs to be more honest and open conversations about the reality of the working world, a degree can help, yes, but you also need relevant skills and work experience.

Bring them back

How do these conversations begin? A key way universities can begin to engage more with the transition begins with utilising their existing networks with alumni. Gaps in support can be highlighted, and recommendations can be offered and considered. Alumni can also act as guest speakers, mixer events can be arranged between alumni and current students, to share a variety of transitional experiences – highlighting the different kinds of successes or failures that a graduate is likely to face. It is through the sharing of stories, rather than the showing of statistics, that students really can begin to understand the transition as a whole, and realise how much more they have to do to help prepare them for a successful transition.

Another, perhaps undervalued, intervention is the personal development plan (PDP), which gives students ownership of developing their transferable skills beyond the degree, making them better prepared not only to seek work, but to perform well in interviews and applications, having a clear career plan and goals to get there. For universities, the more they promote the PDP in tutorials or extra curricular seminars/courses, the more students are graduating feeling able to enter into higher paid/higher skilled jobs.

The question isn’t only how do universities begin to engage more with the transition, but how do we get students to engage? My interviewees reported not using the optional support available through careers departments because they “didn’t feel they needed it”. How can students who until this point have been protected by the bubble of university and education confidently say they don’t need any transitional support entering into a world they have never existed in? Is a move from optional support to compulsory the way to go?

One consideration is that the point at which graduates may realise they need support can come after graduation. Many careers services offer continued alumni support for a period after graduation; this could perhaps be tied more closely to provision and support for mental health and wellbeing, given the potential negative impact on a graduate of losing confidence in their ability to transition into work. It would theoretically be possible to devise an area of online support/resources available for the graduate, in areas such as moving back into the family home, how to cope with job rejections, and how to handle the transition from a student identity to that of an adult, and all its baggage?

There is still a way to go when it comes to discussing how and why higher education institutions should engage in the transition, and just how much they should push students to prepare pre-transition. But it’s a discussion that needs to continue. Universities are well-equipped to support students and their wellbeing whilst at university, can they become well equipped at extending this support to their graduates?

The research discussed is taken from the thesis entitled “‘In University, You Put Your Life On Pause for Three Years’: An Exploration into The Transitional Experience of Those Graduating from University” as part of Rebecca Moynihan’s MRes at the University of Huddersfield.

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