How to Succeed in Business—Even if You’re Not a Business Major

October, 2005

by Kristin Proulx Jarvis

11-219Business Professor David Leuser knows that for recent college graduates, the first full-time job is both a milestone and a great transition. Adjusting to the world of work, a world which sometimes seems unfair and hard to navigate, can be a college grad’s biggest challenge.

Leuser’s general education course, Career Development, is designed to fill students in on the “nuts and bolts of succeeding in the work world,” says the professor. From interviews and resumés to negotiating salaries, the class provides students with valuable information about what they will face after leaving the shelter of the University.

Although the course is offered through the business department, it is actually an interdisciplinary course aimed at meeting the needs of students in all majors. In fact, more and more students from every major are choosing Career Development as their required integrative course, and typical classes are about an equal mix of business majors and non-business majors. This combination of academic backgrounds and career interests among members of the class makes for a rich exploration of ideas and about work, says Leuser.

As a general education integrative course, Career Development includes global, historical, philosophical, social-psychological and technological perspectives. Integrating these different disciplines means covering a variety of career-related topics, from sexual harassment and discrimination in the workplace to gender roles, global trade, unemployment and the history of labor, in order to demonstrate how multiple perspectives are used to solve problems in the real world. Students complete a variety of papers, projects and assignments, including a 15-20 page personal career plan, a personal resumé, a career presentation and an analytic, integrative paper on a current issue related to work and careers.

While introducing students to a variety of perspectives about changes in the work world, the course focuses on real-life skills and self-reflection. Over the semester, students evaluate their own work skills and abilities and research companies and organizations they might like to work for someday. Leuser also stages mock job interviews and invites guest speakers (often PSU alumni) to talk about different aspects of the work world.leuser

On Leuser’s course evaluations, students regularly praise the course for its practical nature and its hands-on structure.

“The course has been tremendously popular,” says Leuser. “I’m not able to keep up with the demand.”

To better serve more students, Leuser is in the process of developing proposals for two more career-focused interdisciplinary courses. One will concentrate on career exploration for students who are still unsure which college major or general career path to take. The other, called Professional Employment, will cover the basics of obtaining and succeeding in a first job in any type of organization.

Leuser is currently revising his Career Development course to meet new general education requirements as a “wellness” course, covering stress management, staying healthy and balancing work and personal life throughout the life span.

The majority of students who register for Career Development already have an interest in a specific career or field. Still, students are often uninformed about the realities of full-time employment. Over the course of the class, Leuser dispels several myths students have about the work world. First, he shows them evidence that the reputation of the college someone attends only accounts for a small percentage of a person’s earnings: “Going to a big name school doesn’t guarantee you big bucks,” he says.

Students also underestimate the importance of the informal and social aspects of work, says Leuser. Joining the company softball team or going out to lunch with colleagues, for example, helps create an environment of support and friendship that can be vital to job success and contentment.

But in the work world, despite support from friends in the office, new employees can spend months trying to decipher a company’s communication or organization system. Some graduates are surprised to learn that office politics, and not job skills alone, can lead to raises and promotions. Leuser explains that when it comes to promotions, layoffs and other decisions in the workplace, some individuals win and others lose. For these reasons, some graduates find the work world unfair.

Leuser tries to prepare students for this reality.

“The work world is organized very differently from college,” says Leuser. “In college, if you work hard and pass all your classes, you automatically get your degree. The college environment is much more supportive, with faculty and staff doing all they can to help you succeed. In the work world, bosses are not as concerned with your personal success. They just want the project done well and on time. If you can’t do that for them, they’ll just replace you with somebody else who can.”

Leuser also finds some students mistakenly see a first job as a lifetime commitment.

“Many of them look at selecting a first job as the thing they’ll be doing for the rest of their life,” he says. “That’s not the case. I emphasize that all they’re looking for is that first professional experience.”

In reality, Leuser says, most people change jobs and careers many times during their lives. Many students may move on to a completely different career path after that first job. The paternalistic companies of 20 or 30 years ago, where people often stayed in the same company until retirement, have all but disappeared due to global competition. The job market these students will face is very different from the market faced by their parents and professors.

“There are things going on in the workplace that are so different and unpredictable … What a person needs to be successful is the ability to adapt,” says Leuser.

Whether graduates stick with a first job for one year or five, Leuser hopes to provide his students with this adaptability and help them make decisions that will eventually lead them to a career that fits with their personality, hopes, interests and goals.

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