The graduate – are we giving employers what they want?

Siobhan Hugh-Jones (University of Leeds) investigates

Many undergraduate psychology programmes in the UK pride themselves on offering students extensive opportunities to develop and hone a range of skills, from ethical decision making and group negotiation, to using information-retrieval software and statistical packages. Psychology departments hope their graduates are equipped for at least baseline entry to the professional workplace. But what do the employers really think of the typical psychology graduate? At the Institute of Psychological Sciences at Leeds University I have worked with Ed Sutherland, and Annabelle Cross from the University Careers Service, to investigate these questions. Funded by the Psychology Network of the HEA, we interviewed a range of employers (e.g. NHS, Yorkshire Water, KPMG) about psychology graduates, and how universities might better prepare candidates for the workplace.

Interestingly, employers were reluctant to talk just about psychology graduates, as they felt there was no distinction between their skill base (either at the recruitment stage or in the workplace) and that of graduates from other comparable disciplines. This in itself perhaps points to missed opportunities, by both students and psychology programmes, to fully market the unique aspects of psychology degrees. Overall though, employers were satisfied that psychology graduates came equipped with the right skills and attributes to be effective in the workplace, although employers identified four areas of dissatisfaction.

The first issue centred on self-marketing. While degree classifications were used as an initial screening tool, employers were keen for students in the recruitment process to draw upon a range of experiences to promote their own unique selling point. Employers placed tremendous emphasis on graduates ability to market themselves, quickly rejecting the ‘good on paper’ candidate who fails to impact at interview. It seems that equipping students with skills matters little unless individuals know how to promote those skills, and themselves. Although HE careers centres do a fantastic job promoting student employability, the challenge for embedding employability skills and personal development planning (PDP) activities within undergraduate programmes is whether our remit should extend to developing the broader skills of self-marketing and personal impact among our students.

Second, employers stressed the importance of students being able to substantiate their application and interview statements with convincing evidence. Using competency-based interviewing (which is still very popular in selection procedures), employers are looking for evidence that the student can not only demonstrate key skills, but also reflect on past performance to enhance their future performance. Employers believe this gives them a more reliable view of how the candidate will handle situations in the future, and therefore determine how they are likely to perform in the role to which they would be appointed. Students can prepare for these types of interviews by identifying instances where they demonstrated or developed a skill (e.g. ‘I developed ethical decision-making skills in my undergraduate lab practicals’) and practising communicating this to others. Thus, evidencing skills is crucial. As the NHS interviewee stated:

People who will rise to the top will be people who can give us evidence so rather than just saying ‘I’m good at this, I’m good at that’, you actually want the evidence.

Thus, although universities typically encourage students to record achievement, the process should perhaps now expand to facilitate reflection on that evidence and what it demonstrates.

Third, employers were interested in HE’s efforts to promote employability through PDP, but were unsurprised at the difficulty of engaging staff and students in this practice. However, they stressed that development monitoring was an expected part of working life, seen as reflecting autonomy and drive, and that this expectation should be strongly conveyed to students:

The people who want to develop are the ones that are going to succeed and push further. We as a company expect individuals to be responsible for their personal development. It’s not something that the company is going to do for them, they need to own it and also understand why the company wants them to own it (Corus).

Fourth, there were a number of explicit barriers to employability that the employers identified, including the lack of evidence about the purported transferability of skills, the breadth of undergraduate psychology programmes working against an early focus on a particular career path, and finally a distinct lack of professionalism in students.

This latter point seemed to be particularly irritating to employers, who reported that job applicants frequently copied and pasted when completing application forms, often misnaming the target employer. Furthermore, they felt that the average student demonstrated poor written English in both applications and e-mail correspondence. Poor personal impact in interviews was also considered to be indicative of a lack of professionalism.

Thus, there seems to be a demand from employers to generate a more professional, employment-focused ethos in undergraduate psychology programmes, including a greater awareness of skills acquired, either from academic work or extracurricular activities, and of how these may render the individual distinct from other candidates. Equally important is the ability to articulate these skills to potential employers, and to offer convincing evidence of their use. Furthermore, there is a need to develop the professionalism of graduates through their interactions with peers and staff (hopefully seeing the last of ‘kisses and hugs’ on e-mails).

Further issues that warrant consideration by undergraduate psychology programmes include whether to incorporate some form of skill grading, and whether to involve employers in curriculum delivery to foreground employability from the outset.



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