Career Intentions

After a dramatic overhaul, the rebranded and reinvigorated Bates Career Development Center seeks to win back students, faculty, and alumni

By Bill Walsh ’86 and H. Jay Burns

By 2009, the recession had turned Commencement into a day of reckoning. Seniors leaving the leafy environs of the Bates campus were entering the worst job market in more than a quarter century.

During the Class of 2009’s senior year, the U.S. jobless rate soared from 6.2 percent to 9.4 percent. “Clearly these are awkward and difficult moments,” Commencement speaker Fareed Zakaria, the noted author and journalist, told the graduates.

Before the recession, recalls Jim Hughes, the Thomas Sowell Professor of Economics, just about “any graduating economics major who wanted a job in banking could get one.” But by 2009, “only a few got jobs in the field they were interested in.”

In February, the NYC edition of the Finance Road Show included a visit to the New York Stock Exchange facilitated by trustee James McNulty P'11. Immersion into various career fields is the goal of the college's road show program.

While other small liberal arts colleges raced to retool their career services — tapping deeper into alumni networks, expanding internship programs, and launching innovations such as “speed networking” and “taste of industry” visits to Silicon Valley, New York City and Washington, D.C. — the Bates career program was struggling to gain traction.

In 2008 and 2009, just as the recession took hold, a series of leadership transitions had hobbled the office. Separately but simultaneously, Bates trustees were expressing growing concerns about the college’s overall visibility and desirability among prospective students and families in the higher education marketplace.

In response, President Hansen directed an administrative reorganization, gathering career advising, admission and financial aid, and communications and media relations under one vice president. In early 2010, Nancy J. Cable arrived at Bates from the University of Virginia after a long and successful tenure in a similar enrollment position at Davidson College.

As vice president and dean of enrollment and external affairs, Cable’s first major move, in the spring of 2010, was to undertake a Chapter 11–style reorganization of the former Office of Career Services.

After a brief shutdown, Bates infused its career program with new resources and new staff, and renamed it the Bates Career Development Center — all by the start of the 2010–11 academic year. A few months later, BCDC headquarters moved from the fringe of campus on Frye Street to 53 Campus Ave., opposite Chase Hall.

If these actions seem dramatic, it’s because the stakes were high.

Rob Cramer ’79 is the managing director of RBC Capital Markets in Boston and a longtime Bates career volunteer. He’s also a Bates parent. Parents expect value, and the value of a Bates education should include a robust career program “commensurate with Bates’ status as an elite college.” That means “the best information, the best preparation, and top-flight access to the career world after Bates.”

And those expectations, many believed, were not being met.

And at the alumni end of the Bates pipeline, trustees worried that graduating seniors were losing a competitive advantage in the increasingly brutal job market. Furthermore, they felt that Bates was missing an opportunity to send its graduates into the work world with big, grateful smiles.

Indeed, the student-to-alum transition at Commencement “is the time to capture the continued engagement of an individual,” says Stuart Abelson ’97, a Bates trustee whose company, the ophthalmic clinical research firm Ora, is a leading recruiter and employer of Bates alumni (the current number is 12).

“If graduates feel that Bates has played a helpful role in their career search, rather than feeling that they’ve succeeded despite Bates, that’s going to pay off for the college,” Abelson says.

During the mid- and late 2000s, alumni in the Boston area like Steve Brown ’69, Bruce Stangle ’70, Jennifer Guckel Porter ’88, Joel Goober ’70, and David Greaves ’80 were building the successful Boston Bates Business Network. The goal was to help alumni expand their professional relationships, and there are now Bates Network chapters in New York City, Washington, D.C., Chicago, and Portland, Maine.

Yet by late in the decade, the Boston alumni cohort was especially frustrated with leadership changes in the career office. They wanted to see a renewed emphasis on career development that would link to efforts in the emerging Bates networks.

“If students and parents understand that Bates offers both strong career preparation and a thriving alumni network, then alumni will feel that a Bates degree has more value,” Stangle says. “And that helps the college.”

Too often regarded as an afterthought of the student experience (raise your hand if you remember the obligatory senior-year visit to Frye House to peruse job postings), BCDC and its new director, Karen McRoberts, hope to make career planning and development a central part of the Bates experience right from the start.

At New Commons, BCDC staffers Nancy Gibson (far left) and Kim Ma (left) answer questions and schedule appointments. Photograph by Phyllis Graber Jensen.

Appointed in July 2010, McRoberts arrived at Bates after eight years in career development at Boston University School of Management. Armed with her own liberal arts background (North Park University, Chicago), McRoberts engineered her own career overhaul about a decade ago, moving from corporate PR to career counseling.

She earned a master’s in counseling from San Francisco State University (doing grief and crisis counseling for a family-services agency along the way), then interned at Berkeley before moving back East.

From experience, then, she knows that “career development goes beyond getting a job. It’s about what you choose to do with your entire life.”

But having a job sure helps, a fact not lost on McRoberts. With Bates trustees, faculty, senior administration, and parents all expecting big things from BCDC, she knows that giving students the skills to compete successfully for jobs, graduate-school admission, and fellowships “is where the rubber hits the road.”

Long ago, the word “placement” disappeared from the title of most college career offices. Now, the word “services” is disappearing. “It suggests the end game, what you think about when you’re leaving Bates,” McRoberts says. Renaming the office the Bates Career Development Center, more than a change in stationery, “is strategic, suggesting an ongoing, lifelong process,” she adds.

In this sense, too, the office’s major move to Campus Avenue from Frye Street (its home since the Nixon administration) is more than a simple address change. It’s about being seen, literally and figuratively, as part of the Bates experience. “If the college sees us as part of the community, it should have a trickle-down effect to students,” McRoberts says.

And short of advertising during the Super Bowl halftime, BCDC has been putting itself in front of far more student eyeballs than ever before. Every Wednesday at lunchtime, students see BCDC staffers at tables in New Commons ready to answer quick career questions and schedule appointments. “The goal is to get students to cross Campus Avenue and come into the office,” McRoberts says.

“My impression is that BCDC is promoting itself more,” says Sili Wang ’13 of Chengdu, China. “They are definitely getting more helpful.”

BCDC also has been a strong presence at Bates’ largest events (Orientation, Parents & Family Weekend, Homecoming), and staffers attend many Bates alumni networking events off campus.

Its higher profile on campus is part of BCDC’s “goal to get out in front of the game and help students develop a four-year plan,” McRoberts says. “Our hope is that as students move through their time here at Bates, they learn to continually move career ideas and strategies in and out of their decision-making.”

Abelson frames the concept in historical Bates terms. “It’s not Bates’ job to find a job for seniors. But it is Bates’ job to create an environment, resource base, and network where students can find a job or a graduate program. I mean, this is straight out of Benjamin Mays: Bates ‘making it possible’ for a student to empower themselves.”

Yet finding the right mix of programs to get students to make career planning part of their day-to-day decision-making is the “challenge for every career center in the U.S.,” McRoberts says. “There is no cookie-cutter approach.”

One-on-one counseling “is always going to be very important,” she says, so the personal-attention theme is emphasized through daily BCDC walk-in hours and a newly created team of Career Peers, juniors and seniors who guide fellow students who are just beginning their career exploration.

But the one-on-one approach can’t reach everyone, so BCDC has invigorated its larger events: making them class-focused, branding them with catchy themes, and publicizing the heck out of them.

“We’ve done a lot of work developing programs that address what students need to be thinking about” at different points of their Bates experience, McRoberts says.

Last fall, the First-Year Career Success Initiative, playing off the CSI television franchise, was a networking session and orientation that attracted 50 first-year students (a great turnout). Meanwhile, the Career Inception program, playing off the movie Inception, gave juniors advice on internships and job-seeking strategies.

“Larger events do take more time to pull together,” McRoberts says. “But they are more effective and efficient than giving the same 90-minute workshop to five students over and over.”

At the same time, BCDC has created other new events and jazzed up others. Resume training was found in a recent “DIY” event — again, at New Commons to give it visibility — called Building Your Career Toolkit.

Last fall, the annual Finance Boot Camp attracted 40 students, in required business attire, for a five-hour Sunday afternoon class. Each fall and winter, BCDC continues to offer finance “road shows” in Boston and New York City, whirlwind overnight events in which alumni and parents in finance welcome students into their work world.

Brad Adams ’92, a managing director of the investment banking firm TM Capital Corp., has been a key force behind the Boston event, now in its fourth year.

“Bates students are great writers and thinkers, but they’ve had no real exposure to investment banking,” he says. “Now, when an employer asks if they’ve had experience in this world, they can say yes.”

And, he adds, it hasn’t been hard to get alumni to engage with the students. “Support from the Bates alumni in finance has been amazing. If I want to set up eight meetings, I make eight phone calls.”

“My impression is that BCDC is promoting itself more,” says Sili Wang ’13 of Chengdu, China. An economics major, she visited the office just once her first year, but visited several times this past year, taking part in the Finance Boot Camp in the fall and both the Boston and New York City Finance Road Shows. “They are definitely getting more helpful.”

The rebranded BCDC was in full bloom in early May for the flagship workshop known as GAME Day. A joint effort involving BCDC, the Department of Athletics, and the Friends of Bates Athletics, the program targets athletes at Bates — where some 60 percent of students play varsity, club, or intramural sports — to help them understand how the tools of athletic competition can be part of their career development strategies.

In contrast to last year’s casual session that drew a couple dozen students to Merrill Gym, this year’s 71 attendees (including a strong turnout of 21 first-years or sophomores) found a more formal, conference-like setup in Alumni Gym.

Business-casual attire was de rigueur, and keynote speaker Peter Wyman ’86, an Ocean Spray vice president, was in a suit. And, egad, the program was on a Sunday morning of Short Term.

“We try to instill an idea that’s still true and meaningful in the work world: You never get a second chance to make a first impression,” McRoberts says. “As students brand themselves for their professional lives, accountability and, literally, showing up are parts of the overall package.”

Ultimately, the success of BCDC “is going to live in all our actions.”

Varsity rower Hannah Richardson ’11 of Washington, D.C., got the message. “What stuck with me is that students should approach the job search process as they would a competition: with planning, persistence, and more effort than the other person,” she says.

From Hughes’ faculty perspective, BCDC is starting to get that message out to all students. “It is going to take another year to completely turn it around, but I’ve no doubt that it will happen.”

But if BCDC is starting to win student hearts and minds, restore relationships with alumni volunteers, and win over longtime critics like Hughes, it may have a tough row to hoe with the larger community of Bates faculty, who have always acted as career advisers for their students.

Take the Department of Art and Visual Culture, where the academic course “Museum Internship” offers what the name says: academic credit to students who intern with museums, including the Bates College Museum of Art. (A few other departments also offer course credit for internships.)

“Internships are the path into the museum field,” says department chair Rebecca Corrie, Phillips Professor of Art and Visual Culture. “They are crucial for professional development.” (See sidebar, page 25.)

Corrie says the department has worked “very hard over the last two decades” to help art students secure significant internship experience with leading museums, auction houses, galleries, and foundations. To prepare students for those internships, which can lead to post-Bates jobs, “we offer intensive coaching and endless advising,” she says.

Yet along with pride in Bates art majors’ career successes is Corrie’s belief, shared by other academic departments, that faculty have done more than their fair share of career advising over the years, being called upon by frantic students to proof resumes and personal statements and help with interviewing.

Again here, BCDC is trying to correct this perceived imbalance through workshops, partnerships with Bates writing specialists, and better communication with faculty who oversee key graduate and medical studies programs (the latter being highly successful in recent years).

“I’m not the expert who can help a student compare anthropology doctoral programs focused on the West Indies,” says Karen Daigler, the BCDC staffer who supports medical and graduate studies. “But I can certainly work with a faculty member and student to guide that process.”

While Bates professors obviously “care deeply” about their students and their career paths, Daigler adds, they shouldn’t be burdened with the job of imparting career-development skills.

Still, she knows, students tend to follow their professor’s advice, and faculty are unlikely to start urging students to visit BCDC if they think that the help won’t be top-notch.

Abelson compares this dynamic to when a new company creates its human resources office, and there’s a learning curve as the company’s managers (read: Bates faculty) figure out if and how they should work with the HR office (read: BCDC).

“Over the years, Bates career advising has been a little bit like that,” he says.

From his trustee perspective, Abelson makes a suggestion. “Now that BCDC is coming into its own, I hope that the whole college community — and I mean faculty, alumni, administrators, parents, and students — give it a chance. Let’s accept that change is happening and embrace the change.”

Ultimately, he says, the success of BCDC “is going to live in all our actions.”