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Today’s graduate students come from a diverse blend of backgrounds, disciplines and career aspirations, each with distinct needs and expectations of their university’s career services. Nestled within this academic milieu, career services acts as a crucial conduit, bridging scholarly pursuits with the multifaceted demands of the professional realm.

However, many of these offices, with their lean teams and modest budgets, grapple with the herculean task of satisfying often overwhelmingly diverse needs. The dedicated staff are at the helm, addressing myriad requests from varied stakeholders and playing an instrumental role in shaping students’ career trajectories. Their challenge is twofold: offering personalized guidance without experiencing burnout and expanding services while preserving the essence of personal touch.

As student aspirations and the professional world evolve, a pressing question arises: How can career services adeptly meet an expanding range of needs while upholding depth, quality and authenticity? To develop a balanced, impactful approach, the answer to the question demands a deep dive into innovative strategies and transformative solutions.

Embracing Scalability in Career Services

When I started out in careers service at Johns Hopkins University, I faced the daunting challenge of building an office from the ground up as the sole staff member. Tasked with serving more than 5,000 diverse and ambitious students, I quickly recognized that the traditional one-on-one appointment model was unmanageable at that scale. Yet despite the challenges, the need to deliver a significant impact—especially in laying the groundwork for a new office—remained a top priority for me.

This experience provided a crucial insight: scalability wasn’t a mere advantage—it was essential. As I built my small staff, our aim became to ensure each doctoral or postdoctoral student felt recognized and assisted and that we addressed their distinct needs in a sustainable yet meaningful manner.

Prioritizing scalability led us to embrace innovation and flexibility, deeply attuned to the diverse aspirations of the university community. As we have explored the strategies that arose from this endeavor, we’ve reflected on the real experiences, hurdles and successes that have guided our nascent office’s transformation into a fully realized service at our institution. Those strategies include the following.

Harnessing the power of shared values. One of our earliest and most significant strategies was to collaborate with like-minded staff members across the university. We identified those who, like us, were deeply dedicated to student well-being.

For instance, we partnered with the office of diversity and inclusion, which shares our commitment to ensuring services are accessible to all, to enable us to integrate DEI into our work. As prime example of that collaboration, we’ve made joint efforts to bring significant speakers to campus, which can often require a substantial budget. Recently, we hosted comedian Trevor Noah, underscoring the impact of our combined resources and shared values. This common ethos not only fostered camaraderie but also unlocked vast resources and joint opportunities.

Rather than merely pooling resources, this strategy amplified individual efforts through shared goals. By aligning with partners, we maximized our budget, applied our collective strengths and provided students with a comprehensive approach to career development.

One notable example is a project we launched called #100 Alumni Voices. That initiative featured diverse doctoral alumni in both podcast and written narratives. We collaborated closely with our university’s alumni relations office to gain insights on effectively engaging with alumni. This partnership was mutually beneficial: the alumni office could engage their doctoral alumni through our office, while we were able to glean invaluable wisdom and guidance from these interactions. Beyond streamlining our initiatives, such collaborative efforts resulted in engaging services and programs that deeply resonated with our graduate students.

Embracing virtual opportunities. Driven by the need for scalability, we harnessed the potential of virtual platforms with an ambitious two-day career conference. Attracting more than 3,000 participants from 43 countries, this free event bridged geographical divides, enabling global access to premier content on topics such as “Establishing Global Careers,” “Designing Meaningful Career Pathways” and “Finding Networks of Support.” Those sessions catered to the diverse needs of students, alumni and professionals alike. By sidestepping the challenges of in-person logistics, we focused our resources on delivering quality content and creating immersive experiences.

Notably, our alumni, brimming with institutional insight and real-world know-how, headlined sessions, enlightening attendees on varied career paths. Features like breakout discussions and interactive Q&As further personalized the experience. With sessions recorded for flexibility, the conference not only met immediate needs but also fostered a lasting, worldwide community for networking and collaboration.

Developing precision in scalability. Sometimes, deep connections are also formed in smaller gatherings. We embraced curated career dialogues tailored for particular graduate student communities. For instance, events like the LatinX and the Black Excellence Conference, limited to 100 participants, have catered to specific challenges and opportunities relevant to those groups.

Additionally, we introduced drop-in sessions with a maximum of 10 students. Those intimate gatherings promoted peer-to-peer advice, facilitating free exchange of experiences and queries.

The core philosophy is that scalable impact isn’t defined by sheer numbers. Meaningful interactions can occur in small rooms or on expansive digital platforms. By offering diverse scales and formats, we ensured all students accessed resources that resonated with their distinct needs and preferences.

Leveraging content for enduring impact. In today’s digital realm, content can transcend its original purpose and reach broader audiences when repurposed effectively. Recognizing that adaptability, we’ve extended its life span beyond single events or platforms at our institution.

For example, workshop recordings, originally intended for single use, now serve as e-learning modules, granting students anytime access. Extracts from our webinars, filled with invaluable advice, have migrated to social media, generating wider discussions. Such strategic repurposing not only optimizes our content investment but ensures that students can access our insights in ways that align with their lifestyles and preferences.

Harnessing social media and brand synergy. Leveraging the inherent outreach of social media has not only strengthened our own communications into the university community, but it has facilitated a richer, bidirectional dialogue, nurturing deeper connections. While students remain our core audience, the effects of our digital strategy have rippled further. Alumni have re-engaged, fostering mentorship ties. Faculty have become integral parts of our story, aligning more closely with career advisement.

Notably, university leaders have also taken note, cementing the value of our services within the broader institutional vision. That recognition has led to increased institutional support, both in terms of funding and strategic positioning, ensuring that our services remain a priority in the university’s long-term planning and resource allocation.

Engaging those key players has yielded real benefits. Their backing has equipped us with resources to maintain both our scale and service quality.

Crafting a Resilient Path Forward

The quest to scale career services unveils both hurdles and prospects. Despite showcasing innovative strategies, acknowledging the real constraints of limited resources is crucial. Each doctoral and postdoctoral student, with their specific goals and challenges, deserves a service depth that could stretch even the most resourceful career services offices.

Collaborations, while notably beneficial, carry their share of challenges, necessitating sustained effort to retain vitality and mutual value. Technological advancements and strategic innovations are helpful yet not comprehensive solutions. The need for adequate staffing and resources persists. The “administrative double day” phenomenon, where managerial duties amplify the workload, often diminishing direct student interaction, is a reality many offices face. These challenges are intrinsic to our journey, and recognizing them sets a pragmatic stage for balancing upcoming opportunities.

Reflecting on the nature of challenges and opportunities in scaling services within the higher education sphere yields essential insights:

  • Embrace a dual approach. Broad-reaching initiatives and smaller, tailored engagements each hold distinct value in addressing the diverse needs within the graduate student community.
  • Focus on content longevity and contextual relevance. Extending content’s life span across varied platforms is beneficial, yet ensuring its contextual relevance to the audience—whether through social media, webinars or workshops—is equally vital.
  • Make collaboration key. Foster synergies with internal departments, stakeholders or external partners to broaden reach and enhance service quality. Active nurturing of these collaborations ensures dynamic and reciprocal benefits.
  • Advocate with evidence. Regular compilation and presentation of initiative impacts and successes serve as potent advocacy tools for garnering additional resources and support.
  • Stay adaptable. The ever-evolving landscape of higher education necessitates agility in services—adapting them to emerging needs, technologies and opportunities.

In summary, scaling services in higher education is a nuanced endeavor, marked by resource limitations yet, at the same time, the ambition to deliver significant value. While inherent challenges exist, the interplay of innovation, collaboration and adaptability paves a resilient path forward.

The enduring commitment is to address the needs and challenges faced by our career staff while always ensuring that each graduate student feels acknowledged and empowered in their academic and professional journeys.

Roshni Rao serves as the executive director of doctoral and postdoctoral career design at Johns Hopkins University.

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