Why do university careers services often underdeliver?

Sam Franklin
Otta
Published in
3 min readJun 19, 2019

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Many students don’t seem to be making the most of their university careers service

I have spoken to a number of university students and alumni in the past months. One of my favourite questions is “Would you be disappointed if the careers service didn’t exist?” as it jumps straight to whether it’s adding value. The majority have answered this question about careers services with “no”. (LSE seems to be the most consistent counterpoint to this, with students applauding the services there)

Many students don’t bother to visit their careers service as they believe it won’t help. For those who visit their careers service, there is a common thread in what they describe as not working. It is often a struggle to get appointments. Advice is more generic than hoped. Students are leaving with too many unanswered questions and not feeling supported.

I’ve thought for a while on why many careers services often underdeliver. Here are my conclusions:

  1. Careers services don’t need to be the best, so they don’t invest heavily in technology to provide you with the best tools. Students choose universities based on their courses, campuses and opportunity for experiences. I’ve never heard anyone say “I chose Leicester over Leeds because their careers service is better”. You will pay £27,000+ for a university education regardless of whether your careers advisor supports you.
  2. At the current level of staffing, careers advisors don’t have the capacity to invest time into their students. For example, Cambridge University has ~30 minutes available per term for each final year student.* That’s not enough time to understand your career goals, review CVs and applications, practise interviews, help you choose between offers and teach you to negotiate salary.
  3. Careers services don’t connect you with advisors who have first-hand experience of the roles and industries you’re interested in. Careers advisors are often very experienced in their advisory role, and are equipped to ask smart questions. However, many of the students I spoke to want advice from people who are still operating in businesses, as this gives advisors an edge with current trends and commercial topics.

The positive intentions for careers services are there. I have no doubt there are some fantastic careers services and individual advisors. Yet, when students from top institutions such as Oxford, Cambridge and Bristol are saying their careers services are poor, it suggests to me the system just isn’t set up for success.

*I reference Cambridge as I could quickly find a published annual report with some figures. I ran some quick maths and the calculations below are directionally correct.

  • Cambridge employs the equivalent of 12 full-time advisors (I assume anyone part time works 75%)
  • In a Cambridge term students are there for 10 weeks, 50 working days, or 400 working hours. Multiplying by the number of advisors, this leads to 4,800 hours available for 1–1 support. If you reduce that by 20% to consider non-contact hours (e.g. lunch, admin, preparing presentations), there are 3,840 hours, or 230,400 minutes.
  • Cambridge has 21,000 students (undergraduate and postgraduate) of which ~7,000 are in their final year. This means there are ~10 minutes available for every student per term or ~30 minutes for every final year student.

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