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Want to Be a Success in Life? Personalize Your #HigherEd Degree

by Justin Marquis Ph.D.

Most often the journey to individuality begins as a high school student or undergraduate, often continues into graduate school. With persistence and a little luck, the pursuit of uniqueness may, over the course of a lifetime of work and experience, culminate in a long and rewarding career. Unfortunately, tough economic times increasingly mean that those getting started on their edventures are more often competing against more experienced workers who have had setbacks in their careers and are looking for employment further down the career ladder. For college graduates competing against these seasoned professionals, finding a job can be a challenge.

One way to help your chances against such stiff competition is to make your degree one-of-a-kind. It will take hard work and creativity, but the enterprising college student can help separate themselves from the pack by turning their standard university degree into something special that employers will have a hard time ignoring. Here’s how you can personalize your degree and make yourself a better candidate for jobs after graduation.

Things are Tough All Over
The July 8, 2013 national jobs report presented further evidence that, despite a slow rise out of recession (unemployment is down below eight percent), the economy still continues to struggle and may for many years to come. This information, when considered within the broader context of a global economic slowdown, particularly in China and worsening economic struggles in the European Union heralds more rough times to come. Recent college graduates are increasingly being forced to chart their own, individual paths to employment rather than relying on the traditional paths to employment that have served the generations before them. Increasingly this means that new college graduates are working for or creating their own non-profits, starting their own businesses, or following other innovative paths to employment. Boldly cutting your own swath through a tough economic landscape isn’t for everyone, and there probably really aren’t enough opportunities for every college grad to create their own sustainable company. For those more inclined to pursue a traditional career, you are going to need something to distinguish yourself from the masses and make you competitive with more experienced workers who are vying for the same positions. Here’s how to personalize your higher education to gain an advantage over the competition.

The Value of Personalizing Your Degree
Aside from the obvious reason of making you look different from everyone else with a degree in whatever you are studying, there are many reasons to consider customizing your degree that may not be self-evident. Here’s what personalizing your higher education can do for you.

  • Makes you a value-added job candidate – When applying for jobs it is imperative that you meet most of the advertised requirements for a position if you are even going to have a chance. If that means experience, you may be out of luck unless you have done number six below and secured an internship or two. If you do meet the minimum though, one thing that will set you apart from other candidates is the areas in which you can add value to the position above and beyond the advertised roles. This may mean bringing a hi-tech skill to the table, knowledge or experience of a related field, or being a proven innovator.
  • Shows initiative – Another way in which you can be a value-added applicant for a position is to show that you are the kind of person who takes initiative to go above and beyond the normal job requirements. Adding skills, knowledge, and experiences to your education demonstrates that you will be the kind of employee who will continually seek to enhance yourself and, by extension, the organization hiring you.
  • Expands your employable skill set – The more that you can do, the more potential avenues there will be for employment. Focus on areas that can be documented through some sort of credential such as certification, licensure, or an endorsement, and you may be able to leverage some of your add-on skills and knowledge into a job.
  • Establishes a potential career path – Personalizing your degree will also help you to explore and define multiple potential career paths. An internship in a particular area may help you to realize that a career in that field may or may not be a great fit for you.
  • Leads to increased satisfaction – In the end, employment should be about doing something that you enjoy and that you will be intellectually stimulated by throughout a long career. Exploring multiple interests will not only help you determine good fits and expand your employable skill set, but will also allow you to focus on areas that provide you with the greatest long term options for a satisfying life.

The value is there if you are able to customize your higher education in ways that increase your employability and overall career satisfaction. One question remains, "How to do it?"

How to Personalize Your Education
The kind of individuation that happens over the course of a lifetime and career is often unintentional. People move from job to job for various reasons and acquire knowledge, skills, and certifications along the way to survive or advance their careers. Sometimes, these skills are gained as a result of pursuing personal interests and hobbies, and never reach a point where they become employable possibilities. As an early career student you have the opportunity to craft your life in ways that will make sure that your career aspirations, passions, and skill set all complement each other. All it takes is focus and a little guidance. Here are ten things that you can do to personalize your higher education and help secure a lifetime of satisfying and rewarding employment.

  • Be career focused – This may be challenging for young scholars, but the sooner you can pinpoint careers that are of interest to you, the sooner you can start preparing to land a job in that field. Start looking at job descriptions on one of the major employment sites and take notes about the kind of skills and experiences usually required and any other factors that seem important to getting hired in that area.
  • Be intentional about your education – Once you know what you will need in order to be hired, begin making conscious choices about your education and other activities that help you develop the skills and experiences necessary. Take classes that help you meet job requirements, look into additional certifications that may enhance your job prospects, and seek out opportunities for extracurricular activities such as clubs that help you make connections and gain valuable experiences.
  • Embrace a broad-base of learning – The world is shrinking every day. Between globalization of markets and the creation of new jobs and fields (like cyber security, nanotechnology, or additive manufacturing) there is no way to know what the next new career field could be. Pursuing a variety of topics in your education not only exposes you to areas that may someday intersect, but helps you to potentially become one of the individuals who pioneers a new field.
  • Pursue extra-curricular activities – Focusing on activities that help you develop employable skills and make connections is important, but nearly as important is working your way up into leadership positions within the organizations you join. While it may not seem important, becoming the president or vice president of a student organization can help to demonstrate not only that you have initiative, but also that you are capable of managing people and even finances.
  • Develop hi-tech skills (3D printing, graphic arts, video or game production) – While technology may not be everyone’s cup of tea, there is undeniable value in including some hi-tech skills on your resume. As organizations streamline their operations but still have needs to innovate and reach new markets, true value-added job candidates who can contribute cutting-edge tech skills to their potential employers in addition to the basics can look extremely appealing. Focus on skills that have obvious use as well as those that could provide opportunities for expansion and that you are passionate about.
  • Find an internship, or two, or three – Internships and externships can help you gain real world skills and experience, make connections, and potentially lead directly to jobs with the providers. This is one of the most important steps you can take in personalizing your education. While it may be a hardship in the present, consider unpaid internships, or propose one. That will only further demonstrate your ambition and willingness to go above and beyond for the career you are interested in. This article from Forbes will help guide you through the process of finding and securing internships.
  • Follow you passions – Nothing will make you a more attractive job candidate than showing how passionate you are about what you do and the position you are applying for. One way to cultivate this enthusiasm is the focus on careers that you are passionate about. While things you are passionate about may not be obvious career choices, take some time to think about them and do some research into potential careers, you might be surprised at what you find.
  • Become your own boss – Just like pursuing extra-curricular activities, starting your own company or non-profit while in college can be a powerful declaration of your ambition, creativity, and individuality. Look for gaps in local services that you can fill by following your passions. Becoming a youth mentor or tutor, starting a food bank, or engaging in some other entrepreneurial activity can not only make you more employable, but could allow you to avoid the job search altogether.
  • Find a good mentor (or two or three) – One of the most important things you can do during your higher education is find an engaged mentor. This person can guide your educational and career choices, provide connections to prospective employers, and much more.
  • Document every step – Finally and most importantly, you need to become a meticulous and organized record keeper regarding the skills and knowledge you are acquiring to personalize your higher education. Go to your college’s career center and get started with a resume as early as possible. Make sure that you document everything you do and find creative ways to include the relevant details on your resume. One option is to create an innovative multimedia resume that will not only tell employers what you can do, but will show them as well.

Doing some or all of these things won’t guarantee you a job when you graduate, but they will help to make you a competitive candidate for positions you are qualified for, even if you are up against competition with more experience. You have nothing to lose and everything to gain.

It’s Never Too Late!
It’s never too late to start personalizing your degree – but the sooner you start, the better off you will be. Even if you are coming to this article later in your higher-ed career, you can still do some of these things, like finding mentors or securing internships, which can make a big difference in how you appear to prospective employers. It is never too late to add some certifications or take free MOOC classes of other courses online that, when properly documented, can help to make you a more attractive applicant for the job of your dreams. Follow these steps and keep moving forward. Continually adding skills and experiences,  and you have a blueprint that will help take your higher education to the next, more employable, level.