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Foundations for Effective Career Planning

"Success is where preparation and opportunity meet."

— Bobby Unser

"Success is where preparation and opportunity meet." — Bobby Unser

You may have enrolled in an online program for several reasons — personal fulfillment, academic immersion in a topic of interest, or specific goals related to work and career. The Noel-Levitz "2010 National Online Learners Priorities Report" found that "future employment opportunities" is one of the factors influencing enrollment.

Start thinking about career planning in your first class; don't wait until graduation to begin the process. One of the biggest mistakes college students make is delaying the career planning process until late in their programs. This can result in being overwhelmed with the tasks involved and create an unnecessary rush to find that first job out of school. This article will help you prepare yourself, while you are still a student, to make informed decisions about your career, move forward with career development activities, and engage in a successful job search.

Career Decision-Making

Career choice is influenced by a wide range of factors, including your skills and abilities, interests and personality characteristics, your many life roles (e.g. parent, student, friend, worker), your previous experiences, and even your gender and cultural values. How do you decide what career is right for you? There are a lot of parts to this question to consider, and many resources to help you with the answers.

Finding a career path that is a good fit means conducting some research. You need to know about yourself, your industry, and the job market to make the best possible decisions about your career. Here are a few resources to start your research.

Skills and Abilities

  • Use a skills inventory, like this one from Purdue University, to develop a list of your greatest strengths in terms of abilities and skills.
  • Consider using a tool like the Skills Profiler, a service of CareerOneStop, to help you see how your skills and abilities match up with potential jobs and careers.

Values and Interests

  • Create a list of things you enjoy doing. Think about previous jobs you've held as well as outside hobbies and interests. The O*Net Interest Profiler is one resource you can use to "find out what your interests are and how they relate to the world of work."
  • Taking your work values, such as achievement, autonomy, security, and salary, into consideration is also important. Use a questionnaire, like this one from the University of Minnesota, to help you better describe your own needs and priorities as they relate to career choices and the work environment.

Required Qualifications

  • The career you are pursuing may have specific requirements for entry. The Occupational Outlook Handbook (OOH), published by the U. S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, provides information related to the education and training required for specific occupational career fields.
  • In addition to education and training, most positions have other requirements related to experience and skill mastery. Review current vacancy announcements for positions in your field for a list of current employers' requirements.

Salary Expectations

  • Determine your salary needs after graduation. Calculate your personal budget, including living expenses and any expected loan repayments, to help you plan for the future.
  • Have realistic expectations for what your starting salary may be after graduation. Use a resource like PayScale to compare current salaries for specific job titles. You can also compare the salaries of similar jobs in different locations.

Job Outlook

  • Know the projected need for skilled workers and professionals in your chosen career field. The OOH provides growth projections for hundreds of occupations.
  • Contact state employment and workforce offices in your location or in the area where you plan to relocate to find out more about occupations and the job market in a specific region.

Making a Career Change

According to a 2010 survey conducted by Noel-Levitz, today's online student is not only enrolled in courses, but also working full-time, and more than half of them are between the ages of 25 and 44. Are you planning to change careers? Or planning on entering the job market after a long absence? Changing careers requires additional attention to planning and preparation before making the move. Take the time to make sure your transition is as smooth as possible.

  • Know your skills, interests, and values. Think about how these factors have changed over the course of your career and how they are related to your desire for a career change.
  • Seek out resources focused on you and your needs. Interns Over 40 is just one website focused on career transition information and resources. also provides resources targeted for career changers and mid-life careers.
  • Get involved. Find ways in which you can both enhance your skills and grow your professional network. Where can you make contacts in your new area of interest? Look for professional groups and online discussions, as well as opportunities for practical experience as an intern or volunteer.

A recent report by the U. S. Bureau of Labor Statistics revealed that younger Baby Boomers (born 1957-1964) held an average of 11 different jobs between the ages of 18 and 44. Changing jobs, and careers, is not uncommon. If you've decided to make a career change, ensure that you are prepared for the transition and work to leverage your past experiences in your future endeavors.

Career Development

After you have made some initial decisions about your career plan, there are steps you can take as a student to put your plan into forward motion. Take specific action to help further your plan and engage in career development activities.


  • Find professionals in your career field of interest and join them in discussions about current issues. Find ways to actively participate in organized events and meetings.
  • Consider: alumni groups at your current and previous schools, social networking sites (e.g. LinkedIn, Ning), professional associations — national and local chapters, and community organizations.

Professional Associations

  • These groups can be valuable not only for professional networking, but also for keeping you aware of current events and issues in your career field.
  • Look for: opportunities to serve on a committee, newsletters and other publications, tracking of related legislation, and membership benefits (i.e. insurance, conferences, workshops).

Practical Experience

  • Consider ways in which you can experience your future career while you are still a student. Employers are looking for students with some practical, applied experience, as well as educational qualifications.
  • Take advantage of school required internships, externships, and clinical hours. If these experiences are not required, consider finding opportunities on your own through internship services, volunteer programs, and part-time jobs.

Career Progression

  • Think about your career plan in terms of both short-term and long-term goals. Map out some of the possible paths your career might take as you advance beyond your first job after graduation.
  • Explore online tools that assist with career mapping. PayScale's GigZig and LinkedIn's Career Explorer are both based on information from working professionals.

The Job Search

As you get closer to graduation, the job search will play a big role in your career planning. The traditional job search process includes several steps and tasks you may want to prepare for as soon as possible.

Submitting Your Application

  • Prepare to document your education, experience, and other qualifications for potential employers.
  • You may need one or all of the following: resume or CV, cover letter, list of professional references, recommendation letters, and transcripts.
  • Each employer may also request that you complete a formal application.

Employer Information

  • Research potential employers. You can find a lot of information online, but you may also want to set up informational interviews and look for connections within your professional network.
  • Look for opportunities to attend in-person and virtual career fairs, network with employers affiliated with your school (check for databases and resume referral systems with your career center), and explore company profile sites (e.g. The Riley Guide, The Vault).

Job Interviews

  • An initial job interview can take place in person, over the phone, or even over the Internet using Web-conferencing software such as Skype.
  • Interviews may also take place in different formats — you may be interviewed by one person or by a committee, or have a sequence of interviews. Applicants may be asked a series of questions, provided with case studies or problems to address, or observed while performing sample job related tasks.
  • Preparation should include company research as well as practice, or mock, interview sessions. Review sample interview questions and plan your responses.

Interview Follow-up

  • After an interview, it is appropriate to send a note of thanks to each of the interviewers. Both email and regular mail are acceptable ways to send a thank you letter.
  • If an offer is extended, prepare yourself to potentially negotiate your salary and benefits, discuss work setting and possible relocation, and coordinate a start date for your new employment.


  • This is perhaps one of the most important parts of the job search process in an uncertain economy. While you may be offered and accept a position quickly, plan on this process taking some time.
  • Consider all of your options and make sure your network is aware that you are looking for a job.

Online Students and the Job Search

Online students can expect to experience a process very similar to that of traditional students. Be prepared to engage in conversations with employers about your qualifications, potential for achievement, and overall readiness for the workplace. Be ready to discuss with potential employers why you chose your specific academic program and how it has prepared you to work in your chosen field.

Several organizations are studying the recent trends in how employers are receiving applicants with certificates and degrees from online programs. One such study, from Excelsior College and Zogby International, found that only "5% of [business owners and executives] surveyed cited as a consideration whether or not the college or university was fully online or was part of a traditional campus-based program." This study also reported that employers considered work experience as equal to or more important than a candidate's education.

Market yourself based on your strengths and the strengths of your academic program. Online colleges are continuously building their reputations. Employers will evaluate each school's reputation, accreditation status, and alumni in the workforce for value and quality.

Career Services

Starting your career planning while you are in school has a lot of advantages. One of these advantages is working closely with your school's career services center. Most online universities offer access to both career counselors/advisors and to specialized services. These are designed and provided specifically to assist you, as a student, with career decision-making, career development activities, and the job search process.

What can you expect from a college career center? The "2010-2011 Career Services Benchmark Survey," conducted by the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE), established a list of "typical" services. These include:

  • Career counseling
  • Workshops
  • Access to career resources
  • Assistance with internships
  • Career fairs
  • Access to career assessment tools
  • Outreach with alumni

Which services are the most popular? NACE also collected information about student use of these services and found that 5 are the most frequently requested by graduating seniors:

  • Resume help
  • Job listings
  • Job-search assistance
  • Career counseling
  • Internship assistance

As an online university student you may find that many, if not all, of these services are available to you via the Internet. From online job databases and virtual career fairs, to job search seminars and one-on-one conversations with career professions, these resources are available and can be tailored to meet your needs. Check with your career center to find out more about which services are available and how you can personally connect with each one.

Make the Connections

Get your plan in order and begin the tasks associated with developing your career. Remember, your plan will more than likely require some modification along the way. As you complete your courses and engage in practical experiences through work and internship programs, you will continue to refine your plan throughout your program. Connect with your school's career professionals to get the process started.

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