A look inside the St Andrews Career Centre

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Look familiar? Illustration: Jenny Elwin
Look familiar? Illustration: Jenny Elwin
Look familiar?
Illustration: Jenny Elwin

Meet Paul Brown, director of the St Andrews Career Centre, a man with an important job. Alongside four other advisers, he is responsible for helping some 7,200 University students figure out what they will do after graduation. How does he manage so much? He will tell you that his varied background comes in handy. After completing a degree in English, Brown trained as an accountant at Price Waterhouse. Then, he moved on to work as a teacher at several London state schools. After 10 years, he joined the Oxford Careers Service before coming to direct St Andrews’ own Careers Centre in 2004. With such varied work experience of his own, he is well suited to help students forge their own career paths.

The Careers Centre service is comprehensive, and its staff are quite specialized. Brown says: “Each adviser is given a number of [academic] schools to interrelate with. So there’s that focus, but more particularly there’s a focus around employment sectors.” Lucky for us, this division of labour means that advisers are not only well versed in their particular schools and sectors, but also in the relevant international markets.

St Andrews counts 34 per cent of its students as international. Brown says that as the University has placed emphasis on recruiting abroad, its focus is not on the long-term and how international students are going to fare after graduation is frankly a secondary concern. Brown says: “The challenge for the advisers is that they need to be knowledgeable in the US market, in IR careers for example.”

How does the Centre manage to do this? According to Brown: “We’ve got to provide for people going everywhere in the UK, everywhere in Europe, everywhere everywhere, and so our strategy is to focus on information resources that help people identify [the jobs they want], subscription websites and using alumni.”

The first step

Personally, I have had ‘Make an appointment at the Careers Centre’ on my mental to-do list for over a year now. Last week, I finally met with an adviser.

Brown says: “The service we offer is very much student led, so, really, it’s up to the student to determine what they would like to discuss and what they might want to look at. It’s certainly helpful to bring a CV with you. That’s a quick way for us to get an overview of the student, but also it’s a pretty essential document to understand how to present yourself through. On the one hand, you get a picture of the student. On the other, you also get a clue about if they know what they’re doing, about how they’re presenting themselves. Preferably, we like students to come with a paper copy because it’s easier then and there to write on it if it needs things said.”

Armed with a hard copy of my resume, I met with Shona Mach, the deputy director of the Centre, last Wednesday afternoon. A little frazzled after spending the morning updating and editing my resume at the last minute, I was not sure what to expect. However, Mach was nothing but helpful. She went through my resume line by line and gave me excellent, constructive advice about how to improve it. For example, while I did have bullet points listing the responsibilities I had at previous jobs and internships, she directed me to make them more specific. So, under ‘Features editor at The Saint,’ ‘assigning articles’ was changed to ‘managing a team of deputy editors and assigning articles to a writers list of 100+ students.’ Which, if a little overblown, definitely sounds better.

She was also able to answer my questions about what belongs in a cover letter, how to network without coming off as a horrible self-promoter and if I was stupid to leave my LinkedIn profile completely idle. (The answer to that last question is yes, though she was very nice about it.) After 30 minutes in her office, I felt much better about my job prospects for the summer.

While I did manage to prepare my resume in advance, it was a tight fit. However, bringing a resume – or even having an idea of what you want to do after graduation – is completely optional when meeting with an adviser. Brown says: “I think a lot of students probably think, ‘I’ve got to know what I want to do before I go and talk to them,’ whereas that is emphatically not the case. Students don’t have to bring anything. They bring themselves. You know, if they arrive and say, ‘I’m really anxious, I don’t know what I want to do, I haven’t got any ideas,’ we can help them.”

Welcome to the network

The team of advisers at the Careers Centre often discuss networking. Brown says: “We all think that most students are not comfortable networking. But by and large American students are more comfortable than British [students] or [students of] other nationalities.”

Of course, there are other factors besides nationality to consider. According to data analysis conducted by the Oxford University Careers Services based on polling of 17,000 students from seven English universities: ‘The biggest determining factor for how a student’s career and salary pan out six months after they’ve finished their education is their gender.’

Half a year after graduation, men are making, on average, £4,000 more annually than their female peers. They also have a higher success rate when it comes to getting graduate-level jobs. This discrepancy is even more jarring when you consider that there are more women than men in British universities and that they routinely outperform their male peers.

In the UK, 18-year-old women are 33 per cent more likely to enter higher education than men. According to the St Andrews Press Office, female students were awarded more First Class degrees in 14 of the 18 academic schools in the 2012-2013 school year. Only in the Schools of Computer Science, Philosophy and Anthropology, Mathematics and Physics were more men awarded first class degrees than women.

At St Andrews, women outnumber men at 55 per cent of the student body. They also, according to degree data, earned around 58 per cent of the First Class degrees a few years ago. Women on campus also outperform men in terms of job preparation. Brown says: “Women use the Careers Centre more, so they are better prepared for what they are going to do next.”

How can women outnumber, outperform and out-prepare their male peers but still end up less employed and less compensated six months out?

The Oxford study suggests that this gender gap is caused by women’s lack of confidence in interviews and lack of interest in higher paying jobs. According to its analysis, male students are more proactive in searching for jobs while still in school. Of course, at St Andrews, that is not the case. Furthermore, the study states that women tend to rate lifestyle factors and an interest in serving the greater good higher among their concerns when searching for a job.

In the case of postgraduate positions in law firms, Brown concurs. “Generally, the young men apply to the firms that are going to give the biggest salaries. That’s where they want to go,” he says. “Whereas the women, more of them – I’m not saying it’s every single one, we’re obviously talking about, you know, averages – more of the women will say, ‘You know what? I actually want another life as well, and I’m also thinking about I might want a family, to go into an area that’s actually a bit more friendly to the kind of life I want to live. And so I prefer to join a firm that might actually pay a starting salary £5,000 lower, but I will then be in an environment where I’m happier.’”

While it is true that women have to think more critically about family planning as job seekers, it seems unfair to blame them for the pay gap. Women obviously do not seek out lower paying jobs.

However, we need to point out that this study wasn’t organized by either degree or industry. As an English and social anthropology student, I will probably make less after graduation than someone with an economics degree. That person will probably be male. According to data collected by the Joint Council for Qualifications on A-level results, over 65 per cent of those taking the economics exams in 2014 were male.

Class is another major factor when it comes to successful networking. Brown says: “Personally, I think there’s more, in my experience, to suggest that that’s a bigger factor than gender.” He adds: “It’s more difficult for people who have had fewer advantages in life to access networks or to have the confidence to access networks. And yet, doing that has become more important.”

Beyond the bubble

Regardless of nationality, gender or class, networking is sure to prove vital in any job search, which is why the Careers Centre is so focused on helping students reach out to potential employees. Whereas 20 per cent of Cambridge graduates go on to jobs in the Cambridge area, students at St Andrews simply do not have that option.

Fortunately, St Andrews is a name that people recognize. Brown says: “Clearly in the UK St Andrews is kind of high profile. It’s always high up on the tables. People know about the place and think, automatically, ‘Well, if somebody’s been there, then we really ought to give them a serious looking at.’”

Internationally that profile varies. For a student looking to break into the think tank world of Washington, DC, St Andrews is a known quantity. Brown adds: “I think it depends on whether you’re looking at a sector of employment in a location where a number of St Andrews students have already broken into.”

Armed with all of this advice, I ended my interview with Brown feeling like I had had a privileged look into the secret world of headhunting and internship application reviews. But as I was getting up from my chair, he stopped me to share one last tip. When applying for jobs and internships, we face a numbers game. “The relationship between success and application,” he says, “is one of quality, not quantity. So it is not possible for anyone to make large numbers of quality applications. It’s only possible to make a smaller number of quality applications, and that’s what’s going to succeed.” I think we ought to listen to him. After all, his whole job is working for our success.

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