There are a number of skills important to being successful in the job market, but you won’t necessarily acquire them in school. These skills will not only help you to thrive as you make the initial transition from school to work, but also to manage your career for the long term. And they may be different from the skills that brought you success as a student. Your needs, the demands of the job market, and the nature of your field will all change over time. Developing career skills now, in the areas of planning, networking, conducting a job search, and persisting through the process, are critical to finding that next job, whether it’s your first experience or you are a seasoned professional seeking advancement. This guide will help you begin to navigate the job market and make the most of your online degree.
Career planning efforts should take place before you send out your first employment applications. These activities will help you to identify employers hiring in your field, establish your professional presence online, and develop a strategy for how you will move forward with your search.
Identify Potential Employers
Create a list of specific companies and organizations that are currently seeking people with your job skills. You may already be working in your field and have an awareness of where hiring is taking place. If so, add these businesses to your list and continue to explore similar companies and those that provide related services. If you are planning to enter a new field after graduation, now is the time to find out more about the industry you are interested in and identify potential employers to add to your list.
Keep your list of potential employers up-to-date, adding and removing information to maintain a current roster of contacts. Find a format that works for you and is easy to edit. This may be a simple handwritten ledger or a more complex spreadsheet. Create entries that include details such as: company name, websites, location, human resources contact, any vacancy announcement information, and how you found out about them (e.g. through a friend, social media, news article, alumni). Remember to focus on the skills required, not just the type of company. You may find potential opportunities that require your skills in a variety of organizations, ranging from non-profits and private businesses to government agencies and educational settings.
While you will continuously find leads and ideas about potential employers, there are a few ways you can begin your research now. Explore the following resources and get your list started.
- Venues and special events. Check with your college’s career center to find out where you can meet employers in your local area and online through career and employment events, such as career fairs (virtual and traditional) and employer information sessions. If you don’t have access to a college career center, you can find out about career fairs through news outlets in your local area, as well as through national career fair planners and directories such as National Career Fairs. Job-Hunt.org also provides links to some of the larger events and reminds us to consider both privacy policies and the lists of employers participating in each fair before deciding to join in.
- Online services. So much information is available via the Internet today. Look for job databases, online application, and resume referral systems. There are general sites, such as Monster.com and CareerBuilder.com, which include searchable information on a wide variety of jobs and industries. And there are more specific sites that feature jobs related do a particular industry, such as Dice.com for information technology careers.
- Alumni directories. Work with your school to locate lists of alumni from your program. This information may be available online in a searchable directory or available from an alumni services office or career center. Find out where graduates from your program are working and if their organization is hiring.
- Recruiters. Many companies use either in-house human resource recruiters or contracted recruiting and staffing firms to identify potential applicants. Locate recruiters making placements in your career field and find out how you can work with them to identify potential job opportunities. EmploymentDigest.net provides guidance on working with recruiters that includes researching the companies to find out where they make placements and being truthful in presenting your experience and job interests.
Get in touch with your career center advisors to find out more about how your school is working directly with employers. Keep in mind that employers that are already recruiting at your school are likely aware of your program and the fact that it is online, and find some benefit in actively recruiting there.
But don’t just compile a list of employers and leave it at that. Use it to maintain your focus on employers that are interested in hiring in your field, and to help you document future networking and application efforts. It’s important to stay organized as you make multiple contacts and send out resumes.
Establish Your Online Presence
What will potential employers find out if they search for information about you online? A positive and professional online presence is gaining importance in today’s job market. Having an online presence allows you to not only participate in social networking activities related to your career field, but also present your experience, interests, and skills to potential employers in an arena where they are already active – the Internet.
A recent article in Forbes provides a sneak peak of the future of job search and placement activities, a future in which your online presence may replace your traditional resume and provide a way for employers to find you based on a match of their job needs with your skills and interests. Taking the time to thoughtfully establish your online profiles, with a job search in mind, is a key part of the preparation you need to complete before applying for positions.
Develop a Job Search Strategy
How much time will you invest every week, every day, in looking for a job? How will you make contact with potential employers? Where will you look for position announcements? Developing a job search strategy to answer these questions helps you to focus your efforts so that the time you spend looking for a job is as efficient and effective as possible. Consider your other commitments, such as school, family, and current employment and plan wisely.
Block time on your schedule to conduct your search and create a list of specific activities you’ll engage in to complete your search. Organize a list of contacts and decide how you will follow-up with each one and what search techniques you will use. If you are interested in career fairs for example, find local events and virtual ones that are scheduled to take place and register. Keep a record of your efforts and review this periodically. Figure out which activities are working well, and which ones aren’t, and adjust your strategy accordingly.
Active professional networking means reaching out to and maintaining contact with those individuals who can provide you with information about your career field and potential opportunities. These efforts may open up leads to positions you weren’t aware of, jobs that are filled through referrals, and opportunities that are so new they haven’t been advertised. The Riley Guide cites a recent report that found over a quarter of external hires where placed as a result of referrals.
Networking can take place in a variety of ways and result in both helpful information and assistance.
- Contact your previous employers, internship supervisors, and other individuals who may be aware of your skills and experience. Let them know that you are in school, or a recent graduate, and what type of employment you are seeking.
- Join and participate in relevant professional groups, both formal and informal, that are made up of people working in your field, and that involve discussions about trends and employment. Keep in mind that joining is just the first step in networking with groups — you’ve also got to take the initiative and actively participate in the events and conversations.
- Ask for help. Let your network know you are looking for a job and what you are looking for in the way of information and assistance. Be as specific as possible with your requests. Ask for an introduction to a valuable contact, for example.
- Thank those who are helpful to you. Express your appreciation for their efforts and consider how you might offer similar assistance to others in the future.
Hopefully you’ve already begun to engage in these kinds of activities, but if not, now’s the time to do get started. Not every networking contact will result in helpful information, but you will continue to build skills through active participation in the process. Select several ways in which you are comfortable interacting and add these networking activities to your schedule and job search strategy.
As an online student, you may have different opportunities to network during your program. Traditional students may benefit from on-campus events that feature alumni and employers. Similar opportunities may be available for you, via online interaction and communication. Take the initiative to seek out these opportunities through your school advisors, as well as those sponsored by organizations in your local area. Remember that networking is an ongoing process beneficial in the job search and throughout your career as you face work-related challenges and seek continued advancement in your field.
Job Search Skills
“The job search process” is a commonly used term that may include a wide range of steps and tasks related to securing employment. There are other requirements you will need to address as you submit your application for the opportunities you discover from the professional networking tasks listed above.
There is a wealth of advice on how to write resumes and cover letters available online, at your career center, and through private resume writing services. The function of the resume is to attract an employer’s attention to your qualifications, show how you fit their needs, and hopefully prompt them to invite you an interview so they can find out more about you. There are several key considerations before moving forward. Take a look at these guidelines and plan for how you will proceed with your own resume.
- Organize. There are two primary ways in which traditional resumes are organized: chronological (listing your experiences in a time sequence) and functional (listing your experiences by skill set). There’s no right or wrong here. It’s about presenting your information in the best possible way, which may even be a combination of approaches.
- Summarize. Your resume should be a summary of your qualifications and may include sections such as Education, Work History, Skills, Activities, Awards, etc. The list of possible categories is endless, but they should all work together to highlight your most relevant experience.
- Focus. Present your achievements in past positions instead of basic job descriptions. Use action verbs and quantification to describe what you have done in the past. Be as specific as possible. For example, “Managed an annual marketing budget of $50,000” is more informative than “Responsible for managing finances.”
- Format. Will you be mailing, emailing, or uploading your resume? Or all of the above? It will probably be necessary for you to have different versions available in terms of file format. A PDF may be helpful when sending as an email attachment, a word processing document for printing hard copies, and a text file for cutting and pasting. Readability is critical and document formatting such as bolding, and italicizing may not convert well when uploaded or cut/paste into an online system, so have several options available and look for specific instructions from employers. You may also want to consider setting up a virtual resume through an online system like VisualCV or as part of a personal website.
- Review examples. Find examples of resumes and explore the variety of possible styles and approaches that are being used. Resume writing experiences trends that come and go, so it is beneficial to look at current practices, especially in your field. Your career center may be able to share sample resumes from previous students in your program, and there are many, many examples (good and bad) available online. The National Association of Colleges and Employers and Susan Ireland’s Resume Site are just two of the available sources to explore.
- Get a critique. Have at least one person, but preferably more than just one person, review your resume and offer a critique. You should definitely include a career center advisor in the process, as well as others who have experience in your field. Is there someone in your network who could provide a review and make suggestions?
Your resume will be unique to you. While it may adhere to accepted practice in terms of organization and format, you should ensure that it is accurately reflecting your qualifications.
Cover letters, also known as letters of intent, letters of interest, and job search letters, work with your resume to help you get an interview. Your cover letter should be your introduction to hiring managers and persuade them to read further.
- Be brief. These letters are just part of the screening process and should ideally be kept to one page in length. Don’t repeat information in your resume. Instead, highlight the most relevant parts of it and address your interest and qualifications in the position.
- Tailor the information. Each cover letter should be written for the specific employer to whom it will be sent. It’s tempting to create one letter than can be sent to everyone, but that approach will result in a letter that is not as relevant or focused on each position and company, and therefore not as effective.
- Review examples. Looking at sample cover letters can be helpful to get a better idea of what is expected. There are different formats to consider as well. Quintcareers.com and Minnesota’s iSeek.org both provide cover letter tips and samples. Don’t forget to check with your career center as well.
- Get a critique. Just as with your resume, having others review your cover letter and provide suggestions will ensure it is professional in nature and helps you say what you need to say.
Once you’ve received an invitation to interview, you should begin preparing for the meeting in multiple ways. Again, you’ll find a lot of advice and guidance through your career center professionals, but here are a few of the basics to get you started.
- Consider location. Will the interview take place in person or at a distance, either online or over the phone? An in-person meeting involves dress for success considerations. Phone interviews and video conference meetings will require you to set up a quiet location.
- Research the company. This is basic advice, and luckily, you may have already done some preliminary work to write your resume and cover letter. However, take additional time now to further explore the company you will be interviewing with – be ready to answer questions that will test this knowledge. Use company websites, as well as resources such as Vault.com to find out more. Does the company also have a profile on LinkedIn?
- Gather your documentation. Prepare extra copies of your resume, a list of references with contact information, a presentation of relevant work samples, and all academic transcripts. These are all items that may be helpful to you as you answer questions in an interview and may be requested by the employer during or immediately following the interview. You may also want to consider building a career portfolio for use in your job search and interviews.
- Practice possible interview questions. There are lists of general questions that can help you practice how you will respond in the interview itself. Consider having a “mock interview” with someone in your network or through your career center that will give you a more realistic opportunity to practice. Practice makes perfect as you gain experience fielding interview questions, and your skills in being interviewed will increase, as will your comfort level with the experience.
- Prepare your own questions. You may be given the opportunity to ask questions at the end of the session. What additional information do you need to know about the organization and the available position? Prepare questions that help to move the conversation forward and improve your understanding of the needs of the company. Be sure to avoid discussing salary at this point.
- Follow-up. Sending a note of thanks to each of your interviewers is both professional and courteous. Write individual letters and send them within 24 hours after your interview. It is acceptable to send these either by regular mail or email. Review several samples online to get a better idea of typical format for expressing your interest, fit, and appreciation.
As an online student, you should prepare to answer questions about your online learning experience. A 2009 review of research conducted to identify employer perceptions of online academic degrees found that employers often cite the following reasons for their reluctance to accept online degrees in the same way that they accept traditional degrees: perception of a lack of rigor and more limited face-to-face interaction, potential for cheating and plagiarism, perception of online programs as diploma mills, and a questioning of the overall commitment of online students to their education as compared to students that attend on-campus programs.
The review also found that there are specific conditions that could make an employer view an applicant with an online degree more favorably. If the applicant received the online degree from a school with a positive reputation and the right accreditation, that could make a difference. Applicants with previous, related work experience, in addition to the online degree are also viewed more positively. While employer acceptance of online degrees is growing, there is still a general perception that online courses do not have the same educational value as traditional face-to-face courses. Anticipate how will you respond to interviewers who ask about the value and quality of your online degree.
Be prepared to discuss how you chose your online program and the value and quality you experienced as a student. Provide feedback about how the program was accredited and the qualifications of the faculty. Be prepared to describe the ways in which you interacted with your instructors, your classmates, and the course content. Explain to interviewers how the skills you gained through your online studies complement any related work or practical experience you have and qualify you to work in your field.
Many employers extend offers over the phone and follow-up with an official offer letter. It is important to thoroughly evaluate a job offer before making a decision, no matter how tempting it may be to accept or decline on the spot.
- Timeframe. Ask when the employer will be giving you a decision. This will vary with each offer, but typically you’ll have a few days to respond. If you are not sure, ask if there is a timeframe.
- Offer details. Job offers may or may not include a lot of detailed information. It is okay at this point to ask about salary, compensation, work location, and start date if these topics have not already been addressed in previous conversations. Create a personalized checklist of items you need to consider, and to compare if you are in a situation where you receive multiple options. A written list can help you sort through both the pros and cons of each offer.
- Negotiation. If you are interested in possible negotiation of the terms of the offer, first ask if this is an option. Many employers do offer you the opportunity to negotiate different components of the offer, ranging from salary and relocation to vacation and professional development. Salary is a typical point of negotiation. Do your own research to find out more about expected salaries in your field, and for people with your level of education and experience, before entering salary negotiations.
- Decision-making. The decision to accept or decline an offer is yours to make. Arriving at a decision can be a difficult process, but it can be aided by conducting research and asking questions, as well as seeking the advice and support of your network.
- Accepting/declining. Once you have made your decision, communicate it clearly with the employer. You may want to contact them directly at first by phone or email and follow-up immediately with an official letter of acceptance or rejection. Be conscious of time and reply with your decision within the agreed upon timeframe.
There’s a lot you can do to put your best foot forward during the job search process. Maintain a focus on helping each employer realize the ways in which you are a good fit for their organization.
There’s no doubt that today’s job market is challenging. What if a job offer doesn’t come right away? According to the Career Services Center at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, you can expect your job search to take anywhere from 8 to 23 weeks. It could even take longer depending on your needs and the economic conditions surrounding your field during the time of your search. What can you do to survive a long search?
- Find a support group. Rally your friends, family, and members of your network to help with brainstorming and making connections, as well as to provide encouragement along the way.
- Monitor and track your industry. Set up organized news feeds of information that will keep you up-to-date with information and events.
- Plan ahead. If you begin preparation early in your academic program, it may be helpful to budget for an extended job search, saving money for personal expenses if there is a gap between graduating and starting a new job.
- Stay involved. Be an active participant in local and community organizations and professional groups. Find ways to keep your skills sharp and continue your networking through volunteer projects and short-term work assignments.
- Consult with career professionals. Chances are these advisors are already available to you as part of the support services offered by your school. Don’t underestimate the value of working with a career services expert who can provide guidance in all areas of your career planning and job search.
The Future of Work
Today’s job market and its influences are dynamic. All sectors of employment are responding to global factors, economic uncertainty, and high-level industry changes. Remember that hiring trends change over time, so while some occupations become obsolete, others are emerging as new fields.
The nature of work itself is changing. Technology now plays a major role in both how work is accomplished and in how positions are being filled. Your experience as an online student may provide you with essential skills related to completing collaborative projects, working independently, and communicating efficiently in virtual work environments. Be ready to market that type of experience and education in multiple ways, and stay flexible to meet the evolving needs of employers.