Why is the gap from student to professional widening?

May 9, 2024 | Development, Home Featured, Opinion

There are key psychological shifts from student to professional and this gap is widening, explain Rebecca Fielding at Gradconsult and Ben Williams at Sten10.

At the ISE Student Development Conference ‘work-readiness’ was a hot topic in many sessions.

ISE 2024 Student Development survey results shared on the day reported that less than half of the 139 organisations polled thought their graduates were ‘career ready’—the lowest number to date. This figure dropped to 25% for school and college leavers.

Employers are experiencing a widening gap in the work-readiness behaviours of students, of that there is no doubt. But is it binary: is a student ‘work-ready or not’? And where does the responsibility lie for that – with universities, educators, employers or the students themselves?

Transitional shift

We would argue it is not binary. It is a key transitional or liminal state (academic reference Tomlinson, 2022, Transitions from HE to employment: navigating liminal spaces) which has always been a tricky one to navigate and requires a shift in mindset and behaviour.

Some examples include:

From beautifully, carefully crafted, lengthy academic assignments with often non-conclusive ‘conclusions’ (the classic ‘more research is required’ ending!) to crisp, concise work reports that offer clear recommendations in the circumstances
From a peer group of folks who are mostly the same age, with similar interests, educational attainment levels, personal backgrounds, political views etc to full life diversity at work across ages, education, personalities, political perspectives and so on
From reasonably high levels of personal control over your time to the restrictions of working full time with limited holidays (even in a flexible working environment this is a big shift in time usage and sense of personal control)
From an environment that for c21 years of your life has rewarded striving for perfection to an environment that values efficiency and knowing when ‘good enough’ is good enough

This transitional shift from student to professional has always been there (something I explored in my 2022 article).

‘The transition from education into employment is, and always has been, a rough one for most students. Working full time, with typically 20 days holiday per year, with colleagues from a wide variety of backgrounds, doing work we perhaps weren’t expecting, comes as a shock to most graduates – one that I’m sure many of us later in our career can still vividly remember! Even for those lucky few who secure a role on a structured graduate development programme, the mindset shift required is significant and the changes in personal circumstances can also be huge’ – Rebecca Fielding

7 factors

Gradconsult and Sten10 sought to not only map out the key factors that underpin this transitional shift using occupational psychology (more on that shortly), but also to understand why the gap in required mindset and behaviours appears to be widening.

Through research and focus groups with over 50 early careers/careers guidance professionals, we uncovered seven factors that contribute to this widening gap.

1. The rise of perfectionism as a behavioural trait
2. Social media presenting unrealistic expectations about the world of work
3. Reduced work and life experiences during formative years due to COVID
4. The success of widening participation and social mobility efforts – meaning more students from diverse backgrounds are entering university life and professions
5. The focus on ‘authenticity’ ‘bringing your whole self to work’ or ‘being you’ in employer brand campaigns, which has worked well for diversity but less well to set people up for a significant shift
6. Hybrid working reducing/delaying opportunities to learn by osmosis
7. The step-change in delivery of an exceptional student experience at university, raising student expectations of work life post university

Student to Professional tool

With this backdrop in mind, it has never felt more important for us to have an objective and evidence-based approach to demystifying this transition.

Enter the STP (Student to Professional), a psychometric tool that has been designed between the early careers experts Gradconsult and the occupational psychologists at Sten10.

We followed best practice in test development according to British Psychological Society principles. We began with clearly defining nine behavioural traits which the literature review and expert input suggested are critical in the transition, thus creating content validity for the tool.

‘It was important that the traits are defined in behavioural, observable terms – and, as such, can be fed-back upon and developed. It is also important to be able to describe either ‘side’ of the scale positively: there are no objective ‘right and wrongs’ here; just behaviours that are more likely to be successful in one context than the other’. – Ben Williams

We then created a bank of self-reflection questions (designed to be equally socially desirable), ready for piloting on a representative audience.
Reliability and criterion validity studies are in the pipeline and we are producing a rich report that describes people’s results and helps them to develop to being ‘workplace ready’. We can also report at an aggregate level for group-level learning and development interventions.

Unlike many psychometrics this report does not refer to overall strengths or weaknesses, but rather recognises the shift from student to professional as a transitional one, with each of us finding certain factors easier or more difficult to identify and navigate.

The simple act of naming these shifts and psychological factors can be enormously positive for students and graduates, helping them to normalise what they may have been struggling with and why.

For employers and hiring managers it also provides an objective framework for positive discussion, coaching and development surrounding the transition into your career, elevating the conversation away from the negatively perceived or even ‘career limiting’ behaviours many have observed.

For careers and graduate transitions teams it can be a great development tool to remove invisible barriers, grow confidence, skills and ease the transition into the world of work.

If you’d like to know more about the STP, our pilot study and forthcoming white paper later this year please take a look here.

You may also be interested in…

What are the best training and development strategies for hybrid working?

Is career readiness in decline?

More graduates and apprentices leave jobs for better pay

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