According to the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE, 2012), the following 10 attributes were considered very important or extremely important to at least 50% of the 15,715 bachelor’s degree senior respondents to this item in the NACE student survey.* In descending order of importance, the attributes included opportunity for personal growth (90%); job security (82%); friendly coworkers (78%); good benefits (74%); recognition for good performance (73%); clearly defined assignments (70%); improving the community (62%); opportunity for creativity (62%); diversity (56%); and opportunity for advancement (52%). Who wouldn’t want these features in a job? But what do they really imply? Below are a few comments I raise about each attribute. You should prioritize your preferred job attributes before your job search, not after you are hired.
Opportunity for Personal Growth
In a typical entry-level job, personal growth varies from person to person based on factors such as realistic expectations, prior work experiences, task challenge, required skills, quality of relationships, and your goals. What are the most important ingredients of personal growth for you? Will you able to adapt if they are not present in your first job?
Is the job you seek a new or replacement position? What is the employee turnover rate in the department and what are its causes if it is high? Is the nature of the work cyclical? If the job is in a not-for-profit organization, how stable are the sources of funding (e.g., private, corporate, government); in a for-profit company, what economic and organizational factors most influence its products or services? Prepare yourself by researching the organization carefully, completing an economics course, and reading reliable news sources.
You might have to contend with the supervisor’s opinion of coworkers, but try to chat with them during the interview process; consider searching for mutual contacts on LinkedIn®. Coworker friendliness and morale usually depend on the quality of immediate supervision as well the organization’s culture. Be prepared to use your interpersonal and adaptability skills fully.
When you consider a particular job, ask attentively about its benefits. This attribute might be its most attractive feature, especially if it includes a comprehensive health insurance plan. Other benefits might include tuition remission for graduate school, maternity leave, or the number of vacation days. Many organizations offer a cafeteria plan that allows you to choose particular benefits commensurate with your level of compensation.
Recognition for Good Performance and Opportunities for Advancement
What different forms does recognition take, and how important is each to you? Feedback from your supervisor? Awards? Bonuses? What opportunities exist for promotion, training, travel to conferences, joining a professional association, or certification in a special field? If the organization is vertically structured (several levels of management) and large, advancement opportunities probably exist; if horizontally structured (few layers of management) and small, inquire about how to advance. Some large flat organizations offer opportunities for the rotation of assignments or serving on cross-functional (e.g., marketing, finance, HR) project teams.
Clearly Defined Assignments
During college, your teachers’ syllabi structured your assignments, deadlines, and grade requirements. In the workplace, there is no syllabus. Often, you are assigned ambiguous tasks requiring your initiative and problem-solving skills, with expectations of minimal supervision and “A” level outcomes. Enquire about possible assignments.
Improve the Community
Many graduates seek, and many organizations offer, opportunities to perform community service of various types. If you enjoy participating in service projects, share your experiences, especially if community service is an organizational priority.
Opportunity for Creativity
In what ways are you truly creative? Solving problems? Applying technology? Generating ideas? Artistically? Recognize that many entry-level jobs do not emphasize or even want creative thinking. Instead, supervisors may direct new employees to perform many routine tasks that follow established procedures to maximize efficiency and productivity. If being creative is very important to you, ask about the types of assignments and levels of advancement where creativity is valued.
Diversity usually includes the organization’s mission, assignments and opportunities, openness to ideas, as well as diversity in race, gender, age, religion, ethnicity, and other dimensions reflected in the organization’s employees. Strong organizations truly value diversity for its multiple benefits, so enquire about the ways in which diversity is promoted.
Survey rankings are not absolute measures and typically vary from year to year, but it is likely that the following attributes represent the major concerns of most graduates.
Salary. High starting salary was 11th on the NACE list. Although it was rated as somewhat important by 39% of the respondents, only 45% rated salary as very or extremely important. Student debt, desire to improve living standards, commitment to a particular career, and other factors drive your salary expectations. However, organizations base salary on their perceived value of the employee in a particular job. Be sure to calculate your salary needs before you begin your job search.
Career fields. The attributes you seek in a job are often related to the career field of your interest. Among the many informative resources available for identifying possible careers is An Online Resource Guide to Enable Undergraduate Psychology Majors to Identify and Investigate 172 Psychology and Psychology-Related Careers (Appleby, Millspaugh, & Hammersly, 2011).
Your skills. The U.S. economy has emerged from the 2008 recession, and the job market is generally improving for college graduates. However, salaries for liberal arts majors are usually lower than those in defined career fields such as engineering, nursing, and accounting. As a psychology graduate, you will possess, to some degree, important skills that employers seek such as written and verbal communications, small group, critical thinking, and others. If your teachers did not emphasize the connections between the skills they teach and the skills employers seek, obtain help from your career center. You need to provide recruiters evidence of your skillsets using examples derived from your academic, extracurricular, and work activities. Many employers are more concerned about the applicant’s skillsets than their liberal arts major.
Full employment versus underemployment. One unfortunate reality in the current workplace is the underemployment of approximately half of current college graduates via part-time jobs or positions that do not require a four-year degree. Upcredentialing is a practice that some employers use by hiring graduates for positions that previously did not require a baccalaureate degree, either as a recruitment filter (hiring the best educated) or because of the increased skill levels required. If you find yourself underemployed, most attributes you seek in a job will remain on your wish list until you work your way into better assignments or to a better job with a different employer.
As you dream about using your highly prized, expensive college education in the marketplace, think carefully about the attributes and outcomes you seek in a job: those that are most important now and those you can seek as you advance. Hopefully, you will achieve your dream job, though this may take some time. Be flexible and patient, but also persistent. A new college graduate (baccalaureate or master’s level) is like a freshman in terms of transition and starting over in a new organization, often at the bottom. Temper your dream job with realistic expectations and an understanding of the challenges ahead. Most of all, prepare to recharge your energy and determination. With good judgment and a strong work ethic, you will probably achieve your goals. According to a popular old proverb that I believe: Cream always rises to the top.
Appleby, D. C., Millspaugh, B. S., & Hammersley, M. J. (2011). An online resource to enable undergraduate psychology majors to identify and investigate 172 psychology and psychology-related careers. Office of Teaching Resources in Psychology. Retrieved from http://teachpsych.org/Resources/Documents/otrp/resources/appleby14.pdf
National Association of Colleges and Employers. (2012, December 5). Student survey: Key employer/job characteristics throughout the job search. Bethlehem, PA.
* I omitted somewhat important responses because all or most attributes could be considered important to some degree.