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Eye on Psi Chi: Sping/Summer 2013
Deal With It: When Your
Great Expectations
Collide With Reality

Paul Hettich, PhD, DePaul University (IL)

Each year, the Collegiate Employment Research Institute (CERI) of Michigan State University and the MSU Career Services Network publishes Recruiting Trends. The 2012–13 report contains a wealth of data from employers, internship/ co-op program managers, and recruiters. It addresses employer hiring preferences by academic major, recruiting strategies, jobs for new hires, starting salaries, internships, and many other topics. I encourage you to access Recruiting Trends 2012–2013 at www. (also link to Publications for reports on several job- related topics). At the conclusion, principal investigator Philip Gardner offers his final thoughts, including this highly disturbing observation.

After four years of rough seas, the college labor market will probably not reach calmer waters for several years. The most troubling aspect of this year’s report is the consistent and damning rhetoric from employers that students’ sense of entitlement, expectations, and level of preparedness
is totally out of sync with the reality of the workplace [emphasis added]. These Bachelor’s degree students who graduate this year entered college at the onset of the
recession and have had plenty of time to be coached about their expectations, encouraged to engage in professional experiences, and prepared to handle their first job experience. Yet, students remain as naïve as always about focusing on their future (p. 41).

I have heard this damning rhetoric from managers complaining that most recent graduates display an entitlement mentality, (i.e., unrealistic expectations of receiving—not earning—challenging jobs, rapid promotions, and high pay). Such rewards must be achieved through skilled, consistently hard work and maturity (i.e., paying your dues)—not received by virtue of owning a college degree. Similarly, I have also heard faculty complain about inappropriate attitudes of beginning graduate students.

While college graduates naturally have high expectations of their education, the current labor market is sending a very demoralizing message: Sometimes the only available option is a dead-end, part-time job with low pay and no benefits, from which you work your way up the hierarchy or change jobs. Yet the greatest obstacle you might face in your first post-graduation job may not be boring tasks and inadequate compensation (however rampant) but yourself; that is, the attitudes and unrealistic expectations Gardner mentions. Based on more than 50 visits to campuses last year, Gardner (2012–13) concluded that career service staffs are working hard to prepare students for the future. However, although some faculty feel responsible for promoting workplace preparedness, other faculty do not believe that career preparation is their responsibility. Gardner maintains that "All students need the capacity to face life’s challenges head on instilled in them during their college years. Then the complaints about their attitudes and behaviors just might diminish (p. 41).” In short, if your teachers do not discuss workplace readiness (it’s not a Liberal Arts tradition), then you must take the initiative and prepare yourself.

Why Do Students Have Unrealistic Expectations?
The answer to this question is multifaceted, and I will explore just a few hypotheses.

Family and self-expectations. Since elementary school, you were expected to complete college to become professionally and personally successful. You likely internalized these expectations into your growing sense of self-identity. Consequently, it’s normal to assume that hard work, family support, and investments of time, effort, and money will produce a high ROI (Return on Investment) soon after college. However, there are realities beyond your control.

Economic realities. While you were immersed in the daily life
of a typical high school and college student, the world’s economies, politics, technology, and labor structures were creating changes
that threaten traditional assumptions about the importance of
a college education. Rick Newman (2010) identifies four such assumptions. First, "A good education leads to a decent job and a satisfying lifestyle” (p.15). The assumption may remain valid but expect the possibility of encountering several jobs, hardships, and perhaps more education before reaching these goals. According to the Center for College Affordability and Productivity, "nearly half 
of all American college graduates in 2010—some three years after the recession began—were underemployed, holding relatively low- paying and low-skilled jobs” (Bidwell, 2013). Having a graduate degree does not guarantee full-time work either. What are the alumni employment statistics for your school? If the reports are glowing, inquire if the data combines full- and part-time jobs and if the jobs require a college degree. In Why Good People Can’t Get Jobs: The Skills Gap and What Companies Can Do About It (2012), Peter Cappelli maintains:

The reality is that the lower unemployment rate for college graduates comes from the fact that college graduates can also do the jobs that require only a high school degree,
and arguably do them better, so they win the competition for these openings. When applicants far outnumber job openings, the overqualified bump out those only adequately qualified (p. 26).

Before these discouraging comments tempt you to reconsider college, remember Cappelli’s subsequent remarks: "Being able to complete a college degree is a useful signal of a person’s ability to persevere and complete tasks, even if the skills gathered in college are not relevant to the job in question” (p. 27). Remember also
the differences in average annual earnings (based on 2009 data)
 of $58,613 for baccalaureate graduates and $39,506 for persons holding an associate’s degree (U.S. Census Bureau as quoted in Hettich & Landrum, 2014).

The second traditional assumption regarding education
and careers that Newman challenges is that hard work leads
to higher incomes. Not necessarily! During a recession, many organizations expect more work from employees for little or no added compensation or simply for the security of keeping their jobs (forget about work-life balance!). Similarly, strong work ethic is a key attribute employers seek. If you know how to work consistently hard at a task, regardless of its attractiveness, you have an edge over those who cannot. Finally, many economists maintain that wages have not increased for the past three decades when adjusted for inflation.

Newman’s third and fourth assumptions are, respectively, "Devotion to your career will produce a comfortable retirement. And each generation will be better off than the one that came before” (p.15). Talk to a family member or neighbor who was terminated or substantially downgraded after 10, 20, or 30 years of service (often losing pension and health benefits) and you will question the third assumption. Tune in to news about the U.S. national debt, threatened entitlement programs, global warming— the list goes on—and you may doubt the fourth assumption.

You are "Gen-Me.” Much of the damning rhetoric from employers that Gardner speaks of is directed to the generation or culture in which younger-age students have developed. Jean Twenge (2006) coined the term "Generation Me”, or "Gen-Me,” to refer to individuals (including herself) born between 1970 and 1990. She describes a generation negatively impacted by growing up with
the self-esteem movement, declining social norms, and lenient parents. Gen-Me’s were encouraged to develop high expectations, put themselves first, and believe they can do anything they want.
In The Narcissism Epidemic (2009), Twenge and W. Keith Campbell examine a specific set of expectations called entitlement: a state
of mind characterized by "the pervasive belief that one deserves special treatment, success, and more material things” (p. 230). Twenge and Campbell reported in a 2007 survey of 2,500 hiring managers, that 85% indicated younger workers "feel more entitled in terms of compensation, benefits, and career advancement than older generations” (p. 235). Also, many young workers feel entitled to regularly arrive late to work, leave early, and place personal concerns before job.

In fairness, not all Gen-Me’s are narcissistic, and entitlement
is not unique to young adults. Some corporations have created programs for new graduates because of the energy, talent, and tech savvy many bring to their new jobs. In short, the Gardner (2012- 2013) message about employers’ "damning rhetoric ... of students’ sense of entitlement, expectations, and level of preparedness ...”
(p. 41) seems to be falling on the deaf ears of students and faculty in spite of continued discouraging employment statistics. How can you anchor your "great expectations” to reality while still in college?

Expectations Management 101
In the following paragraphs, I present recommendations that collectively help you establish appropriate attitudes for post- graduation jobs. The further you are in time from graduation, the more likely you can act on this advice.

"Know thyself ” much better than you do now. Realistic career plans develop through serious self-exploration and awareness that you are still a work in progress psychosocially. Begin your life/career journey at your school’s career center.

     a) Complete self-assessment instruments and discuss
         the results with a counselor.

     b) Learn how to write a resume, interview, network, and
         create a skills portfolio.

     c) Discuss your progress with family members, advisors,
         and other trusted individuals

     d) Read back issues of Eye on Psi Chi and gradPSYCH.

What conditions or attributes of a job are important to you?
In their annual survey, the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE, 2012) asked students to identify those employer or job characteristics they would consider at the outset of a job search. The results revealed that nature of work placed well above five other attributes which finished relatively close to each other: compensation, coworkers, reputation, organizational culture, and stability.

When queried about attributes they deem important when considering particular job offers, students’ top 11 responses included (in rank order)

     a) opportunity for personal growth,

     b) job security,

     c) friendly coworkers,

     d) good benefits,

     e) recognition for good performance,

     f) clearly defined assignments,

     g) improving the community,

     h) opportunity for creativity,

     i) diversity,

     j) opportunity for advancement, and

     k) high starting salary.

Which of these attributes are most important to you and why? Given that nature of work (at the outset) and opportunity for growth (particular job offer) lead these lists, you should acquire diverse work experiences during college and understand what aspects of work are most critical to you.

Work! Get a job, especially if you have never held one, no matter how much financial support you are receiving. According to Job Outlook 2013 (NACE, 2013), 91% of employers prefer to hire applicants with work experience. If you have a job, take it seriously. Become mindful of the skills required of its tasks, your coworkers and your interactions with them, and the organization’s communications patterns, culture, and methods of adapting
to a changing economy. Learn how to accept constructive and destructive criticism, respond to challenges, become flexible, and work reliably and competently under stress.

Strive to develop the attributes employers seek most in a candidate’s resume (ranked from most to least frequently mentioned in NACE, 2013):

     a) leadership,

     b) problem-solving skills,

     c) written communication skills,

     d) ability to work in a team,

     e) analytical/quantitative skills,

     f) strong work ethic,

     g) verbal communication skills,

     h) initiative,

     i) computer skills, and

     j) technical skills.

According to Jon Keil, Director of Operations at Salem Group (a staff augmentation firm), applicants must be prepared to discuss how, why, and where each skill they claim has been demonstrated; listing them on a resume is not enough (personal communication, February 27, 2013). What actions can you take now to strengthen your skills? Most attributes are taught in varying degrees in your coursework, but do not expect faculty to discuss them because teachers usually focus on course content (i.e., theories, concepts, research). In short, use your job thoughtfully as a laboratory for personal and professional development to the extent possible.

Internships. As you probably know, employers give significant weight to internships. However, with so much to say about internships within limited space, I strongly encourage you to consult this partial list of resources: your academic advisor, career center, alumni office, and local employers; websites such as www.,,, and career books by Hettich and Landrum (2014); Landrum and Davis (2010); and Morgan and Korschgen (2014), to name a few.

Job/career related coursework. Employers expect graduates to enter the workplace with strong team, problem-solving, written, oral, technology, and analytical/quantitative skills (see NACE list above), so complete courses that promote these skills sets. Chances are you will work in a business setting, so enroll in economics, management, marketing, and finance courses. Consider a minor or double major with technology, business, health sciences, and similar programs where a psychology major combined with an applied field may provide flexibility and an edge. Some courses will challenge you, but it is far better to "pay forward” now than to discover your writing, speaking, or technology deficiencies in your first post-college job.

Get actively involved in extracurricular and volunteer activities. Most employers are as concerned about your interpersonal skills as your academic abilities; leadership leads the NACE list above. According to NACE’s Job Outlook 2013, when employers must decide between two equally qualified candidates, they consider (in rank order):

     a) leadership experience;

     b) academic major (for specific skill sets);

     c) GPA (usually 3.0 or above);

     d) involvement in extracurricular activities;

     e) school attended;

     f ) volunteer work;

     g) foreign language fluency;

     h) study abroad.

You will likely use your interpersonal and team skills daily in the workplace; leadership gains importance as you progress. It is far better to develop your interpersonal abilities in the relatively secure environment of college organizations (even if by trial and error) than in your job where poor "soft” skills lead to early career setbacks.

Other major campus resources include alumni office for mentoring and internships; counseling services for managing personal problems (before they become unmanageable under workplace pressures); residence life for a resident assistant position; and student affairs/development for training in interpersonal, time, stress, and money management skills. Finally, pay close attention to national and international events because they can impact the economy, government, labor markets, and your job.

William James believed that the greatest discovery of his generation was that human beings could change their lives by changing their attitudes. He said "If you can change your mind, you can change your life.” Employers’ "damning rhetoric” of graduates’ unrealistic expectations—attitude issues—has been our focus. NOW (not after graduation) is the time to begin establishing realistic attitudes and expectations about your future employment by following the suggestions above. One final observation: Expect the possibility that you can do everything correctly to prepare yourself for the workplace and still not succeed—at first. But with persistence and a positive attitude you will persevere.

Bidwell, A., (2013, January 28). Millions of graduates hold jobs that don’t require a college degree, report says. Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved from Hold/136879/

Cappelli, P. (2012). Why good people can’t get jobs: The skills gap and what companies can do about it. Philadelphia, PA: Wharton Digital Press.

Gardner, P. (2012-2013). Recruiting trends 2012-2013. East Lansing, MI: The Collegiate Employment Research Institute and the MSU Career Services Network. Retrieved from

Hettich, P. I., & Landrum, E. L. (2014). Your undergraduate degree in psychology from college to career. Los Angeles, CA: SAGE.

Morgan, B. L., & Korschgen, A. J. (2013). Majoring in Psych? Career options for psychology undergraduates (5th Ed.), Boston, MA: Pearson Education, Inc.

National Association of Colleges and Employers (2012, December 5). Student survey: Key employer/ job characteristics throughout the job search. Retrieved from employer-job-characteristics/?print=yes

National Association of Colleges and Employers (2013). Job Outlook 2013. Bethlehem, PA. Author.

Newman, R. (2010, March). Surviving the American makeover: How to stay afloat—and get ahead—when the old rules no longer apply. U.S News & World Report, 147(3), pp. 14–16.

Twenge, J. M. (2006). Generation Me: Why today’s young Americans are more confident, assertive, entitled—and more miserable than ever before.  New York: NY: Free Press.

Twenge, J. M., & Campbell, W. K. (2009). The narcissism epidemic: Living in the age of entitlement. New York, NY: Free Press.

Paul Hettich, PhD, Professor Emeritus at DePaul University (IL), was an Army personnel psychologist, program evaluator in an education R&D lab, and a corporate applied scientist—positions that created a "real world” foundation for his career in college teaching and administration. He was inspired to write about college-to-workplace readiness issues by graduates and employers who revealed a major disconnect between university and workplace expectations, cultures, and practices.

Author Note: I am grateful to Jon Keil and Camille Helkowski for their comments and suggestions regarding this article.

Copyright 2013 (Volume 17, Issue 3) by Psi Chi, the International Honor Society in Psychology


Eye on Psi Chi is a magazine designed to keep members and alumni up-to-date with all the latest information about Psi Chi’s programs, awards, and chapter activities. It features informative articles about careers, graduate school admission, chapter ideas, personal development, the various fields of psychology, and important issues related to our discipline.

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