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Eye on Psi Chi: Fall 2014
Returning Adult Students Turning to New Careers
Paul Hettich, PhD, DePaul University (IL)

Who Are Returning Adult Students?
(And Why Traditional Age Students Should Know)

During my early years of teaching, students 24 years of age but mostly older were called continuing education, nontraditional, or returning adult students. Although there weren’t many returning adult students at my small college, many traditional age students envied and even feared their motivation, maturity, and intense focus on coursework. Age generally remains the variable that college administrators use to recognize the past learning experiences, particular educational needs, and circumstances of this subpopulation of college students. Implied in returning adult is not only age, but also recognition that these students generally possess some level of life-learning experiences derived from jobs, raising a family, military service, community involvement, or a combination of these and other experiences that most younger students do not have. However, because the distinction between the two categories of students has become blurred with respect to age, traditional students will also benefit from the insights and advice offered by the contributors to this column.

The cutoff age separating traditional from returning adult students is changing for some professionals. In an e-mail interview, Camille Helkowski, MEd, NCC (National Certified Counselor), LCPC (Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor), associate director of Loyola University Chicago’s Career Development Center and counselor in private practice, generally does not view anyone under 30 as a returning adult student unless the individual is a veteran. She also recognizes the age-related issues that people over 50 encounter when they change careers, depending on the field they choose. For example, "Counseling and social work are fields that lend themselves to older career changers and thus are more open to hiring an older versus traditional age graduate employee with little direct experience.”

Similarly, Mary Allen, EdD, senior business development manager at The Salem Group (a recruiting and staff augmentation firm) and adjunct professor of psychology and social science at College of Lake County (IL), says she encounters a diverse age range among Salem’s clients and her students. She also regards returning adult students as those who are 30 and older. Regardless of how the term returning adult is defined by age, students classified as such sometimes enter the workplace with certain advantages and challenges.

Advantages, But Also Challenges
Jon Keil, BA, Director of Operations at the Salem Group, believes that returning adults with psychology or social science degrees enter the workforce with:

a great deal of structure, understanding of behavior, and human interaction skills that many students with other degrees may not have. These attributes lend well to transitioning to new opportunities. Many have often continued working through their education, so transition is a natural progression as opposed to a cold reentry, as viewed by employers. Nontraditional students bring with them life experiences and many other transferable skills such as people management, multitasking abilities, and structure that they learned in previous roles as well as the benefits of continued education.

Their pursuit of a degree "demonstrates their personal drive and capabilities. I have found that nontraditional students can be highly creative, reliable, and extremely productive additions to any organization.” Some have earned another degree or certification, performed internships, or have updated or achieved new skillsets. However, he cautions, a major obstacle that many individuals face when they reenter the workforce after completing school or raising children is reduced compensation, depending on the person’s age and occupation. Although some persons reentering the workforce are willing to trade a lower salary for less stressful responsibilities or more time for family, many others do not want or have those options. The Salem Group has a strong commitment to diversity not only because of the organization’s social responsibility, but also because diversity strengthens the organization and its clients. In addition, The Salem Group created a Seniority Advantage program, which rewards senior employees with benefits that ease their transition to the workplace.

Experience and the skills that meaningful experiences establish is crucial. Camille Helkowski encourages returning adults to:

consider their prior experience as a value-added piece they bring to a potential employer. Individuals need to consider the functional skills they acquired in their former jobs/careers and translate those skills, making them relevant to their new career choice. This is a critical component of their resume construction and interview preparation. They should take advantage of their career centers in this regard. Career counselors are typically well-versed in assisting returning students with their re-entry into the work force.

In many of her returning adult clients, Mary Allen has observed a lack of work experience in their field of interest. "They have content knowledge and know theories, names, dates, etc. but have little understanding specific to needs, assessment, application, and personality structure,” which impacts how one perceives his or her and others’ work environment. She emphasizes that experience in one’s chosen field is an area where improvement and development is strongly recommended. Mary continues, "What they may lack in the area of applied practices and experiences within their psychology or social science major, they do bring with them the skill of having greater insight in the ability to think creatively and objectively from multiple perspectives.” They also bring with them "a general understanding of their intrinsic drives and motives which serve as a strength.”

Skills Employers Seek
During my years of teaching returning adult students, I observed that many tend to underestimate the abilities and skills they have developed while serving as a homemaker, volunteer, part-time employee, or in a similar capacity. The types of skills and attributes required for successful performance of these activities are similar to many skillsets employers seek in candidates. For example, according to Job Outlook 2014, a survey conducted by the National Association of Colleges and Employers, between 58% and 77% of the employer respondents indicated that they look for the following attributes on an applicant’s resume (ranked from highest to lowest): Written communication skills, leadership, analytical/quantitative skills, strong work ethic, ability to work in a team, problem-solving skills, verbal communication skills, initiative, detail-oriented, computerskills, technical skills, flexibility/adaptability, and interpersonal skills (NACE, 2014). Most returning adult students bring many of these skillsets, often well-established, to the workplace. They typically possess additional attributes in various levels that are not contained on the NACE list such as emotional maturity, self-confidence, and self-efficacy.

Advice for Returning Adult Students
Jon Keil advises nontraditional students returning to the workforce to:

investigate career options including all standard academic programs as well as professional certifications and how a degree, both undergraduate or graduate, can assist them in their identified field. The added benefit of such research can help them transition to new positions or new career fields a bit easier. Gathering information in advance will aid them in their career search by allowing them to target specific companies, organizations, etc. Many fields are very competitive, and securing employment can be a challenge. By doing your research in advance and investigating an industry or certain companies, you gain an advantage in knowing more about what those organizations look for in their hires.

In short, create a career plan while you are still in school.

It is critical for students to take advantage of every experiential
opportunity available to gain transferable marketable skills
according to Camille Helkowski. She explains:

Graduate programs in social work, psychology, and counseling typically require this experience as a function of obtaining the degree. Direct experience is the best way for individuals to (a) be clear about what is the right career choice for them and (b) market themselves. They may also need to dissuade themselves of the idea that the only thing that counts as experience is paid full-time employment. Experience can take the form of volunteer opportunities, part-time work, internships, and memberships in organizations. The benefits of someone with previous work experience is that they already know how to work. The soft skills that are necessary in day-to-day employment and the life adjustments of being a full-time employee won’t be a shock to them. However, if someone has not looked for a job in the last 10 years, they may not understand how the job search has changed. Access to a computer as well as basic computer skills are required simply to apply for jobs. Networking is the top skill of the job search, and it has to be mastered to search effectively. Knowing how to use social media, LinkedIn® in particular, is essential.

Emphasizing earlier remarks, Mary Allen advises:

The greatest guidance I would offer is for returning adults to apply their learning and gain experiential knowledge. One can have all their knowledge from psychology and social sciences, but if they are not taught how to use it and to understand the knowledge they possess, they cannot apply it and, thus, they fail to take it into the workforce.

A Mental Health Organization Example: Thresholds
The preceding comments apply to numerous positions and organizations in which a returning adult psychology or social science baccalaureate graduate could work. Because many psychology majors seek a career in the mental health field, I asked the same questions to Sarah Hertsted, BA, PHR (Professional in Human Resources), benefits and compensation analyst at Thresholds ( Thresholds is a Chicago area mental health organization that provides healthcare, housing, and hope for thousands of persons with mental illness each year. Thresholds is similar to many mental health organizations in its holistic approach to mental health services, support, and treatment but different from several others in its commitment to serving those with serious and persistent mental illness, which other organizations may not accept.

New employee challenges. Sarah did not identify unique challenges for the returning adult graduate, but she acknowledged one task that is faced by all new employees, namely travel. Employees in clinical positions can expect to travel daily (regardless of weather) about 60 to 70% of the time, connecting to members and clients who may reside in specific city neighborhoods or in surrounding counties. In addition, specific state documentation requirements compel these employees to balance the time they devote to direct service to an individual with entering notes in the electronic health records. Being organized, knowing how to write notes that address specific insurance billing requirements, and being computer savvy are requirements. Another challenge may be the employee’s ability to align with Thresholds’ philosophy of serving its members. According to Sarah:

Our goal is not to decide or do things for members but instead to help them set their own specific short-term goals and objectives. Sometimes this might mean an employee can personally disagree with a choice made by a member. You have to be OK with that and not allow it to interfere with your relationship and the work you do in collaboration with members.

Advantages some graduates may have. A variety of ordinary life experiences and skills, especially those which can be taught to others, are advantageous for employment at Thresholds and service to its members: shopping on a budget, building a support network of friends, healthy eating and living habits, knowing how to find low-cost or free activities in the community, and job search and interview skills. Prior experience in customer service or sales is also helpful because some employees work as employment specialists to support members’ efforts to seek and maintain jobs; employees may also work with area employers to place members in jobs. Finally, the experiences and skills of veterans are in demand to help Thresholds members who are also veterans.

Advice to students. Sarah’s first recommendation is to be open to experience.

In the mental health industry, your major in college and your internships do count. Make sure to include your internship on your resume. Hiring managers want to see that experience! Include your volunteer work as well, especially if it speaks to the mission of the organization to which you are applying. This is an exciting time for mental health and for Thresholds. Thresholds, along with many other organizations, continues to experience great expansion. However, we are still a nonprofit organization, and you won’t get rich working in this field. If your long-term goal is to be a therapist or director, you still need to first gain some experience as a new graduate in an entry level position. Wherever you obtain a position, if you are working toward a license like LCPC, make sure the organization offers supervision hours as we do at Thresholds. It can be hard at times working in the mental health field. Selfcare is really important! Make it a priority in your life as you enter the workforce. You can’t help other people if you aren’t first taking care of yourself. Keeping up with your own health, maintaining perspective and having a positive attitude should be a priority in anyone’s life. It can be of special value in being an effective Thresholds employee.

Coincidentally, while this article was in preparation, Thresholds hired a baccalaureate psychology graduate who is also a member of Psi Chi, one of several Psi Chi members employed there.

Jobs Outside of the Mental Health Sector
Unfortunately, some students believe that nearly all jobs available for psychology majors are in the mental health field. Not true! In a survey of diverse organizations that included for-profit (66%), nonprofit (17%), government (9%), educational (6%), and health service (2%), Chan and Gardner (2013) asked employer respondents about the types of work assignments for Arts and Sciences graduates. Of the 27 categories of work assignments that the researchers listed, employers identified eight in which 20% to 41% of the graduates were assigned: administrative services (41%), customer services (34%), business services (28%), marketing (26%), media and communication (25%), information management (25%), human resources (20%), and computer services (20%).

The authors noted that some of the most frequently mentioned positions may seem uninspiring to applicants. However, these jobs require persons who can:

quickly grasp the organization as a whole; pull together diverse information and make it meaningful to upper management or clients; quickly solve problems; and interact effectively with diverse colleagues and functional units . . . For many A&S graduates, such positions are stepping stones and accelerators into an organization and a career (Chan & Gardner, 2013, p. 4).

The authors added that a graduate does not have to have a business or commerce degree to work in these positions. However, many employers recommend that liberal arts graduates should have completed courses in economics, management, marketing, and even accounting. I encourage all students to review the list of skills employers seek, compare them with skills developed in your psychology program and with your own personal experiences. Many returning adults have probably held full- or part-time assignments similar to those mentioned by Chan and Gardner, and already possess some of the skillsets, perhaps well-established, that these positions require.

Finally, did you notice the mention of professional certification and licensing in this article? It is common for many baccalaureate graduates, once they have spent time in a particular occupation, to seek further, in-depth training and education from professional organizations or graduate programs that recognize and enhance their knowledge, skills, and experiences. In closing, the insights and counsel of our contributing experts, along with the studies cited, should generate confidence in returning adult students and help guide their decisions. Similarly, traditional age students should be aware of the similarities and differences (to the extent they may exist) that they have with their returning adult classmates and recognize that many of the remarks above also pertain to them. All students should recognize that differences between traditional and nontraditional students are not always clear-cut in terms of perceived advantages and disadvantages, and that the advice for how to prepare for the workplace is the same in most respects. Regardless of age and prior experiences, all students seek to acquire knowledge, skills, attitudes, and wisdom from their study of psychology, and integrate it into their identity and goals. As for age itself, consider the words of 19th century English novelist George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans): "It is never too late to be what you might have been.”

Chan, A., & Gardner, P. (2013). An arts & sciences degree: Defining its value in the workplace (CERI Research Brief 5-2013). Retrieved from

National Association of Colleges and Employers (2013). Job Outlook 2014. Bethlehem, PA: Author.

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.

Copyright 2014 (Volume 19, Issue 1) 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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