Confessions of a graduate: Spend university time outside of the classroom

By Sophia Al Rasheed / Columnist

Hopefully this doesn’t come as a surprise, but a standard path that ensures a job right after undergrad does not exist. 

While there is obviously a general outline we can follow — the fact that you’re attending a university is proof that you’re following one — there is no checklist you can cross off each semester to guarantee that you’re on the right track and won’t need to move back in with your parents after you throw your cap in the air. 

Students hoping to float in the postgraduate life should be aware that preparing themselves for the nonacademic world requires experience that’s, well, nonacademic. It’s the simplest of logic, but it’s logic that many fail to follow. We often concern ourselves with finding a major that we’re passionate about and push through our semesters thinking within the confines of the classes required. Yes, undergrad offers the opportunity to learn, but it also offers an incredibly valuable opportunity to learn outside of the classroom.

Important to note is that most college advisers won’t take into account the duality when checking up on their students; more often than not they will simply ensure that you’re meeting academic requirements and treat your undergrad years like checking off a box. Students often walk blindly out of advising appointments, believing that they’re following the right track when they should realistically be doing much more with their time during undergrad. This tactic might work for a student who plans on pursuing postgraduate schooling, in which case the goal is to create a good resumé and scores for another application process, but if you’re not in the expensive postgraduate safety net, you’re placing yourself in murky waters. 

The reality is that students should be asking many more questions during these advising appointments — something that upperclassmen soon learn to envy about freshmen and sophomores with ample time left in their undergraduate careers. Patrick Altdorfer, a political science adviser and professor at Pitt, emphasized this aspect of advising appointments when asked about how to gain a well-rounded advising experience. 

“We’re trained to give students academic advice, and yes, the No. 1 priority is academics. But at the end of our meetings we ask if there’s anything else. If the student has nothing to ask, then the meeting is over,” Altdorfer said.

For students who still have several advising appointments left, remember this “is there anything else?” portion. The benefits of good advising require the focus and goals of the individual student, which are necessary if he or she wants anything other than basic academic advice. Advisers have many resources they are willing to provide to students, but it is up to the student to request this type of advising. The problem isn’t a lack of resources for practical experience, but rather that students assume advisers will openly provide and stress this importance As a result, many students make the mistake of solely focusing on finishing their majors and “rounding out” their resumes by joining student organizations during time that could be spent more efficiently. 

“Undergrad is not so much about learning and ‘discovering’ yourself as it is about gaining practical work experience while your cost of living is very inexpensive,” said a Pitt graduate from 2013, who asked to remain anonymous because of employment reasons. Her gap-year-then-law-school plans had changed after leaving the haze of undergrad safety, which forced her to pursue an unexpected path for which she wasn’t exactly prepared. 

“It’s always important to have a backup plan. Grad school is not a permanent fixture in every hopeful lawyer-doctor’s life, and when you declare yourself ‘prelaw’ or ‘premed,’ professors should be more realistic about it. Ask yourself, ‘If this falls through, do I have enough practical experience in my field to get a job that I will enjoy?’”

The eye-opening aspect of this case is that this former student devoted her time to exactly what was asked of her by her adviser: checkmarking the general suggestions of a high GPA, research and time-consuming extracurricular activities. On paper, she had all the credentials of a successful graduate who overcame challenges during her college career. But her lack of professional networking and work skills landed her in a demanding job that she didn’t have the experience to approach correctly.

“A reality of postgrad life is a feeling of desperation. Buzzfeed articles make it seem cute, but unfortunately, the job hunt led to my not asking enough questions of my future employers and quickly accepting a job that came my way.

“Always make a point to get the full story on the position and what it entails because many managers will take advantage of recent grads who haven’t learned the ropes and pile on unexpected responsibilities and hours.”

She notes that although outside experience is a vital part of the undergraduate career, you cannot rely on undergraduate advisers to truly stress this importance. The practical aspect of an undergraduate career is something that she had to figure out on her own. 

“My adviser for [political science] never encouraged me to do internships,” the former student said. “He basically held five-minute meetings to make sure I was meeting my requirements and never inquired into what I wanted to do with my life. Of course, the onus was on me to figure it out, right? It’s my life. But, in the end, this is one of the big dilemmas of the university system.”

This came as a bit of a shock to Altdorfer. 

“I’m surprised to hear the criticism about outside experience,” he said. “We do an orientation for all newly declared majors where we stress the importance of internships and gaining experience. We are always willing to help students find these opportunities,” he said. 

But again, this source of knowledge requires effort on the part of the student. Despite the importance of practical experience, you’re likely only going to talk about how hard your classes are and your GPA during advising appointments. The result is a lack of understanding of what should be accomplished during undergrad, leaving many students to feel independent and isolated during their important time of decision making.

“We’re sending 17-year-old kids to school to make the decision that will define their livelihood in a bad job market. Advisers should be pragmatic with students, no matter what the major. Do you have a backup plan for your backup plan should be a standard question, no matter how scary it is,” the former student said.

But don’t let these words of advice deter you from enjoying your privilege to spend four years being able to study the subject of your choice passionately. It’s a rewarding experience that enriches students with a rounded perspective that couldn’t be achieved with simple practical or technical training and is the basis of a liberal arts education..

This is just a reminder that in addition to pushing the boundaries of your intellectual ability, undergrad is an opportunity to push the boundaries of your work experience. It’s possible to achieve both academically and practically, but the latter is contingent on your willingness to work toward it. 

“Even if you’re studying underwater basket weaving, if you have practical experience and solid connections, you will be able to get a job. It’s a matter of proactive attitude,” the former student said.

And though you might be dead-set on attending a graduate school, or sure that you have a job lined up after undergrad, it’s extremely important to have a backup plan.

This backup plan will force you to take advantage of other resources during your undergraduate years. Failure to do this could leave you searching for opportunities when you’re no longer attached to the convenience of the university’s large network and connections, during a time in which living is much less convenient — both in terms of expense and location. 

“I found an internship in a field that I am passionate about, and I did that through volunteering and working for free and attending events and making friends,” the student said. “I never realized how true the maxim ‘who you know’ was until after graduation. Work on making those connections in undergrad, when your biggest worry is finding the cheapest textbook or what the beer special is. Intern for free and offer to work weekends. Take night classes and work during the day. Be early and stay late. At least you get a good reference and letter of recommendation. At best, you get hired in an environment you’re comfortable in immediately after graduating.”

One advantage that Pitt students specifically have is being in an area that will offer you a variety of experiences like these mentioned — and likely with the convenience of free transportation. The benefits of attending job fairs, using websites such as Futurelinks and — a nonuniversity website that offers many opportunities for internships and volunteering — and finding work experience during spare time instead of the minimum-wage job opportunities available to those without resources cannot be stressed enough. 

The four months of break in between spring and fall semester offer an opportunity to get your foot in the door — or at least open a window — for your possible future in the job world.

And while the description of these jobs might not fit into your liberal arts major, consider obtaining at least one during undergrad on the same level of importance as your capstone requirement.

Write to Sophia at [email protected].