November 14, 2012

To require students to take a professional skills class for credit, as SIPA does, is rare and perhaps even unique among American policy schools. So how did the Professional Skills and Development course come about? SIPA Professor Steven Cohen (executive director of the Earth Institute and SIPA’s former dean of faculty and curriculum) and Meg Heenehan (SIPA’s director of career services) recently offered insight.

Professor Steven Cohen

The course originated in the late 1980s, when Cohen realized that few students were attending the many professional development events hosted by the career office. “Too many students were graduating without knowing how to do the things that are required for a successful job search,” he said. Students then faced an additional disadvantage after graduation because many employers were also less familiar with MIA and MPA degrees than, for example, MBA and JD degrees.

SIPA students and alumni have always been more heterogeneous than other graduate schools, Cohen observed, studying everything from human rights to international business to sustainability management, and pursuing opportunities more or less equally in government, the nonprofit world, and the private sector. This diversity is challenging, he said, in that it means that SIPA isn’t a place where employers look first for any one particular thing.

In the face such a varied, complicated, and unstructured job market, professional development has proven to be a valuable piece of the curriculum. The numbers bear the argument out: during the first year that the course was required, Cohen said, the May employment numbers of graduating students jumped by more than 50 percent.

Meg Heenehan, Director of Career Services

SIPA’s career instructors today function not as placement agents but as advisors who help students develop a strategy for entering and navigating the employment market. Doing so may be old hat for some students, Cohen said, “but the paradox is that the ones with the most experience are the ones who embrace the class. It’s like a refresher, and they think it’s a worthwhile reinforcement. Typically the students that most want to get out of it are the ones that need it the most.”

Heenehan, of the Office of Career Services, sees related benefits. “The class gets students to keep their job search on the front burner and puts everyone on a level playing field,” she said. “If it’s mostly review, fine. But if students get even a few new kernels of information, then the class has done its job.”

The additional good news, Heenehan says, is this: “I’ve never seen an unsuccessful job search by someone who puts the time into it.” She added, as anyone who has encountered her even briefly has probably already heard, “It takes six to nine months to find a job!”