Every time I get a new research student, I ask them what they want to do after they graduate. I want to help them achieve their goals. Invariably, it goes like this.

Me: What do you want to do after you graduate?

Student: I don't know.

Me: Make an appointment with career services. They are experts in helping you make career plans. The earlier you plan, the greater your chance of success.

One month passes.

Me: Did you go to career services?

Student: No

I have never worked outside academia. How can I improve on this process which has been failing miserably?

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    These are adults - it's their responsibility to care for their career; you are a mentor, but not their daddy or mummy. You can give them the advice once or twice; but, if they do not use it, do not repeat it until they ask you on their own, once the question has bobbed up into their awareness. Responsibility is a "matched contributions" game. – Captain Emacs May 28 '17 at 8:51
  • The way I ensure compliance with my children is to give them a reward when they have carried out the target thing. Would that work for your students? Example: a piano teacher I know has a special bulletin board in the waiting area. When a student can get through their note-reading flash cards with the target speed, s/he is invited to put his or her photo up on the bulletin board. Of course, in your case, you might not want to make it so public. But maybe there could be a special restaurant lunch with the advisor after the career services visit. – aparente001 May 28 '17 at 15:24
  • Are these PhD students? AFAICT most physics students pursuing a PhD want to do research, and they also realize that success at that goal has a fairly low probability due to the mismatch between the number of degrees awarded and the number of permanent positions available. They haven't done any research yet, and they have no way of knowing how they will stack up against the competition. I don't see what would be accomplished be hectoring them about making plans at a stage where they don't yet have the information they would need to know what their options will be. – user1482 May 28 '17 at 20:27
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    @AnonymousPhysicist I have many of my students achieve quite successful careers. Quite a few make a point of letting me know how far they got and tend to keep in touch; that includes all levels of degrees. I would take that as a signal that they consider me a good mentor. But I believe that one needs to respect the students' own boundaries and not impose one's own values on them. Overeagerness in mentoring beyond the student's ambition or readiness is likely to be counterproductive. – Captain Emacs May 29 '17 at 0:42
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    Student: I don't know. -- For a new student, this is the best possible answer. How could they possibly know what they want to do after they graduate before they have done any research? It's the students that think they have their lives planned out decades in advance that I worry about. – JeffE May 30 '17 at 14:42

You do not mention if your research students are graduate or undergraduate students.

First consider the extent to which career services at your university may or may not be helpful for your students. For instance, it may be helpful for resume and cover letter writing or interview strategies. However, it is designed for the whole student body and many not be helpful in pointing students in a specific discipline into a career path. So, they may not value career services as a resource for learning about future careers.

Second, it may be that your students have a narrow definition of what types of jobs there are in your field or what type of work is involved with different types of jobs. Your students may be open to learning more, but are unsure what questions to ask or where to research job opportunities. This may also be why students are more likely to look into job opportunities later in their education, than early in their education. They know more later about the field.

One suggestion to improve the process is to organize a seminar that includes faculty in your department and local professionals in your field to talk about careers in your field. Students will find this more inspiring and can learn more. You can make this a regular event (annual, each semester) and rotate the panelists so that students can see a variety of job opportunities and perspectives. I've seen this done in several disciplines and students seem to appreciate it. Also, since the panelists are basically discussing their own experiences, there is minimal prep for the people who volunteer.

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  • The last paragraph is excellent. – aparente001 May 28 '17 at 15:21
  • The first two points aren't very relevant to my question. The third point would be a good suggestion to my department head. I can't assess the helpfulness of career services if students won't try them. Students seem to have no definition at all of what jobs are available. – Anonymous Physicist May 29 '17 at 0:13
  • The third point has been done at my university, so here a short warning: Make sure that you know beforehand what they will be talking about. We had a seminar called "mathematicians in industry", the students were all hoping to finally here someone telling them what all these things they learn are good for, but what they got was pure propaganda for the company and the jobs they offer. The only connection to math was that the speaker happened to hold a math degree... – Dirk May 29 '17 at 8:26
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    @Bemte- One way to avoid this is to have an online registration for students that includes a question about what they want to learn from the event. Then you can give talking points to the speakers ahead of time. – Nicole Ruggiano May 29 '17 at 14:41

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