New career course asks students to take initiative

​L&S created Inter-L&S 210 Taking Initiative as part of the L&S Career Initiative to help second-year students navigate class, major and career options.​

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Ryan Kielczewski had already crossed off the first big item from any college student’s to-do list: choosing a major.

It took some doing, too — deciding to scrap veterinary medicine (he decided he didn’t love biological science), contemplating business school (he started taking the pre-requisites) and settling on economics (Econ 101 grabbed his attention and the broad applications of the discipline hooked him).

“Economics is so involved in every decision,” he said during a break from a full day of classes. “There’s opportunity-cost every day in every single thing you do.”

But nailing down a career plan? That might be an even trickier challenge.

“Some people do already have it planned out, but, to be honest, I really don’t,” said Kielczewski.

And that uncertainty is part of the reason Kielczewski enrolled in the College of Letters & Science’s new academic- and career-planning course last spring.

L&S created Inter-L&S 210 Taking Initiative, now offered each fall and spring semester, as part of the L&S Career Initiative to help second-year students sift through the wide array of options in front of them — from classes to majors to careers.

As UW-Madison’s largest school, L&S offers 65 undergraduate majors and 39 certificates, which afford students plenty of possibilities. Choosing the best fit, though — and tying it to a future career — can be challenging, even for the most driven students.

And, as Professor Greg Downey noted in class, the most popular majors in L&S — biology, economics, political science, psychology, communication arts and history — don’t necessarily lend themselves to obvious, ready-made career paths.

Downey’s course asks students to assess and reflect on their strengths, and then connect them to classes and majors that will lead to careers that draw on and enhance those strengths. Students conduct informational interviews with professionals, create LinkedIn profiles, and write resumes and cover letters targeted to specific opportunities. Students also have access to alumni mentors who Skype in from across the country to provide insights from their own career journeys.

One thing we’re trying to do is give students a scheme, a language and a set of tools for talking about what they’ve done in the past, what they want to do in the future, what they think they can bring to an organization, and to be able to really communicate that.

Tony Carroll (M.A.’80, Public Policy and Administration), a corporate lawyer and business advisor based in the Washington, D.C., area, told one class to make connections and build personal networks through
service opportunities and community work.

“Do something that shows you can lead,” he advised.

But the idea isn’t to simply replicate a job seekers workshop. Downey wants students to find connections between classes and better understand how to draw both abstract, conceptual knowledge and concrete, pragmatic skills out of their liberal arts educations, regardless of their majors.

Each assignment, reading and lecture ties into the course’s core themes of critical reflection and narration, which guide the students as they shape their personal brands. At the end of the semester, they develop two-minute elevator speeches that articulate those brands.

“One thing we’re trying to do is give students a scheme, a language and a set of tools for talking about what they’ve done in the past, what they want to do in the future, what they think they can bring to an organization, and to be able to really communicate that,” Downey said. “They’re going to have to tell and constantly re-tell this story about themselves, to themselves throughout their careers.”

Kielczewski was still in the early stages of writing his story while in the course, wondering if he could use his economics training in a political setting. Inter-L&S 210 was the right course for that sort of exploratory thinking.

“Everything’s so job-related these days. Everything’s just leading up to the job and how to get one, and it’s so hard,” he said. “So why not take a class like that?”