Employability: the role of the academic tutor

Employability may be an ugly word, but it is increasingly an important part of teaching and learning at my higher education institution. In a world of tuition fees, student satisfaction scores and information gathering about leavers’ destinations, I imagine that its importance will also continue to grow. Whilst I am not a fan of any of the aforementioned trends, employability is something that I have been thinking about. If students are spending their time and resources on degree study because they think it will make them more employable, then they should be reflecting on what precisely it is they have learned that makes them distinct from people who didn’t attend university or who took a different course. They need self-awareness about their own development and the ability to articulate this to a potential employer in a meaningful way.

HEAIf you want to know more about employability then the HEA has a framework for ‘embedding’ it in your institution, but if you haven’t got time to wade your way through this, I can tell you that the sorts of provision that universities offer include: help with CVs; mock interviews; confidence building activities; work experience/placements; shadowing; help researching the job market etc.

Which leads me to wonder…what is the role of the academic tutor here? Is it our responsibility to talk about skills and ‘employability’ in our history seminars and lectures? Or is that something that is better left to the professionals in Careers Services? If tutors do have a role, what is it?

I don’t think there is one answer to this question, since a response must be determined by the needs of the students at a particular institution, the way that the institution is viewed by employers, and by the existing provision.

your_creative_future_wordleExeter students are already sought after by graduate employers. We also have a great Careers Service, with an innovative range of talks, training sessions and seminars throughout the year and advisors available to students at all stages of their university career. Often careers advisors do provide advice specifically tailored to students in a particular discipline (for instance relating to history graduate destinations and employers), and I certainly wouldn’t want to replicate that provision.

Yet having spoken to both careers services and students (have you guessed – I’m currently the history ‘Employability Officer’), I have come to think that a historian is in a great position to supplement more general advice with targeted and detailed information about specific skills, approaches, and ways of thinking that are fostered by their particular discipline. For who has a better overview of what the discipline has to offer than the academic themselves?

Some thoughts:

  • One of the things that Exeter students struggle with is articulating what makes them valuable to a potential employer, and expressing their academic skills and achievements in a language that makes sense to, and chimes with what the employer is looking for.
  • A related point is that when I read student job applications, I am often surprised that they fail to draw on their degree more. Surprisingly few make explicit links between the work that they have completed as part of their studies, and what they are likely to be asked to do in the workplace. Whilst past work experience and extra curricular activities are often a mine of colourful examples that precisely illustrate the person specification in the job advert, the degree can come a poor second, a mark presumably of intellectual achievement and not much more.

My current approach to employability is therefore based on the principle that my role is to encourage students to think about their studies in a range of ways.


Most employers don’t need a historian. They need a project manager. A media sales executive. A motivated digital marketer.

And here is where I think a history tutor can make a difference with relatively little effort – they just need to bridge the gap between the study of history and how its methods and approaches relate to jobs in ‘the real world’. This is of course not a new idea at all, it’s just thinking and talking in terms of ‘transferable skills’ – something universities are accomplished at, as Ted McCormick explains in this post.

So on occasions when I am talking to students I try to drop the history/discipline specific language and translate it into the ‘real world’ language of job adverts, particularly at the beginning of a particular task, activity or assignment. I try to explain tasks not only in terms of how it makes a student a better historian, but also how it makes them a better potential employee. In introductory sessions to my modules and on the electronic learning pages I try to provide specifics that will encourage them to make links. For instance:

Research skills [relating to essays, presentations, seminar preparation]

  • You can use catalogues, finding aids, bibliographies, search engines to find relevant data
  • You can retrieve information from libraries, databases and internet
  • You can collect and collate data/information – identify key information, select examples/evidence, recognise central arguments

We need students to recognise and reflect on the business of being a historian as they go along. We need to encourage them to see the parallels between giving a presentation on popular culture and the skill of ‘public speaking’. We need them to know to give the example of meeting six deadlines a term when an employer asks about time management.

Unfortunately, knowing what this book smells like probably won’t get you the job.

It seems pretty obvious when I put it down on the page, but if we always talk to our students in the terms of ‘essays’ there is no obvious reason that they would link that to report writing or précis or data management.

Reflection: the end is nigh

Where else could employability fit into a module? I hope that ‘talking in the terms of skills’ in something that can be done occasionally throughout a degree course, but at the end of the term or the academic year is usually when I invite my students to engage in some more in-depth reflection on their recent development.

Again I’m not very innovative – usually in a ‘concluding’ seminar as well as discussing key themes in seventeenth-century religious cultures I also spend half an hour or so on skills. Often I just ask small groups to discuss the skills that they have gained or developed on the module/over the year. I might invite them to think about the thing that they found most challenging or that they are most proud of achieving, and to then think about what skills were crucial in that achievement.

In these sessions I also encourage students to reflect on how being a history graduate makes them a distinct and valuable candidate. For me, their abilities as critical thinkers are their great strength – they can think/research/read/analyse/present/and write like a historian. More uniquely, they are also able to ‘think historically’ (more on what that means in this previous post), something that is undoubtedly sought out by potential employees.

milkroundI remind the students of best practice when applying for jobs. They should address each part of the ‘essential attributes’ or ‘person specification’ in the advert, and crucially, they should give examples to back up their claims. These examples can be drawn from academic experience when it is relevant (and it usually is). An exercise I have recently introduced is to pull up a job advert on the screen (from milkround.com or another graduate recruitment website), and ask them to come up with examples of skills developed on the module that match the requirements of the position.

The postscript

Since I am trained to be a critical thinker, I must add that whilst students can benefit from talking about team working, communication, leadership, critical thinking and problem solving, the fact remains that social class, race and gender continue to exert great influence on hiring practices, as does the reputation of the university that awarded a candidate’s degree.

EphemeraFurthermore, not everyone is a fan of ‘employability’, and the HEA website concedes that employability discourses encourage would-be workers to construct and identify with identities that are determined by the values of corporate managers.

So you might also want to encourage your students to consider the extent to which becoming and staying employed requires turning yourself into a ‘product’ that must conform to ever-changing market desires. This special issue of the open access journal Ephemera: ‘Giving Notice to Employability’ offers some critical perspectives that might be useful for discussion.

9 thoughts on “Employability: the role of the academic tutor

  1. Thanks Dr Sang! As the English department’s employability officer I found this very useful. I’ll definitely be using some of those articles from the Ephemera issue in the revamped ‘Humanities in the Workplace’ module.

  2. One of the real difficulties is that prospective employers ‘lump’ essential and desirable qualities into post descriptions without real comprehension of what those terms have meant. Partially, the reason lies with HR departments, not least in HE, which have abandoned actual HR and training for the legal aspects of employment. Another cause is recent relinquishment of past paradigms. For example, ability to work in a team has descended into something vague rather than a critical analysis on the lines of Belbin (i.e. different roles within effective teams). (Here, I notice that recent results from HE-based research has also somewhat disparaged team or project working). Highly motivated is another anodyne phrase: no one now seems to recognize Herzberg on motivational theory. IMHO, the ‘bottom line’ (oh God!) is demonstration of ‘commitment’ by thoroughly researching the organization/profession to which one is applying. When I was ‘careers tutor’, all the visiting employers emphasized the importance of indicating this ‘commitment’, not least the HR people from the NHS – but, I have to admit, that was all ages ago. I recognize that these are all counsels of perfection. I belong to the generation that had only minor difficulty in employment, our issues rather resulting from the choices which we made in our early twenties.

    • Thanks very much Dave, they are some really useful perspectives. I entirely agree about the vagueness of the criteria. It strikes me that a more nuanced understanding of ‘teamwork’ and ‘motivation’ therefore might help a student to stand out from the crowd in their cover letter and in an interview. And your point about commitment really resonates with my own (limited) experience of the job market, both as a potential employee and as someone involved in the hiring process. Thoroughly researching an employer is interpreted as sincere commitment to a position, and again, it may set you apart from another candidate.

      I will certainly be offering this additional advice at the employability session I am running on Wednesday!

    • Thanks for your comment – just to clarify I meant that it was not a particularly graceful use of the English language, rather than any reflection on the meaning of the word itself.

      • Thank you. I have to say, though, I can’t detect any lack of grace — it seems an entirely well-formed word. I continue to suspect, therefore, that most people (I mean, in general, rather than you specifically!) who object to it are in fact objecting to the underlying idea within an educational context.

    • Ah yes – I am entirely in agreement. I do think that in some circles there is a tendency to be disdainful about employability, and sceptical about its place in the classroom. As you say, this seems to be linked to a sense that it isn’t the academic’s job to think about such things.

  3. Pingback: the many-headed monsters’ resources for teaching | the many-headed monster

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