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COLLEGE STATION --

One of the biggest lessons Cassandra Wilson learned in college was just how unprepared she was for life after it.

Wilson, a junior double-majoring in genetics and biology at Texas A&M University, had dutifully spent the majority of her first three years in college focusing on what she perceived to be the task at hand -- studying for exams and eventually graduating. However, in visiting with a good friend who had already gone to tremendous lengths to establish contacts within various companies around the state, secure internships and participate in extracurricular activities to improve her job marketability, Wilson realized she herself barely knew what career path she wanted to pursue, much less how to get her foot inside any kind of job-related door, open or otherwise.

"I was talking to her about it, and I was like, 'I am so unprepared,'" recalls Wilson, a member of the Corps of Cadets who is the first in her family to attend college. "It made me realize just how unprepared for graduation I really am."

Thanks to a new undergraduate course piloted this spring in collaboration with the Texas A&M Career Center, the Texas A&M College of Science is reversing that trend by offering students like Wilson a head start in the workforce with the help of Texas A&M former students who have already succeeded in it.

SCEN 289: Careers in Life Science is a weekly, one-credit-hour course for sophomore and junior science majors designed to instill the fundamental career-readiness techniques and communication practices required to form strong professional networks in today's business environment. The brainchild of Dr. Timothy P. Scott, associate dean for undergraduate programs in the College of Science, and Marilyn Yeager, senior life sciences career coordinator in the Texas A&M Career Center, the class offers a first-of-its-kind overview of traditional practices that Scott says have gradually gone by the wayside in an age where social media and smart phones dominate the conversation, from personal to professional.

Citing a growing concern that graduates were becoming increasingly detached from proper business etiquette, whether composing a resume or verbally communicating with potential employers, Scott, Texas A&M Class of 1989, says he saw value in the college developing a course focusing on those very skills. After researching career-related courses with similar goals in other departments and colleges, Scott took a hands-on approach to customizing a curriculum targeted specifically to science students, to be team-taught by Yeager and himself personally.

"Concepts such as business etiquette and creating resumes have the potential to be a lost art," Scott explains. "We are very much a media-driven society, particularly young people with Facebook and texting. In many instances, the people skills that are so critical in landing a job perhaps have not been cultivated as strongly as a generation ago when we didn't have the technological tools that have largely replaced face-to-face communication, and not necessarily for the better."

Unlike traditional academic classes, grades in SCEN 289 are not determined by performance on homework assignments and exams, but rather by students showcasing their ability to effectively converse, write and establish a professional network. Moreover, while classes similar to SCEN 289 exist in other academic units on campus, Scott notes that a unique feature of this course is the direct involvement of the former students, who enthusiastically contribute to making the class the valuable life lesson it is by helping the students learn to network, hosting mock job interviews and even guest lecturing.

"I'd say the College of Science may be late coming to the party, but I think we are bringing certain aspects to the course that haven't been done before,' he adds.

The course begins with a survey of the students' interests to determine which scientific fields their personalities and talents are best suited to match. Once their fields of interest are identified, the first half of the semester is spent learning to craft cover letters and resumes geared to these specific areas of interest. The students also participate in group exercises to hone their knowledge of and experience in the finer details of professional protocol when meeting possible employers -- everything from the initial handshake to basic elevator courtesy.

By the second half of the semester, students are set to begin actively establishing business connections. They must conduct one 20-minute interview with a former student currently working in the same field and write about what they learned from the experience. Perhaps one of the most crucial sections of the course features one-on-one interaction with members of the College of Science's External Advisory & Development Council (EADC). In addition to being evaluated on their performances in EADC member-led mock interviews, students also are required to join them at an actual business luncheon as part of the group's annual spring meeting.

Randall C. Shepard, Texas A&M Class of 1971 and an EADC member since 2007, knows precisely how critical first impressions are when it comes to interviewing for a job. For the past 11 years, he has conducted many of them as chief executive officer for Eye Health Services Inc., a 22-ophthalmologist practice with multiple offices on Boston's South Shore, and personally witnessed examples that can make or break someone's chances with his own company. As one of the first guest lecturers selected for SCEN 289, Shepard shared a few tips, including how to dress for as well as mentally prepare for the interview, which questions to ask during it, what actions to take to help ensure keeping the position once hired, and how to climb the proverbial corporate ladder thereafter.

"In today's job market, it's very tough to find work, and the jobs that are out there are very competitive," Shepard says. "Anything that we can do to give our students an advantage is going to be extremely helpful. They need to be the first ones employers look at, not the last."

Despite the age of Facebook and today's text message-savvy youth, Yeager says perfecting personal communication techniques is something that students seem to realize is a necessary prerequisite to securing employment. She notes there was a full waiting list within two days after the announcement of the new course. Though each major within the college is represented, the number of spots for the class's initial offering was capped at 20. Yeager hopes to see the course eventually reach more students with specific topics tailored for each major and perhaps even count as a writing intensive course required for graduation.

In an effort to improve the course in future iterations, the students are asked to submit anonymous feedback to Scott and Yeager, who note that thus far, SCEN 289 has been well-received by both current and former students involved.

"The students are really engaged," Yeager says. "They understand it's important for them, and that makes it a fun class to teach. They're not just going through the motions. They are really developing valuable skills from these assignments.

"Our goal is to be able to give the students everything they need to be successful. I'm really excited to have the whole semester to work with them."

As one of the students selected to take part in the inaugural class, Wilson says she is quite pleased with the course, which she describes as a "unique experience." She hopes to apply the lessons learned in pursuit of her future as a genetics counselor. Thanks to the course, she now has a list of potential graduate and professional schools, in addition to a wealth of related contacts throughout the state.

"Networking is something everyone needs to know how to do and do correctly," she says. "There should definitely be more classes like this one. It shows you everything you need to be ready for graduation, and it's basically preparing you for life."

To Scott, it ultimately boils down to the need for academic evolution. With competition now at an all-time high, he says it's incumbent upon both students and those charged with educating them to make adequate adjustments to ensure their success beyond the traditional books and laboratories.

"Academia moves and changes at a slow rate, but we have to make every effort to make the degrees we offer relevant to current workforce needs and demands," Scott says. "If we simply turn out a great product -- students who are highly skilled in science but do not compete well enough to get the jobs with the potential to put them in leadership roles in industry, academia and medicine -- without also taking care of basic life skills, then we will have kept secret what a great training place Texas A&M truly is."

-aTm-

Contact: Chris Jarvis, (979) 845-7246 or cjarvis@science.tamu.edu, Dr. Timothy P. Scott, (979) 845-7362 or tim@science.tamu.edu or Marilyn Yeager, (979) 845-5139 or marilyny@careercenter.tamu.edu

Jarvis Chris

  • Intro to Life, Aggie Style

    College of Science External Advisory & Development Council members Randall C. Shepard (center), Texas A&M Class of 1971, and Leslie Lenser (background, left), Texas A&M Class of 1987, are two of several Texas A&M former students who gave back to their alma mater and current Aggie students by guest-lecturing for SCEN 289: Careers in Science, a new course offered this spring by the College of Science and Texas A&M Career Center to better prepare science majors for life after college.

  • Dr. Timothy P. Scott

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