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Connecting Course Work and the Workplace

shutterstock_132769352If you are interested in furthering your career or opening up new employment options, you have something in common with many other online students. The Noel-Levitz higher education consulting group routinely reports that “future employment opportunities” are a factor for online enrollment, and new research from The Learning House [PDF] finds that two-thirds of online students are also employed while going to school.

While some programs are more directly tied to specific careers, others are more general in nature helping you to develop knowledge and skills applicable across a range of fields, leaving it up to you to make the connections. Whether you are looking to enter a new field or advance in your current one, what if you have career goals in mind, but your courses don’t? Use the suggestions in this article to bridge the distance between your college course work and your career.

College as Career Preparation

As career-focused as you the student may be, there is a perceived disparity between what colleges produce in terms of skilled graduates and the skills employers are looking for from new hires. According to a recent study conducted by the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AACU), and additional research from The Chronicle of Higher Education, and American Public Media’s Marketplace, hiring managers are looking for candidates who possess skills and abilities related to:

  • Critical thinking
  • Complex problem-solving
  • Written and oral communication
  • Ethical judgment and integrity
  • Capacity for continued learning
  • Application of skills in real-world settings
  • Effective collaboration as part of a team

Note that these qualifications aren’t specific to any particular career field or major. From the humanities to science and technology, you can hone these skills through a variety of assignments and enhance your marketability in the process.

Planning for Papers, Projects, and Presentations

The Chronicle-Marketplace study mentioned above suggests “internships make a difference. For some employers, on-the-job experience may matter more than a student’s major or grade-point average.” But this is not always an option. If you aren’t able to participate in these kinds of programs, or are and want to extend the course work-career connection even further, you can make some decisions that will help.

My own experience in graduate school at both masters and doctoral levels lent itself to working on papers and projects that had a tie-in with some facet of my job at the time. There were a lot of benefits to this approach, but I had to initiate most of it … and I had to have an idea of where it was all going. Start early by reviewing each course syllabus with career development in mind as you select topics for further research, participate in discussions, and conduct reviews.

Consider career exploration.

Course assignments can provide the opportunity to delve a little deeper into all of the sub-fields, industries, and occupations applicable to your career of interest. You may even find opportunities to network with other professionals along the way.

  • Students in my graduate education class this fall are assigned to interview people working on instructional products, but have the flexibility to find an interviewee at a level (i.e., K-12, higher education) or industry (e.g., corporate, military) of their choice.
  • Criminal justice students who have not decided on a particular area of law enforcement can research current trends in corrections, homeland security, forensic investigation, and emergency management, drawing from literature in these areas as they complete various coruse assignments.

Think professional development.

Where do you need to update your knowledge and skills to be current in your field? Review your performance goals with your supervisor and identify ways you can use your course assignments to focus on these areas.

  • A graphic design student may learn a new software program in class that would also be helpful in an upcoming work proposal.
  • A human resources student tasked with learning a new database at work may be able to incorporate the application as part of a class project and increase opportunities for practice.
  • When asked to complete a book review, chose a title that is appropriate for the course topic, but also related to a current work project, then share your review with both classmates and co-workers.

Explore specific populations.

When you have the opportunity to choose your writing topic, narrow your focus by selecting a specific group to research. Bring your workplace into the picture by identifying the demographics of customers, clients, colleagues, or students based on the groups you work with and the context of your employment. Examples might include:

  • A nursing student planning to work with a specific group of patients may want to research the health and medical implications related to that group, such as those with disabilities, children, or the elderly.
  • Business students may want to explore the demographics of potential client populations in another country to improve their global awareness.
  • Educators might adjust their approach to an assignment based on the level and context of the students in their current classrooms.

Weave a thread.

Throughout the fabric of your degree program, that is. As a graduate student in an administration program I was also employed with a non-profit group. “Non-profit” became my thread as I explored different aspects of these organizations in the context of each course – developing a marketing plan to recruit volunteers in a marketing course, delving into tax and regulation issues in a public policy course, and ultimately researching the effective placement and training of volunteers at a local hospital for my thesis project.

Show your work.

Completing your course assignments, and integrating workplace context, is just part of the connection. The AACU study found that “in addition to a resume or college transcript, more than 4 in 5 employers say an electronic portfolio would be useful to them.” If you aren’t required to maintain a career portfolio as part of your academic program, start your own collection of your best work to demonstrate your skills and experience as a way to augment your traditional resume.

Communicate your ideas.

Be creative as you think about your approach to individual assignments, and let your instructor know what you are trying to do. Propose an alternative to an existing assignment or a tweak that would help make the career connection. Some courses and instructors do not allow this kind of flexibility, so be prepared to complete all course work as directed. But you won’t know what the possibilities are until you ask, and your instructor may have some good suggestions, too.

Keep your supervisor in the loop and let him or her know you are interested in making course work-career connections, particularly if you think a current or future work assignment would be well suited to a course you are also taking.

Benefits & Challenges

It’s all experimentation in a way, and you’ll experience hits and misses. Be aware of both the opportunities and challenges ahead as you combine work and school in ways that are beneficial to both.


  • Potential for more meaningful learning experience that moves you toward your career goals.
  • Crafting a personal approach to class assignments can help you stay motivated, building on prior learning and past experience in each course.
  • If your employer is supportive of your educational pursuits (especially if helping with time or tuition) this can be a way to keep the conversation going.


  • The timing of projects, class assignments vs. real world work deadlines, rarely matches up. Your approach may be better if you target small sections, components, etc.
  • Connecting assignments with your job may not work in every course, and that’s okay.
  • It’s good to have some overlap, where one informs the other, but don’t put yourself in a situation where completing a class assignment relies on work resources or vice versa. Keeping the balance between separate and connected is important.

Career-Based Curriculum of the Future

New models and approaches are on the horizon as more students enroll with career aspirations, and more colleges understand the need to prepare these students for the workforce. A few examples of partnerships include:

  • Integration of student services: The Advising First program at Florida State University is a joint effort of academic advisors and success coaches working with students “as they establish and realize their personal, academic, and career goals.”
  • Applied experience initiatives: The University of Surrey (UK) implements a “professional training year” that takes place before students’ final year of study, to help them connect with employers and gain practical experience in the field before they graduate and enter the job market.
  • Curriculum input: According to The Chronicle, some employers, including Boeing, are starting to track where their employees graduated and make recommendations to those colleges on revising their curricula to match the requirements of the workplace.

You may find more direct and obvious career-related activities in your courses depending on your current employment situation and the specific discipline you study. But finding opportunities to make the connections on your own is within reach. Start slowly and try to make one association in each course.

How can you link your course work with what’s happening in your current employment situation? Share your ideas with us here. Even small connections can make a difference by opening a door or broadening your perspective.