As Careers Advisers, we generally have a few different avenues through which we can help the students we work with. In our one-to-one appointments we provide individuals with advice and guidance, and in our workshops we use activities to engage groups in career learning.
Appointments are one of the things I enjoy most in my role, but some time ago I noticed that I was answering the same questions time and time again: “How do I find a job in […]?, What can I do with a […] degree? How can I find work experience in […]?”. Although these topics are often addressed in our workshops, student attendance is often not as high as we’d like, whereas the demand for one-to-one appointments is always high. I therefore began looking at how we could support students in a way that would be both more efficient and effective.
A new approach
After doing some research I became aware of an approach used at Stanford University, where traditional career guidance sessions were being augmented by small group sessions called Meetups. These informal group sessions, each focused on a specific careers topic, are run by a member of the careers service. However, unlike workshops, there are no activities and they are based around discussion (although they do begin with a short presentation). The agenda is driven largely by the students, with their questions and comments providing the basis for the remainder of the Meetup’s content.
I thought Meetups sounded interesting; they encouraged peer learning and seemed a more efficient use of the facilitator’s time. Relatively speaking, more students could also be engaged in a Meetup hour than through individual appointments over the same period. I was also encouraged by the fact that closer to home the University of Reading had successfully introduced the idea of career lounges. After discussing the idea with my line manager we agreed I should pilot a series of Meetups at the University of Birmingham.
In the summer of 2017 I set up a short programme of Meetups aimed at finalists, focusing on the topics these students frequently wanted to discuss with us in one-to-one appointments: Find a job after graduation, Create a great CV and Find a job in Birmingham after graduation. There were also a couple of Meetups specifically aimed at Law students: Next steps to a career in law and Alternatives to law careers to see how well students engaged in more tailored sessions.
Unlike the Meetups at Stanford, the majority of our sessions at Birmingham involved no presentation, so the format was completely discussion-led. Each facilitator would have their own way of running the Meetup, but it would typically involve students asking questions and the facilitator and peers responding and sharing their thoughts (I share some tips on how to facilitate a Meetup effectively below).
Following the pilot project, Meetups were introduced to our programme of careers activities this academic year. In the autumn, our Meet ups focused on final year students, who represent the majority of our users during this time. We decided to focus our Meetups on the two themes we encounter most as advisers during this time: ‘Options with my subject’ and ‘Find a graduate job’. These would hopefully alleviate appointment demand and offer students an alternative way to get advice.
Each Meetup was limited to 12 students, run fortnightly at various times of day. We ran 16 in Autumn, but the ones in the first few weeks were by far the most popular, with 10-12 attending the first two ‘Find a graduate job’ Meetups. Attendance at the ‘Explore your options’ Meetups didn’t go beyond 5 students, and attendance at most Meet ups stuck at around 3-5 students for the remainder of the term. I wondered whether the topics were too general, and that more specific topics could have been chosen to ensure the programme was more varied.
For spring term, we changed our approach slightly – running six distinct Meetups focused on how to find an internship in different industries. Although we only ran these over a three-week period a total of 87 students attended – a big increase compared to the previous term. I think this had a lot to do with the fact these Meetups were attended by students of all years, whereas the ones run in autumn were only really attended by finalists. The topics were also more specific than those in autumn, and this was something students commented on positively. I’m sure that only running the Meetups for three weeks also helped – they were easier to promote and more prominent with students not wanting to ‘miss out’.
Student feedback and engagement
Feedback from students has been really positive, with many commenting on how much they enjoyed the informal group atmosphere and discussion. Many also point out how useful it is to cover lots of topics in a short period of time. During a Meetup, students often share their own advice and experience, and hearing something from their peers can sometimes help them in ways that we cannot. Some students have even shared personal contacts for work experience with their peers, which is great to see.
A slight concern about Meetups was that they might increase demand for individual appointments – despite finding a Meetup a good use of their time, students might still want one-to-one support which would ultimately go against one main aim of the Meetup – to reduce appointment demand!
We found that 73% of students attending a Meetup did not go on to book an appointment afterwards. The problem is, there’s no way of determining whether the students attending the Meetup who did go on to book a one-to-one appointment would have done so whether they attended the Meetup or not. Perhaps a more positive figure is that 75% of the students who attended a Meetup had never been to a careers appointment before; the majority were students who hadn’t engaged with us, at least in a one-to-one interaction.
What I found most interesting was that 47% of students went on to attend a careers workshop or event after a Meetup. Advisers had not actively promoted these sessions, so this was positive.
What I’ve learnt from running Meetups
After running various Meetups over the last year and a half, I’ve learnt a few things about what makes an effective session for students:
Breaking the ice
Students can sometimes be nervous as they walk into the room, and many will be unfamiliar with the concept of a Meetup. To make them feel more at ease, I like to explain the format and clarify what the session is going to look like at the start. If I’m facilitating a small group, I encourage students to introduce themselves to one another – this not only breaks the ice, but also means the discussion will be better tailored to their situations.
Just like in a one-to-one appointment, the start of a Meetup is crucial. I like to get students to write down a question on a post-it note that they want addressed in the session, and then use these to generate discussion. In smaller groups, I ask students to individually write their question(s) on separate pieces of paper, which are then put in the centre of the group. Students then take it in turns to select a question at random. Other ways to generate discussion which I have used include using a statistic, quote or job advert. This can be a great way for students to share their opinions or first impressions, which can then allow for more in-depth conversation.
For a Meetup to be effective it’s important to run it in a room with furniture that can be moved to allow the group of students to sit facing each other in a circle. These Meetups seemed to flow a lot better than when we ran them in rooms with large tables. The physical space is so important when it comes to students’ learning – tables are useful for writing on, but often serve as barriers, making the room feel formal.
Meetups have enabled us to engage with students who may not have otherwise come in for a one-to-one appointment, and also allowed us to see a greater number than we could have on an individual basis. The Meetup format offers students a more informal setting through which to access our services, and based on the feedback from students and facilitators we will definitely continue to run them. Drawing on our experience this past year we plan to tailor the themes of future Meetups throughout the academic year to attract students from different year groups. In time, we plan to invite employers and alumni to some of our Meetups and next term, will be running a virtual Meetup. Overall the introduction of Meetups has been really positive and given their popularity among staff and students I would certainly recommend a similar format to careers professionals working in different services.