Evaluating the impact of extracurricular events in 2023 on postgraduate employability
This article shares findings from a pilot research questionnaire designed to investigate the thoughts of postgraduate students attending extracurricular events. We argue a person’s identity and other specified qualities and attributes can be enhanced by engagement with activities taught outside the formal curriculum. For example, networking events, part-time work, developmental activities with employers and team building events all contribute to student development of identity, self-esteem, self-efficacy, resilience and other components of graduate attributes. To encourage students to engage with these types of initiatives, Nottingham Business School operates two annual events for postgraduate students, which celebrate personal and professional development. Event one runs in January and event two occurs in May.
Sessions vary, consisting of familiar skill-based workshops i.e., presentation, negotiation, communication and interview. Other sessions encourage personal agency and exploration and are more ‘existential’ in content. In this context, we classify events as ‘existential’ if they involve individuals questioning the meaning, purpose and value of their own lives, or sessions that awakened intellect and/or liberation attained from mindfulness. These types of sessions include “Mindfulness and Purpose”, “Building Self-esteem" and “Hold your Courage, Find your Voice”.
The questionnaire was emailed to 144 students who attended the one-day event in May 2023. It consisted of six open-ended questions. The response rate was 41.6%, with most respondents studying on a combined Management degree, followed by 19 studying solely HRM. The remaining 12 were from single award degrees, such as Project Management, Finance, Marketing or Management. In general, students felt the event had meaning and value. However, it became apparent certain sessions had more perceived benefit than others.
- The sessions I attended were valuable and helped me towards my development
Finding One: Who I am?
Student engagement in existential sessions, such as values and purpose, self-confidence, mindfulness and courage were the most popular. At past events (2017-2020), sessions focused on skills development often recruited students the fastest (i.e., presentation, networking, planning, communication). Although these types of sessions are readily available through our employability services, students still seemed to value the opportunity to participate in these activities whenever possible.
However, event attendance in 2023 evidenced a shift in the sessions students were choosing to attend. We noticed that 20 free text responses fixated on the value of sessions focused on mindfulness, self-awareness and courage:
“Mindset with a purpose was an interesting session, I just knew I needed it.”
“All the sessions were incredibly interesting and helpful for my professional development. ‘Don't lean on your excuses’ was exceptional.”
“Coming out of our comfort zone is where life begins – I need to start to live this life.”
“It helped me to learn how to deal with adversity in my life in new ways.”
What our pilot does not show (and will be investigated in 2023-24) is why students volunteered to attend these types of sessions, as opposed to skill sessions favoured by previous cohorts. We could speculate herein about Covid-19 and its impact on student mental health, isolation, vulnerability etc. Perhaps it has something to do with emersion in social media, making them question who they are, what they value and how they belong. Perhaps news reels constantly focused on the costs of living crisis, climate emergencies and war also make students feel insecure or vulnerable.
Although no evidence was collected to explore why these philosophical, often abstract sessions were more popular in 2023, it raises interesting questions around the concept of employability. Employability models such as CareerEDGE (Dacre Pool & Sewell, 2007) and more recently, Cole’s (2020) employability taxonomy, all clearly identify how emotional intelligence, resilience and self-efficacy are fundamental in aiding students to form identities guided by reflection and evaluation, thereby helping in the creation of employable graduates. Whilst other aspects such as experience, intra and interpersonal skills, subject understanding and generic skills also have a role to play, it seems the scales are tipping away from these more formal, articulated, externalised forms of knowledge acquisition to the learning gained from internalising a lived experience. Therefore, perhaps models of employability, whilst showing the concept as almost ‘fixed, boxed and linked’, it is much more dynamic than this, dependent on cultures, generational contexts and stressors. Maybe students in 2023 are realising that to survive in the long-term they need to consider who they are and what they represent. Just like organisations, ‘Built to Last’ requires the creation of habits founded on strong core values and purpose (Collins & Porras, 2005). Maybe students are starting to realise that to survive in volatile environments, you need teaching focused on the development of self. Much employability teaching focusses on students developing their employability skills (Clarke, 2018). This pilot suggests that development of self and self-discovery is important to them over and above the need to improve themselves simply to ‘win’ in the labour market. It is more about finding their ‘calling’ (Duffy & Dik, 2013).
Data analysis highlights a need to further explore the growth in popularity of existential activities. We acknowledge that the questionnaire did not explicitly try to elicit deeper open text responses, nor did we seek to follow-on with semi-structured interviews. Work by Thompson, Clark, Walker and Whyatt (2013) discusses the need to improve the reflective practice of students whereby the greater the ability to reflect on an experience, the greater the learning potential. Although we witnessed an increase in attendance to existential sessions, we need to encourage much deeper student reflections so they can tell us more about why it matters to them and what they learnt.
Implications for Practice
We conclude extra-curricular events are useful in enabling students to explore existential issues not taught in the formal curriculum. However, more thought needs to be done to capture and develop the students’ deeper reflective thoughts enabling both them, and us, to draw more meaningful conclusions from their experiences. It is critical to informing practice that we understand what students are thinking and what they want more exposure to so we can create more meaningful learning opportunities for them to grow and develop.
Claudia M. Bordogna, Peter Sewell and Daniel Gray, Nottingham Business School
Contact email@example.com at Nottingham Business School
Cole, D. (2020) Defining and developing an approach to employability in higher education: a study of sports degree provision. Doctoral thesis, Northumbria University [Online] https://www.proquest.com/docview/2459433929/fulltextPDF/FFB47F7DC1964F79PQ/1?accountid=14693 Accessed 20/6/22.
Collins, J., & Porras, J. I. (2005). Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies. London: Random House Business Books.
Clarke, M, (2018) Rethinking graduate employability: the role of capital, individual attributes and context. Studies in Higher Education, 43(11), 1923-1937, DOI:10.1080/03075079.2017.1294152
Duffy, R.D., & Dik, B.J. (2013). Research on calling: What have we learned and where are we going? Journal of Vocational Behavior, 83(3), 428–436. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jvb.2013.06.006
Dacre Pool, L, & Sewell, P. (2007) The key to employability: developing a practical model of graduate employability. Journal of Education and Training, 49(4), 277-289.
Thompson, L. J., Clark, G., Walker, M., & Whyatt, J. D. (2013). ‘It’s just like an extra string to your bow’: Exploring higher education students’ perceptions and experiences of extracurricular activity and employability. Active Learning in Higher Education, 14(2), 135-147.