There is no doubt that earning a degree can help you to advance your career.

But did you know that the degree is just one part of the equation? The key to making the most of your education is focusing time and attention on career planning, in addition to your academic success.

Sharon Balke, graduate and career services supervisor at Capella University says, “Student success equals both academic success and career success, so we strive to help our students gain the skills to get the job, in addition to the skills to do the job.”

Balke provides a few of her top tips for students simultaneously earning their degrees and managing their careers.


1. Don’t put your career on hold while earning your degree.

“Many students don’t realize that they can get the most out of their educational experience by also focusing on their career development at the same time,” explains Balke.

Waiting until graduation to start thinking about career planning is like a plane trying to take off without a runway. Capella career counselors recommend a “foundational career planning” approach that begins alongside a degree program.

Think of this approach as building your “career runway” so your career can take off as soon as you graduate.

Resource: A mentor can help you develop your professional skills as you work toward your degree. Here are 7 tips for finding the right career mentor.


2. Have a career goal in mind during your educational experience.

“Having a clear and well-researched career goal is essential for getting the most out of your educational investment,” Balke says. A defined goal helps you to stay motivated and on the right path.

“I encourage people to be ‘focused but flexible’ as they move in the direction of their goals,” she adds. “Don’t pursue your goal with ‘blinders’ on. Your career path isn’t written in stone, and it doesn’t always follow a straight line from point A to point B. You’ll want to use your peripheral vision to be aware of unforeseen opportunities as you work toward your goal.”

Resource: The Capella Career Center provides strategies for career exploration, with an accompanying workbook to track your progress.


3. Work on building and enhancing your career-readiness competencies.

The National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) provides a set of seven career readiness competencies that employers have identified as the most critical to success. These include:

  • Critical Thinking/Problem Solving
  • Oral/Written Communications
  • Teamwork/Collaboration
  • Information Technology Application
  • Leadership
  • Professionalism/Work Ethic
  • Career Management

As you progress through your degree program, seek out opportunities to develop and demonstrate these career readiness competencies. Collect evidence of your abilities—gained through coursework, volunteer, or work experience—and think about how to articulate these skills to employers on your resume and in interviews.

“The rigorous academic preparation required to earn a degree at Capella can help students develop many of skills employers are seeking,” Balke says. “The key is to translate these into the language used in their profession.”

Resource: Capella takes a competency-based approach to education, and works with employers across all industries to understand the skills they are looking for in their employees. Learn how competency-based education is helping close the skills gap in the workforce.


4. Network, network, network.

Networking can sound intimidating, but it’s really about developing and maintaining reciprocal relationships. “We do this all the time—when we ask for or give advice, or share and receive useful information from others,” says Balke. “Developing a professional network is essential for learning from experienced professionals, hearing about unadvertised career opportunities, and getting recommendations.”

While you are in school, you can join professional associations, make connections on LinkedIn in your new or current field, conduct informational interviews, and seek out mentors to provide guidance.

Resource: Nervous or dreading the idea of professional networking? It doesn’t have to be that overwhelming. Capella alum and current board member, Marcia Ballinger, PhD, says 20 minutes is all you need.


5. Establish yourself within your professional community.

Join and get involved in state or local chapters of professional associations in your field while still pursuing your degree. There are associations for almost every profession, and some have numerous chapters. Many associations also offer discounted student membership rates.

Look for opportunities to get involved, such as joining committees or volunteering to help with events or conferences. Some even have special committees or leadership roles for current students or new professionals. Involvement in an association offers another opportunity to create professional relationships that broaden your support network and help you reach your career goals.

Resource: Professional associations can be a great way to network, too, especially if you’re changing careers. Learn more about how to change careers with this 5-step plan.


6. Build your professional brand online.

While resumes and cover letters are still the most common documents used to apply for jobs, a majority of recruiters and hiring managers also use online channels, such as LinkedIn, to source and review candidates.

For this reason, among others, it’s important to create and maintain an effective LinkedIn profile. Students should be updating their LinkedIn page and resume to keep them up to date.

Resource: The Capella Career Center offers 14 tips for maximizing the effectiveness of your LinkedIn profile.



The Capella University Career Center‘s counselors, resources, and tools help students and graduates manage their careers at every stage.