Positioning your HES academic journey to support your career: Five steps to success

Harvard Extension School students are adult learners, often working professionals, who sign up for classes for a wide range of reasons- from looking to build on existing skill sets and knowledge areas to enhancing career prospects in their current role and industry, or perhaps to making a complete career pivot. If you are strategic about your approach to your academics going forward, you will be able to position yourself in the best possible way for your next step.

How can you make the most of your academic journey at HES to transform your career?

  • Identify what you want to get out of your time at the Extension School
  • Strategically fill the gaps you have identified in your knowledge, skills, and abilities
  • Actively build your network in the classroom and beyond
  • Communicate what you’ve learned at HES
  • Reassess regularly. Be prepared for your academic journey to take you in unexpected directions

First, get clear on what you want to get out of your time here… or what you want to explore. Start by asking yourself some questions: What skills do you enjoy using on-the-job? What are your professional interests? What impact do you want to make through your work? What are you looking to learn that is needed in the next step of your career, whether it be knowledge of a specific topic or a new skill? Based on the direction you want to go, what gaps do you need to fill? Or are there areas you want to explore academically because you are not yet sure if you want to pursue a particular path? Courses can be fantastic opportunities to test out situations without committing to a full career change.

Having a hard time answering these questions? Explore tips and resources available to HES degree students at https://careerservices.fas.harvard.edu/channels/explore-your-interests-self-assessment/.

It can be helpful to speak to people within your organization or in other roles or industries to learn more about positions that use skills you want to apply on-the-job, or to gather information on specific industry areas or paths. You could find five job descriptions that relate to your interests, skills, and desired impact, and look for trends in what these employers are looking for. Read industry or professional association newsletters or access sources like the Occupational Outlook Handbook or LinkedIn Career Explorer to help identify the skills and competencies needed for specific fields. Based on this research, what gaps have you identified between what you have to offer and what employers need?

Second, use your time at HES to fill in the gaps you have identified in your knowledge, skills and experiences, including any gaps in your knowledge of job search best practices. Current HES students and degree alumni can attend CARC webinars to update job search knowledge and learn from alumni and employers. Students can join related clubs or professional associations. Plan to enroll in future classes on topics and skill sets that can add to the portfolio of knowledge, skills, and abilities that you can offer an employer. Based on your research in step one, what is needed in your next-step role or where you are now to get to that next level, whatever that means for you? Which classes will help you gain those things? Read the syllabi ahead of time to be clear on what you will be learning, how and from whom. Are there team projects where you will be able to interact with others taking the course? Does a particular class offer an opportunity to focus in-depth on an area you are looking to hone your knowledge in or demonstrate interest in as a signal to employers in that field, or will a class allow you to connect to relevant stakeholders while conducting research? Is there a specific technical program you would have an opportunity to use during the class, which could enhance your marketability? Be strategic in what you are adding to your portfolio of classes and experiences!

Third, build your network while in school!

As one Harvard Extension School ALM alum wrote,

“Use your network and follow your dreams. Reach out to the professors or classmates whose journeys you found interesting and never be wary of starting a conversation. We are so lucky to be part of a community of so much talent and passion.” (find more HES alumni advice in the Graduate Spotlights.)

At HES you can build that network by engaging with your instructors and TAs, who bring a wealth of topical knowledge and experience, with your classmates, who come from a wide variety of backgrounds and organizations, and with staff, guest speakers, and alumni. This could involve attending office hours with an instructor, setting up outside-of-class time to meet informally with classmates, actively engaging in a student group, attending a networking event held by the Office of Student Affairs, or intentionally seeking out classmates with related career interests to form a supportive job search group to provide each other with accountability and direction. You could also take smaller steps, and connect to classmates and guest speakers on LinkedIn, subscribe to a student group mailing list, or actively participate in class discussion. Adding the Harvard Extension School to the Education section of your LinkedIn profile will allow others to see that you have this school in common. You can browse those who have Harvard Extension School in their LinkedIn profile though the school’s page, and gain visibility into where people work, what they studied, and what skills they have listed in their profile. Attend a CARC workshop on networking, offered in both Fall and Spring semesters, to learn more. In addition, degree students can engage with alumni from HES, GSAS or the College via Firsthand. More on Networking can be found in the HES Guide to Building Your Network on the Mignone Center website.

Fourth, communicate what you’ve learned. Take time to record what you’ve learned through your classes and practice talking about it, so that you can market yourself to your target audience. What have you learned about your own abilities (so called ‘soft skills’ such as teamwork, communication, organization)? What new skill sets have you proven through projects? What knowledge have you gained in areas relevant to your career goals? Consider updating your resume with these indicators, so that they are immediately clear to future employers. Practice speaking about your studies and their relevance to your goals, which you’ll have learned about through your research into career paths, so that you are more comfortable doing so around colleagues, supervisors or in interviews.

Finally, continually reassess based on what you learn about yourself and potential next steps and your experience in your classes and other activities. Keep up-to-date on what employers want and it can help you in selecting courses. Through the cycle of course taking and self-assessment, what has changed about your interests, and what new knowledge have you gained about what is out there for your career? What have you learned that might send you in a different direction than anticipated, and what is one thing you can do to get you there?

Through your studies, you are demonstrating your commitment to lifelong learning and ability to juggle coursework with work or other out-of-classroom engagement. Your new knowledge gained, along with the network and resources available to you, can lead you on a path you may never have expected.

So, what should current Harvard Extension School students do next?

  • Carefully go through steps 1-5 above
  • Look for emails from HES_Careers@fas.harvard.edu so that you do not miss opportunities
  • Attend CARC webinars
  • Degree students and alumni can schedule advising appointments and access Center for Career Success events via Crimson Careers
  • Reach out during virtual drop-in hours, held once a month between September and May

The HES Career and Academic Resource Center (CARC) career services team is Amanda Peters and Shoshana Mavor.


By Amanda Peters
Amanda Peters Director, Harvard Extension School Career Advising & Programming