Career Pathways: Different Approaches for Graduate and Undergraduate Students

By: David J. Smith, April 4, 2016

As professionals working day to day to ply our craft, we are often focused deeply on serving our clients be it through direct intervention or in a consulting capacity.   We are in business and taking our eyes off the ball in a competitive environment is not in our interests.

However, beyond serving our own needs, we have an obligation to support the greater profession and field.   We need to do this because as professionals, we must ensure that the values of the field continue, and that competent practitioners follow us. Mentoring, guiding, and encouraging protégées are core features of professionalism.

In my 30 years as a conflict intervener and peacebuilding educator, I have spent much of my time with youth helping them to understand the nature of conflict.  As might be expected, introducing young people to the field often results in inquiries about how to make a career as a mediator or other type of conflict intervener.   Answering this question has never been easy.  I’ve spend time as a mediator, attorney, college professor, program officer at the U.S. Institute of Peace, and teaching overseas as a Fulbrighter, so one might think I have come up with a ready-list of occupations and strategies for high school and college students.  I have not, and I would suggest that the road to a successful career in the field is no clearer now than it was 30 years ago when I started out.   Though we now have an abundance of graduate programs, as well as a growing number of undergraduate ones, this has not in turn created an equivalent demand for our work.  Rather it has created an oversupply of would-be peacebuilders seeking opportunities.

In my book Peace Jobs: A Student’s Guide to Starting a Career Working for Peace (Information Age Publishing) I have developed my own theories and ideas on how to provide opportunities in the face of limited need.   Though graduate education tends to be the gateway for careers, my work has focused mainly on undergraduates. It is important that we emphasize undergraduate education. One reason is to help set the appropriate expectation for students upon completion of their degree and who might be facing massive debt.   I would suggest that the avenues for undergraduates are different than graduate students.

With graduate education there is the expectation that a master’s (and PhD) will lead to work that directly focuses on responding to conflict, violence, and building peace.  As an adjunct at George Mason University’s conflict resolution program, my master’s students are clear that they see their future careers as practitioners applying their skills as mediators, ombuds, trainers, consultants, and the like.   However, at the undergraduate level, the approach needs to different, and graduates with bachelors degrees should not expect the same type of opportunities as graduate students.

In my book I make the distinction between direct and indirect action careers.  Direct action careers are those in which the professional is working directly to engage with parties in conflict and help create conditions for a peaceable outcome.   Direct action jobs are ones where the sine qua non of the job is maintaining peace be it in local or global communities.   Because of the practice-oriented nature of graduate education, career pathways that work in conflict directly are reasonable expectations.

For undergraduates, I emphasis the notion of indirect action jobs.  Here the objective of the position is not to work on conflict in a direct way, but rather, building peace and resolving differences can be important by products and outcomes of the work.   Consider the nurse who needs to use intervention skills to help opposing members of a family respond to the needs of a loved one, or the physical education teacher who promotes cooperative sports activities.   The range of fields where indirect action can take place is vast: healthcare, business, technology, education, government, and law enforcement.  The police officer who is trained in restorative justice practices or the IT professional who supports a community mediation center in its web-based needs are both working indirectly.

With today’s anemic job market, undergraduates need to be realistic about their career prospects.  As practitioners, we need to show young people the possibilities that exist in applying their skills in a broad range of fields, and ones where they might already have an interest.   By taking this approach we recognize three things about our work today:

1.         Conflict-related approaches will continue to be mainstreamed.   Conflict resolution and peacebuilding aptitudes cannot be viewed as a “niche” that can only be revealed by the holder of a special incantation!  Today, conflict is ubiquitous and as such it is important that all workers be aware of approaches they can take to foster teamwork, lessen tension, and encourage collaboration.

2.         Creative applications will continue to be called for.   Conflict is more complex and nuanced today than at any time in our history.   As a multicultural, multiethnic, multi-religious society, the opportunities for misunderstanding that can lead to serious conflict abound.   Creatively using our skills to not only engage those in conflict, but more importantly, anticipate the rise of differences and disagreements before they manifest themselves will be critical.  This will take creative conflict prevention sleuthing.   Emotional intelligence and empathy will be needed to reassure those in conflict, assuage egos, and find common ground between those are may deeply resent each other because of historic animosity.

3.         Conflict-related soft skills will be needed to operate in today’s society.   Increasingly we are recognizing that young people today are lacking in aptitudes necessary to build relationships and civically engage.   Skills such as leadership, effective communication, and problem solving are necessary abilities needed to maneuver in a world that is technologically driven.   Arguably, young people today lack awareness of soft skills because of technology and the rise of social media approaches to relationship building.  But we need to recognize that the good old days of talking on the phone or attending civic association meetings may be gone, but the need to work with others to advance the common good in the face of potential misunderstanding and conflict is more present than ever.

This piece first appeared in ADRhub.com on April 4, 2016

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