This is my first response to Penelope Trunk’s commentary on “How to Manage an Education.”  I’m going to write several pieces about Ms. Trunk’s opinions because I think she ignites a very important debate here—and one that is worth examining in the sunlight with the opinions of many others. Question

If you haven’t heard of Penelope Trunk before, you should get to know her as she's an active voice. She heads up the Brazen Careerist, a social network and community of bloggers designed for millennials, and has a blog which generates traffic that most bloggers—including me--envy. She has a wealth of life experience—she has worked for and founded start-ups, declared bankruptcy, worked as a professional player and has been a columnist on career issues for the Boston Globe. She is raising two children, has written a book and talks frankly about working and living with Asperger’s Syndrome.

Penelope Trunk is also fearless in talking about taboo topics—from the status personal relationships to health. In the fall of 2009, she created a frenzy of a debate when she tweeted that she was in a Board meeting while having a miscarriage—and her feelings of relief that she was having a miscarriage because Wisconsin’s abortion laws were restrictive. She went on CNN and used the controversy as a moment of public education: In her opinion, you can't  manage your work life if you can't talk about it. She talked about how people think miscarriages happen on a specific day, but how in reality it’s less of a moment and more of a process that takes time. She talked about how employees should be able to be transparent about the things that are affecting them at their work, because she feels you can work more productively when you can have frank discussions about what’s affecting you. 

In short, Penelope Trunk provides thought-provoking material, and her post “How to Manage an Education” is no exception. She begins by saying “the idea of paying for a liberal arts education is over. It is elitist and a rip off and the Internet has democratized access to information and communication skills to the point where paying $30K a year to get them is insane.” She then goes on to say that college “career centers are useless because most colleges presume you still need college to teach you to think critically. So they can get away with incompetent career centers.”  In her opinion, here are three reasons why career centers are “terrible”:

1. Career centers cater to companies not candidates. (One of her top criticisms: most schools endorse and teach students to write resumes using a standard format. In her opinion, this format doesn’t help students whose experience doesn’t line up with a traditional resume.)

2. Career centers don’t understand social media. (She says that career centers want to have credit for what students do. So she says they want everything students do–from blogs to domain names to be tied to the career center. And that this is limiting in the social media world.)

3. Career center staff is self-selecting for underperformance. (Her perspective: “Colleges, especially, the really expensive ones, think of vocational schools as pedestrian”…so career centers are not “exactly the hot button in budget meetings” nor the “landing ground for visionaries” because “what visionary wants to go to a part of an institution that no one cares about?)

There’s a lot to talk about here, and I’m looking forward to addressing each of these three points in posts here in the future. But first, I’m going to ask for comments from my friends in University Career Centers, because their perspectives are equally important.

I must admit I have a biased opinion about career center staff:  I am a veteran. Before starting my private practice, I worked in college career centers for ten years—eight of which were spent at Ivies. My work has brought me in contact with many visionaries in the area of career services—and very few “underperforming staff.”  I’ve worked with my peers to develop, analyze, and publish the results of salary surveys for graduates. I’ve partnered with colleagues to teach students how to customize their resumes and strategies for leveraging social media in the job search. (Yesterday, I finished a workshop series on social media at Dartmouth College.) And I’ve helped students set up web pages and blogs using outside hosts. I don’t think I’m unique.

I do agree that universities frequently undervalue the importance of career education from a funding perspective, but I don’t think that many career services visionaries let that stop them from finding innovative ways to assist students or create programming that has a lasting impact. Want a broader perspective? Follow Lindsey Pollak’s list of University Career Centers on Twitter. Many career offices are tweeting and developing LinkedIn groups for students and alums.

Over the years, I’ve worked with thousands of students and observed my own peer network. And the ones who frequently landed the most interesting jobs were the ones who worked closely with the college career center staff.  I’ve watched students score internships and jobs with employers that don’t participate in on-campus recruiting by creating innovative websites, blogs, and portfolios of their work. On CNN, I watch one of my fellow classmates from American University’s Washington Semester Program cover politics.  I remember the day our internship advisor introduced him to the syndicated columnist who set him on his course.

And don’t even get me started on the power and impact that university alumni can have in helping students launch their careers.  Alumni can be invaluable—from serving on panels and posting jobs to mentoring students and recent grads. I’ve met very few people who don’t want to help grads of their own school—even if they have their own quibbles with university administration. Yes, it’s true that the “wider world” of social networking can help students expand their range of opportunities—but starting within your own community is a more comfortable launch pad for many.  Who hosts these networks? More often than not—it’s the career center in conjunction with a school’s office of alumni relations.

I like Penelope Trunk because she sparks debate, and she makes me think.  Many of her posts are invaluable such as her advice on how to talk to a friend who has been laid off. But we have different perspectives on professionalism: In many work environments, I think “less is more” is an appropriate strategy when it comes to sharing personal information with your boss and colleagues about your life outside of work. As more than one-third of recruiters report that they have discounted candidates based on what they’ve found online, it is as important to know what to say as it is to know what not to say. See my post on Kodak’s Social Media Policies and call me the “Frugal Careerist.”

As I see it, social networking sites like LinkedIn, Twitter, and The Brazen Careerist can play an invaluable role in your career. These networks have the user demographics and the community buy-in to be game changers in terms of how job seekers connect with new opportunities. They provide an environment to share personal and career interests, exchange information, and to expand your connections. These sites—as well as new job search platforms--are changing the rules: In the course of doing research for our upcoming book, The Twitter Job Search Guide, my co-authors and I feature the stories of over a dozen job seekers who have found jobs through Twitter alone.

As powerful as social networks can be, they can also be overwhelming to learn how to use. Active participants on LinkedIn and bloggers forget how intimidating the technology can feel to the uninitiated. You need a guide and a filter to get started. 

For many people—from students to alumni who graduated 40 years ago—your college career office can be a great place to start. Many career center staff have been formally trained in how to use these sites (LinkedIn did an extensive training program several months ago) and have developed resources and guidelines on how to get started with social networking. (Here’s a piece I developed with my former colleagues at the University of Pennsylvania to do just that.)

Last time I checked, U.S. college graduates could expect to earn an average of a million dollars more over the course of their career than people who didn’t go to college or complete their studies. That’s a lot of money. Tuition may be expensive, but spending $120K over four years to make over a million dollars—still seems to me like a decent return.

What do you think?