Helping Students Find Their Way

Seth Roberts posts an email from someone who thinks college-age students need outside help to figure out the best career path:

I believe a large fraction of people around ages 16-22 are ignorant of what kinds of work environments and activities will make them happy and productive later in life. Current classroom-based training structures do not provide exposure to work environments. The cultural and social pressures from media, family and friends can be overwhelming and can often lead to people being very confused, and hence, making poor choices. I’ve seen that people tend to get very limited and highly biased information that leads to making training choices and work choices early in their life that are often not well matched for the person’s individual genius. By mid 20’s and 30’s, getting out of these poor choices is extremely difficult, as financial requirements as one ages grow and available time to retrain diminishes. Expectations of experience grow as one gets older, and the neural ability to quickly learn and master new skills diminishes, especially much later, after 40 or 50 years. All of these factors point toward a critical need to have experienced, outside input into making early choices about career paths, and what types of experiences individuals would benefit from most. Such advice is available, and can be found – but it is not commonly accepted that expert outside opinion is the best source for career and training choices for young people. Kids get it mostly from their parents and friends – neither of which are consistently accurate, trained in normal psychology, or unbiased in their assessments. …

All good points. I would add the following:

1. Parents and friends are indeed most consulted on this front, as the emailer says, but maybe for good reason: they know you better than any outsider ever will. That said, he is right that students underweight bias. The strongest bias in parental advice is probably their focus on risk mitigation. I believe you should take risks when you’re young because the cost of failure is low. I believe you should try more experimental jobs, or jobs for which there’s a lot of uncertainty about how it will work out.

2. Peer advice is also a double edged sword. Their familiarity with who you are can be helpful. However, a lot of college-age students simply project what they would do onto your situation. (The most explicit example of this is advice prefaced with, "If it were me, I would…") I think this is a developmental thing — it’s really hard to analyze options from somebody else’s perspective.

3. Lack of imagination also contributes to young people choosing work environments and activities that don’t make them happy. It’s hard to think of different types of jobs. Especially in non-vocational schools, we have limited exposure to professions beyond what our parents do and what our friends’ parents do. So, I think simply exposing students to more types of jobs would go a long way.

4. Your career path is not chosen at age 22 and then set in stone. We should de-emphasize the importance of your first job and celebrate the fact that switching careers is possible.

10 comments on “Helping Students Find Their Way
  • Disclaimer: I’m a middle-aged business guy who has been in the same industry for over 30 years. I’m also the parent of grown 20-something kids (both college grads). And I’ve spent time coaching college kids in sports.

    Here’s what I have found to be true:

    1. Very few college-aged young people know what they want to do, or what they’d be good at.

    2. Most young people are far more “experience-oriented” than my generation. They’re less driven by money as my generation (that’s a good thing).

    3. Their options are more vast than my generation’s at the same age. When my generation graduated college there was no Internet, no cell phones – and with technology has come a greater variety of options (choices) – and freedom.

    4. Despite the apparent need for guidance (from parents, coaches, teachers, etc.) – most young people I’ve encountered are far more receptive to input after the age of 25, even closer to 30. Very few consider being trapped by a job or career until they’re past 30 (and that’s not a bad thing).

    5. And many young people have superior social skills – and broader circles of influence – than my generation had at their age. They are connected. They have many friends and acquaintances. Life, for many of them, is more defined by these relationships (and experiences) than by personal quests (chasing a specific career).

    Just my observations.

  • The most important thing that people can do is to actually experience some of their choices. I doubt many of the folks who apply to law school have actually seen what life is like for a first year associate.

    Barring that, Gilbert’s principle of surrogates applies–talk to some older folks who have actually made their choices and really listen. Figure out if there are any folks with whom you’d trade your life.

  • All really interesting points. What do you think about psychometric tests and their possible use within school? Have a look at:
    Would be really interested in your comments.

    I think that students are far more equipped to understand what it is that they want and in fact how to get there now. My question is then how relevant are careers advisors in school? And what should be replaced by this out-of-date service.

  • Fantastic advice. I happen to stay in the same career path I began after high school, but I took a 3 year break in between to be a chef. The only thing I would add is to teach students to have realistic expectations without smashing any dreams. After all, we don’t all get to be astronauts when we grow up.

  • One thing that I have noticed is that when people offer their advice on how you should spend your time (whether it be a career, one summer, or what you study in college), they tend to focus disproportionately on the pros of whatever idea they are pushing. Even if they are broad-minded enough to weigh the cons, they still do not weigh the net benefit (pros minus cons) against the net benefits that would come from alternative uses of your time. Basically, they ignore costs, especially opportunity costs. This may be because they are not the one whose life/time is at stake, and therefore, they do not feel compelled to think very deeply about your particular situation.

    Nevertheless, seeking others’ input is a great way to get ideas from which you can make your own cost-benefit analyses.

  • When I was in high school, I wanted to go to art school and become a commercial artist. (That’s 1970s-speak for what is now called a graphic designer.)

    But the art teachers persuaded me to go to university, and that’s what I did. In honor of that change of direction, I redirected my career wannabees toward being a photojournalist.

    But one mass meeting at the campus paper put an end to my photojournalistic dreams. I was so intimidated that I left the meeting without signing up for the photo staff.

    I ended up majoring in economics. Only used that degree in one job, and that was a brief, miserable experience that I hope to never repeat.

    But those “wannabee when I grow up” dreams die hard. I did become a commercial artist/graphic designer in my mid-30s. And now, at the age of 50, I’m back behind the camera again. And, you guessed it, I bring a photojournalistic approach to my work.

    So, I guess the moral of the story to hold fast to your career dreams, no matter what the others tell you.

  • How about we start rethinking the idea of college? How about we stop viewing it as a stepping stone into the professional job world? How about we start viewing education as a way of viewing the world, thinking about things, and approaching problems, rather than a way of acquiring the tools to be financially successful?

    I worked throughout college. I think people working through college are forced to think about what they’re doing, become more aware of the professional options out there, and how to handle an actual job. It also requires excellent time management abilities and allows you to build a resume.

    To be honest, I’m getting a little tired of trust fund babies whining about their lack of professional insight when they’re riding on their parents’ funding to get through college.

  • Jesse,

    The irony of your comment is that the revised approach to college that you suggest in many ways is only available to trust fund babies.

    Most people can’t afford to think about college intellectually — it only serves as a stepping stone.

    Also, even if you work a job during college, it’s probably a menial one, which doesn’t provide much meaningful insight. Like, if you work at the school library or local cafe, that’s not really providing insight into a real career that you want to pursue.

  • I’m not so sure, Ben. I think making the connection between degree and career is up to the student primarily. After all, it’s about marketability, in the purest sense of striving for a career. If you can’t successfully convince an employer that the 4 years you spent getting degree was useful, then you either (a) didn’t think about what you were doing when you were getting your degree or (b) don’t deserve the degree, as you clearly aren’t that intelligent.

    I was a student of philosophy and history. I came out with my BA. During the course of school, I worked at a very well-paying internship in a robotics department at Sandia National Labs. I was good with machines and was exploring the possibilities of studying engineering–that’s how I spun it when I interviewed and that’s how it stayed. They were happy enough with my work that they kept me on throughout college even after I declared my intention to major in philosophy and history.

    I moved on after graduating and started a job freelance writing materials for TOEFL tests. In this case, I spun my highly refined writing abilities and analytical thinking (both traits of philosophy) to nab the job.

    Now I’m working with a lawyer before I head off to graduate school. I interviewed with him and explained that I was potentially interested in studying law.

    In each case, I made career choices that benefited me and helped me cross items off the list, all the while making a pretty penny for it. If people refuse to settle on the easy way out and instead actually approach the professional world while they’re still in college, this is a very real possibility. Arguing that the colleges should have some role in making the connection for them is ridiculous; the colleges are doing enough as it is.

  • @Jesse –

    “If people refuse to settle on the easy way out and instead actually approach the professional world while they’re still in college, this is a very real possibility.”

    I think the point Ben is making is that many students don’t even know this is an option or know where to go to learn more. It certainly was the case for me, a music ed. student in the eighties (though I’m sure the Internet makes it a lot easier these days). When I told my faculty adviser that I had decided not to become a teacher, the discussion was over. He never advised me on how to get a job in the real world because he had followed the education path his entire career. I may as well have been asking him how to get an engineering job at NASA.

    Likewise, the folks over in the careers office at the arts & sciences college had no idea what to do with a music major. This was not at Podunk U. It was Northwestern University in 1990.

    I’m not blaming them per se — I didn’t even realize I was good with computers until I was out of college and didn’t read any business mags or newspapers until then either — but they clearly were looking for a round hole to put me in even though I was a square peg.

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