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.

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