Helping Students Make Career Choices—in Time

That was once my job, helping students make career choices. Later, I helped adults make career changes.

Comparing the two, I learned a simple truth. Timing is crucial. When a person chooses a career can make all the difference.

I remember one of my clients, a student at the university. He sprawled in the chair across from me, absorbing the results of his Strong Interest Inventory. “Interior designer is one of my highest scores, ” he said. He told me how the design field fit well with other parts of his life. Excitement warming his voice, he added, “You know, I’d like to manage my own showroom someday.” Then he hopped up and hurried out of my office to declare a major in interior design.

I never saw that client again, but I bet he did in fact become an interior designer. I wouldn’t be surprised if he later managed his own showroom. Because he was a freshman or sophomore in college when he made his career choice—the perfect moment to pack his occupational snowball and set it rolling.

photo of snowball rolled to stop

Careers tend to snowball.

John Holland, an eminent vocational psychologist, wrote that “careers tend to snowball over the life course.” He meant, in part, that people tend to stick with their first career choice. Sadly, that seems to be true even when it’s a lousy fit.

For that reason, it was more gratifying when I was helping students make career choices. Many of my older clients could identify a more desirable occupation fairly quickly—but then they slowed to a standstill. Change was simply too difficult, when they had children and spouses, car payments and mortgages. Not to mention that prevailing plague of our present day: never enough time.

Research in decision-making confirms that people tend to stick with the status quo unless they are forced to change. Even if they are fired or laid off—a calamity with a silver lining—their options may appear limited. She lacks the time and money to retool, so she’ll stay the course and find a job similar to the one she loathed before she lost it. At least that way she can cash in on her work experience to buy groceries for her kids.

I myself had a tough time changing my career, and I was a young 26 with no dependents. Sure, there was some delight in discovering my calling. But I also suffered, taking the silver spoon from my mouth to scoop up beans and rice and mix in chunks of food bank cheese. In the process of exploring new directions, I encountered an astonishing number of people who said that the only thing I could do was teach English—when I’d only taught freshman composition on a part-time, temporary basis for one measly year of my life!

Here’s my point: It is appropriate to feel some urgency.

Young people do not have all the time in the world to make good career choices, particularly not when they’re specialists by nature. In posts to come, I’ll show you what you need to know, regarding helping students make career choices. Your student needs to pack a firm snowball and start rolling it in the right general direction. That way, she won’t later find herself hurtling down the wrong hill, gathering girth until she’s smashed into a snow bank, her self-esteem, her happiness, and her earning potential all buried in the cold.

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