Choosing what to study and a future career path may be one of the most crucial decisions in a person’s life. How should you go about it? And what you should consider?
Eddie Levisman is an educational counsellor and international education consultant, who specialises in helping students to make the transition from high school to university.
It is not surprising to learn that some people consolidate their career choices at a very young age – at times, ridiculously young ages.
I have had students over the years who ended up on this or that career path because of adolescent fantasy, strong parental influence, peer pressure or even an event as minute as a movie that impacted their lives in a uniquely profound way. It is not uncommon for people to enrol on university courses they had decided upon when they were as young as 10 years old!
I propose here, however, that this important, crucial life decision merits a bit more reflection and a systematic, smarter, decision-making process. After all, while universities in the United States allow until a student’s second year to firm up the decision, in Argentina the pressure mounts immediately from day one.
I often ask my students to reflect on the purpose of their career choice: are they aiming to work so that they can have a life, or do they plan to make work the chief purpose of their life? In other words, prioritising one’s values and life aspirations is central to a career choice. Choosing a career is not just about the marketplace or making ends meet, but rather a matrix of our very social fabric: the lifestyle, the people we interact with, the schools our kids will attend and so forth. A career choice, far more than a means to survive financially, is a means to accomplish self-realisation, life satisfaction… happiness, if you will.
I am not a great believer in tests and instruments that will tell you what you need to study in university. No psychologist can see what is in your head by administering even the ‘best’ of vocational instruments. These, at most, can serve as a guide or, perhaps, a discussion lead.
I do maintain that choosing a path involves a personal and intimate inward journey, much reflection and a lot of work. Too often young people today are reluctant to spend the effort needed for this process to be effective, and therefore too many of them fall victim to inappropriate career choices. The price for that wrong decision appears sometimes many years later in life, when it is too late to change lanes.
How does one embark on this journey of self-exploration? First, it is important to note a crucial point: there is a difference between a career aspiration and a chosen subject, a university major. A career is what one sees in the distance, the end goal, the activity that one wants to be engaged in for life. By contrast, choosing a university major is only one step to getting there.
For example, a student may aspire to be involved with multinational companies and to work their way to the top, as a chief executive officer or chief financial officer. That’s a general description of the career environment, but does it indicate which major she should take up at university? Not necessarily. One can reach their desired goals by choosing diverse courses, for instance, from business administration to engineering or computer programming. By the same token, just as several majors may lead to the same career end goal, one major may lead to a diverse range of careers at the end. As you can appreciate, the search is a bit more complex than just choosing lightly. How many people do you know that started with an idea of a course but ended up in a seemingly very different career? I certainly know many.
Students must focus first on their comfort zone. By way of simplification let us agree that university careers fall into three main domains: numbers, letters and the arts (there may also be several possible combinations of these). The first task, then, is for students to identify with clarity which group is their natural zone. I believe most of us know quite early on where we fall in this regard. When I question students about it, they never have a problem answering immediately. They know. In addition, by knowing and accepting our comfort zone, they can proceed to narrow down a natural pathway.
Digging a bit deeper within themselves, students can now explore three key components of any choice related to a career pathway: interests, strengths and personality. It is clearly self-explanatory that these three categories are defining in any major or career choice. It is here that students must spend most of their time and effort in order to make a precise decision. However, it is harder than it appears, let me assure you.
Try it yourself: what are your true passions? What are your five most notorious strengths? What majors best fit your most prominent personality traits and what are they? This process may require some form of systematic exploration, perhaps with the help of another person to serve as a sounding board.
Identifying your most important skills – referred to as “strength mining” – needs to be matched with the marketplace. By way of humour: if your most prominent skill is hunting, your time in history has long passed! We no longer employ hunters and this activity, while able to lead you to pleasure and some fulfilment, will hardly help you earn a living.
There is a great need to confront reality in this process. Not only is it crucial to identify what pathway match your strengths and which careers will be best serve by them, but also checking in with reality regarding how good you really are! That is one of the hardest tasks facing adolescents today as they enter a very harsh and competitive labour market.
An essential component of this reality check also involves understanding the market environments that the 21st century is generating: fast-moving, rapidly changing with very short cycles of technology innovation. You might want to warm up to threatening terms like “disruptive innovation” and “obsolescence,” both insinuating of the characteristics of the future in terms of marketplace trends. Furthermore, we are living in times dominated by a tyranny of the so-called ‘STEM’ careers (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) that create pressure and divert many toward wrong choices. Do not fall prey to that either. Taking up engineering only because it promises to pay better, may not be the wisest decision in the end.
Likewise, beware of parental and/or peer pressure. Your parents may see the world with different eyes and their own personal needs really should not have any bearing on your career/life choices. Choosing a path only because your friends have done so, is not a rational argument either. In the end – like it or not – this decision is a personal one and you are in it all by your lonesome.
The last key component of the decision has to do with your values. What is important to you as a person and a human being? What sort of life you want to lead and what people you want to surround yourself with? Do you value money over everything else, or do you prefer to be in love with what you get in the morning for in the next 50 years? These are not poetic matters but rather the essence of what you choose your life to be about – and we all have different ways to resolve it.
One last thing by way of food for thought: much is being said these days about the decline of university pathways. Many consider that this modality is outdated and, perhaps, no longer needed. After all, many of the most “successful” people of our generation – Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg – did not finish university, or did not start it at all. What do you think?