Categorized | Advice

Career Decision Making Process

Posted on 21 October 2009

You’re in the market for a used car, and you’ve saved $1,500 to buy one. Lucky for you, I’m trying to sell my 1989 Toyota Camry and, according to my classified ad, I only want $1,500.

So you come to my house to talk about it. From my ad, you know that the car is rust free, that it’s been meticulously maintained and that those once-in-a-lifetime car repairs have been made. I echo these facts to you in person, assuring you that I’ve done my best to take care of the vehicle since I bought it at the 125,000-mile mark.

Convinced, you hand over the $1,500 and leave with the car — right?

Of course not. You wouldn’t consider buying the car at this point. I may have assured you about the car’s performance, but why should you take my word for it? You’d want to take a test drive, to see if it runs as well as I claim. You might even take the car to a mechanic you trust for an independent evaluation of its condition.

In other words, even if you believe I’m sincere and telling you everything I know about the car, you’d want other opinions. You’d try to gather information from experts who have no vested interest, knowing that you’re making a big investment and may want to keep the car for a long time. Besides, the information I’ve provided is just a small part of the picture, and, since you don’t know how ethical or mechanically knowledgeable I am, you can’t be sure if it’s true.

With this example fresh in your mind, think about how you’ve gone about choosing a career. Given the large amounts of time, money and effort involved, wouldn’t it be wise to take the same critical approach for buying a used car to exploring and deciding on your career?

What’s the Truth?

All too often, I’ve seen college students decide on professions without challenging their own and others’ beliefs, assumptions and perceptions. They may ask a few questions, then say “here’s what I’ve heard” without finding out if it’s true.

Using limited and sometimes inaccurate information “is the predominant way for students to make career plans and decisions,” says Mark Schappert, associate director of career services at Le Moyne College in Syracuse, N.Y. “It’s the exception rather than the rule when someone takes a lot of time and says, ‘Let me look at who I am and gather lots of information on alternatives and what they’re all about.’ Instead, we tend to operate based on our own limited view of the world and of careers and career options.”

One problem, of course, is that given your student obligations, you’re likely pressed for time. Another is that not knowing about something can be unnerving. It’s easier to just blindly accept what you hear. I know — I did the same thing as an undergraduate. “This could sound flip, but 100% of students fall into this trap” of believing career myths, says Paul Fornell, associate director of the career development center at California State University at Long Beach. “All students — traditional and nontraditional — are walking around with untested assumptions, values and beliefs.”

Serious Consequences

It’s risky to let your unexamined beliefs and perceptions get in the way of learning about various careers. The consequences can be fear-provoking at best and tragic at worst.

A recent graduate of La Salle University in Philadelphia felt she had wasted a year of college because her roommates persuaded her to switch her major to business from her real love — religion/philosophy, says Genevieve Carlton, the university’s associate director for career planning.

“They’d told her she wouldn’t get a job if she pursued a religion/philosophy degree like she really wanted to,” says Carlton. “Ultimately she did switch majors, but when it came to looking for a job after graduation, she was almost afraid to come to our office — because she feared we’d agree with her roommates.”

The student completed a resume and cover letter and did some research on potential employers. A week later, she landed a job as a researcher with a publishing company. “In this case, there was a happy ending, but this student still carried a fear through four years of school that she was going to be unemployable,” says Carlton. “She would have saved herself a lot of anxiety if she’d done some digging beyond what her roommates told her.”

Even more troubling, some students abandon career aspirations based on misconceptions about themselves or their desired profession. How many times have you heard a fellow student (or yourself) say something like, “I wanted to go into teaching but my dad told me there’s no money in it,” or “I’ve thought about computer programming but I don’t want to sit around in front of a computer screen programming all day.” It would be tragic to rule out your dream job based on unchallenged or inaccurate beliefs developed by listening to your peers, your parents, the media or other sources.

Four Guidelines

A more sensible way is to treat career exploration the same way you would when shopping for a used car or any other important purchase. Consider these basic principles:

1. Never assume.

Just as you wouldn’t assume that I’m telling you the truth about my car or that I know everything about cars, don’t assume that you — or other people — know everything about a career you’re considering. You likely know only a fraction of the relevant available information, and you must do serious research to learn the rest.

2. Gather information from a variety of sources.

If you’re considering a particular field, don’t just ask your roommate about it. Talk to professors in the department. Visit your school’s career services office and discuss the major with a counselor. Ask for literature about the field. Many career services offices have print or online brochures entitled “What Can I Do with a Major In?” Also ask for the names of alumni who pursued the major you’re considering and who would be willing to talk to you about their jobs and careers.

3. Critically evaluate your sources.

Attending college is about learning to become a critical thinker — and that certainly applies here. Think carefully about your sources of information on careers. How do your parents, friends and roommates compare with the U.S. Department of Labor when it comes to knowing trends in various industries? Who can give you a better sense of what it’s like to be a professional dancer: a dance professor or your faculty adviser from the psychology department?

4. “Test drive” your ideas.

Most campuses help students “try out” a career path without committing to it. If you’re thinking of becoming an accountant, for example, your school’s career services office or business department might arrange for you to “shadow” an accountant for a day or week to learn first hand the profession’s pros and cons.

Similarly, consider applying for internships that allow you to earn credits in your major and explore a career more extensively. And don’t underestimate the value of a strategically selected part-time job, which can give you a good idea of what a career or industry is really like.

Following these guidelines requires more time and effort than just late-night gabbing with fraternity buddies or dorm mates. When you settle on a career, you’re making an investment in yourself and your future. How you approach it could mean the difference between “the road not taken” and an exciting, fulfilling career.

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1 Comments For This Post

  1. ashlee says:

    I’m debating if I should get a masters or some experience in the field, some I’m currently using Acceptedge and research to narrow my college choices down. I hope I’m making the right “career” decision by opting out of the work market and straight to more schooling though.

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