Career Planning Pitfalls for Post-Secondary Students

“It was always assumed that I would go to university. My parents expected it of me, and here I am having tried a mix of courses and I’m totally lost about which major is right for me.” Kerry, age 18

“I chose my program because people say there will always be lots of high paying jobs in this field. But I hate my courses and wonder if I should switch or just finish what I started.” Pat, age 19

These statements are all too common among post-secondary students, some of whom really struggle with their career direction. Students are faced with new sources of stress as they embark on post-secondary education, including:

  • Much heavier course loads and reading/studying requirements than they faced in high school.
  • Financial pressures or the knowledge that choosing the wrong program is costly in terms of time and money.

Adding career decision making to the above sources of stress can feel overwhelming. While struggling to attain high grades, which is now more challenging than in high school, many students face questions about whether they’ve chosen the right program.

At Calgary Career Counselling we’ve worked with many post-secondary students from universities, colleges and polytechnics, who are confused about their career direction. When we meet with these students to better understand what led them to their choice of program, we often find that they made their decision based on very limited information, also known as “career planning pitfalls”. These three career planning pitfalls are how many students choose their program and major, yet should be avoided:

Pitfall #1 – Relying on Word of Mouth – We often hear things about careers from family, friends and the media, such as: “don’t do that, there are no good jobs” or “you can’t make a career out of that, it should be a hobby” or “he does that career and it makes a lot of money.” Any such statements should be validated by career research that involves truly understanding certain careers and speaking to people in your top careers of choice.

Pitfall #2 – Pressure from Others – Young adults often face pressure to pursue a certain career. It may be a family expectation that they follow a “prestigious” career path, like becoming a doctor or lawyer. Or they may be pressured to follow in their father’s or mother’s footsteps. Even entering the family business can be a direction to which they are being pushed. We have seen many people in their 30s and 40s who chose careers based on this pressure, later regretting their decision and switching careers after many unhappy years doing what others thought they should. Instead, career decisions should come from within, and be based on a person’s interests, passions, personality, values, skills and talents.

Pitfall #3 – Favourite Course – A third common pitfall is choosing a career direction based on a favourite course in high school. Enjoying or doing well in a particular course may indicate an area of interest or aptitude, but is not nearly enough information on which to base a career decision. Instead, looking for a pattern of interest across a number of courses (i.e., the sciences and math or English and Social Studies or Creative Arts), is an important first step. Career counselling can help reveal one’s patterns of interest, and combine these with values and personality to help zero in on an ideal career direction.

Overall, we have found that people often underestimate how much information is required to make good career decisions and tend to rely on inadequate information or ineffective decision making processes. We hope the above pitfalls, and ways to avoid them, prove helpful and we encourage students to take the time necessary to find their passion and choose their ideal career path.

Laura Hambley, Ph.D., R.Psych. (Calgary Career Counselling)