On Being Lost

Melanie BufordMelanie Buford, Program Coordinator/Adjunct Instructor, Career Development Center, University of Cincinnati
LinkedIn: www.linkedin.com/in/mebuford/
Website: www.melaniebuford.org

A senior psychology major came into my office the other day. She dropped her bag, plopped down into a chair and said “I’m lost!”

With relatively little prompting, the story came out. She already knew her long term goal: to be a child and family therapist. A faculty mentor had recommended a graduate program for her, and, doing very little of her own research, she applied to the program and turned her attention back to school. She was accepted, fortunately, but upon learning more about it, she realized that it was a business focused program, not a therapeutic one.

“That’s disappointing,” I said, “But it sounds like you have a good sense of what you’d like to do in the short term – graduate school – and the long term – child and family therapy.”

“No,” said the student, “you don’t understand. I’m lost. What will I do now? Program deadlines have passed. I can’t go to graduate school now. I have to wait a whole-‘nother-year!”

How often does “I’m lost” mean “things didn’t turn out as I expected?”

Here’s the thing, and it’s something I tell students over and over in spite of the fact that it doesn’t reassure them at all: The best careers, just like the best lives, aren’t linear.

So many people are paralyzed by the idea of choosing a career – at the age of 20 – that they’ll have to spend the rest of their lives on. This is entirely reasonable. And yet, students seem equally intimidated by the idea that their career will change and evolve in natural and unpredictable ways.

Very few people look up as a junior in college and plan out a 40-year career during which everything happens exactly as they expect it to and they are perfectly successful and satisfied. How incredibly uninspiring that would be. The purpose of college career goals isn’t to remain unchanged for half a lifetime, but instead, to interact with the world and be changed. Our mission is to let the world change us, not to make it to the finish line exactly as we started.

The most interesting people will tell you that they never could’ve predicted where their careers would end up. This is why their stories are interesting, and this is why people want to learn from them. We are inspired by people who are open to life and let it change them, people who evolve in unexpected ways.

We instinctively know this is true. Most of our career advice has this idea at its core.

Take the somewhat controversial mantra – “follow your passion.” Cal Newport* and others have come to challenge this advice as, at best, misleading, and, at worst, harmful. But there is wisdom embedded here and it isn’t “ignore practicality,” but rather, “be open to inspiration.”

The near universal emphasis on networking is yet another example. Yes, networking is indispensable in finding a job in your field of interest. This is undeniably true. But the hidden value of networking is to expose you to people and ideas outside of your comfort zone. Your family and friends typically want to help you achieve the goals you’ve identified right now. Networking exposes you to people who don’t know your background, your goals, or the ways that you may already be limiting yourself. This opens you up to serendipity, and serendipity will push you to evolve.

“I’m lost” can be the beginning of amazing things but it’s not a place of comfort.  It can, however, be a place of humility. It is often when we’re most unsure of ourselves that we’re most open to new directions.

This was the case for my senior psychology major.  After a full session during which we discussed several possible options for her newfound open year, I brought her focus back to the long-term goal of becoming a child and family therapist.

“Did it occur to you,” I asked, “that many of the clients you will work with as a therapist will have come to you because they’re feeling disappointed and lost?  Might this experience of disappointment, and perhaps a few more down the road, help to make you a better, more empathetic therapist?” Her nod was reluctant.

Our lives are full of surprises. If, as a young professional, you’re struggling with the overwhelming task of figuring out your future, I encourage you to tackle it one step at a time. If you’re still in school, focus on creating a plan for what you’ll do the year after graduation, rather than what you want to do with the “rest of your life.” Go to workshops, meet new people, travel if you can. These things will inspire you to set new goals. Most importantly, be patient with the process.

Embrace your failures and “lost” years as something inevitable and challenging. Delays to your plan can be opportunities to improve and refine it. Don’t waste these opportunities. Take full advantage.

*Newport, C. (2012). ‘Follow Your Passion’ is Bad Advice [Video file]. Retrieved from http://99u.com/videos/22339/cal-newport-follow-your-passion-is-bad-advice.

NACE member schools can pick up a copy of this blog for their websites in NACEWeb’s Grab & Go area.

Encourage Students to Tolerate Uncertainty and to Take Risks

Melanie BufordMelanie Buford, Program Coordinator/Adjunct Instructor, Career Development Center, University of Cincinnati
LinkedIn: www.linkedin.com/in/mebuford/
Website: www.melaniebuford.org

It’s amazing how the title of Jullien Gordon’s TED Talk, “How to graduate college with a job you love and less debt” resonates with students.  Their enthusiasm is all the more remarkable in its rarity. Most of my students are attending the University full-time, while simultaneously supporting themselves with at least one part-time job. They come to my class already exhausted, so when they ask me if they can stay late just to finish Gordon’s talk, I am always equal parts shocked and gratified. Clearly, this is a subject students are interested in.

Jullien Gordon is a kind of Millennial whisperer. He travels around the country speaking not only to students, but to staff, parents and faculty about how to engage Millennials in higher education. One of the things I appreciate about Gordon is that he’s direct. He doesn’t try to soften the truth about career by promoting college completion as a magical key to success. In fact, within the first few minutes of his talk, he challenges students to re-think what success really means – to them, to society, to their parents, friends and teachers. He encourages Millennials to redefine achievement so that they’ll be motivated to make the most of their college experience.

When I last showed his talk, I engaged the class in a discussion about the pros and cons of letting someone else make your major and career decisions for you. One first-year student summed it up perfectly: “you lose freedom, but you don’t have to deal with uncertainty!” After this speech, he put his head down on his desk. I asked for a show of hands. How many of them enjoy the feeling of uncertainty? No hands went up. They gave me pained looks. I imagine this might be why they’ve registered for a class on career decision-making.

I empathize. Taking responsibility for your own success or failure is difficult enough. Having to make choices about what your success will look like, at 18, is more difficult still. It’s a big ask, but I think students appreciate when we’re honest with them about what’s expected. They resonate with Gordon’s transparency. They understand the concept of competition, and the signs on the wall, even in school, are increasingly clear.

If someone asked me to name the most important role a career counselor plays in the life of a college student, I wouldn’t talk about major requirements, or internships, or resume and cover letters, or even preparing for the long weeks of the job search. The most challenging, and important, part of my job, is encouraging students to tolerate uncertainty and to take risks. These skills are critical in our current job market, where technology is transforming entire fields in a space of a few years.

As Gordon implies, risks often mean sacrifices. Students may not be able to graduate with the perfect major, have a 4.0 GPA, lead three student organizations, and get the internship experience they need to be successful. No one can do it all. But if a student has a passion for travel, it may be more important for them to study abroad than to have a perfect GPA. These risks may pay off in unexpected ways, but they take courage in the short-term.

Career professionals have the opportunity to help students strategize as they decide where and how to take risks in school. Success in college is about more than just completion, it’s about preparing for the realities of post-graduate life.

Developing Career Goals Holistically

Melanie BufordMelanie Buford, Program Coordinator/Adjunct Instructor, Career Development Center, University of Cincinnati
LinkedIn: www.linkedin.com/in/mebuford/
Website: www.melaniebuford.org

Dan Blank, a career coach who works primarily with creative professionals, offers the following advice in his webinar “Take Back Your Creative Life.”

“Career goals should not be formed in isolation. You must take into account all of your responsibilities (personal and professional), and be sure to account for your own well-being. This includes physical and mental health.” Blank encourages his clients to integrate their career and personal goals in order to set themselves up for success.

Many undergraduate students start their career decision-making process by selecting a major based on the subjects they enjoyed in high school. Students interested in majoring in one of the applied sciences tend to follow this pattern. Several students I’ve worked with tell me they’ve chosen to major in engineering because they were “smart” in high school or strong in math and science, but they don’t know much about the field itself. Time and again, these students arrive at the career development center wondering why they’re not more interested in the engineering coursework and field experiences.

The problem isn’t engineering. The problem is that these students formed career goals in isolation. They didn’t consider the environment they’d be working in, the physical location of their organization, the skills they enjoy developing and want to build on, or the ways they hope to grow as people and as professionals. Fortunately, the University of Cincinnati provides a co-op program that allows engineering students to get full-time work experience before graduation.

Career goals, increasingly, need to be formed holistically. Gone are the days when choosing a career was simply a matter of matching your best school subject to an industry. The market is volatile; new opportunities are being created and other avenues are becoming less viable. A law career isn’t the safe choice it once was, and the nonprofit world has expanded to include diverse organizations tackling new social issues. It’s more common that professionals will relocate to a new city for a job opportunity, and more workers than ever are changing jobs and moving to new sectors over the course of their careers.

We are facing the so-called “paradox of choice.” Research has demonstrated that if we are presented with more opportunities, decision-making becomes more difficult and satisfaction less likely.

When a student steps into a career development office today, they’re faced with a much broader set of options than they would have been 30 years ago. They could go to medical school in their hometown or they could spend two years in the Peace Corps and teach grade school students in Lithuania. They could go to graduate school for computer science or launch a start-up with friends based on their ideas for a new app.

In order to make these decisions, students have to consider not only what talents they have, but what kind of life they want to lead.

It is critical, therefore, that students take a holistic approach to developing their career goals. We encourage them to apply this lens both to themselves and to the field they’re considering. Here are a few questions students should consider during the career exploration process:

What skills do I have and want to develop?

What type of work environment might best fit my temperament?

What type of diversity do I hope to have in my work environment?

How is the industry I’m considering expected to evolve in the next few decades?

What city, state, or country might I want to live in?

What have my career goals been and how have they changed?

What role would I like technology to play in my career?

How important is stability to me and how willing am I to take risks?

Each of these questions will take time to answer as students develop more clarity on their identities and values. Is it any wonder career goals formed at age 18 often feel premature? These are questions we wrestle with throughout our lives.

To me, this only underscores the importance of committing to a continuous career development process, not just for students, but for graduates. Attempting to build your life looking only through a narrow lens of career is bound to work against your happiness. We must support students around this process by acknowledging its complexity and encouraging them to consider the multiple implications of a potential career path.

NACE members can pick up a student-directed version of this blog, Develop Your Career Goals Holistically, in Grab & Go.

Sources:

Blank, Dan. (2015). Take Back Your Creative Life Webinar. We Grow Media.

Cole, Marine. (2014). U.S. Job Market Has Changed Dramatically in 15 Year. The Fiscal Times. http://www.thefiscaltimes.com/Articles/2014/05/15/How-US-Job-Market-Has-Changed-Dramatically-15-Years

Hedges, Kristi. (2012). The Surprising Poverty of Too Many Choices. Forbes. http://www.forbes.com/sites/work-in-progress/2012/11/26/the-surprising-poverty-of-too-many-choices/.

 

Is Career Counseling for Everyone?

Melanie BufordMelanie Buford, Program Coordinator/Adjunct Instructor, Career Development Center, University of Cincinnati
LinkedIn: www.linkedin.com/in/mebuford/
Website: www.melaniebuford.org

The other day, a colleague posed an intriguing question. I told her about my work in the career center at the University of Cincinnati, and after a contemplative pause, she said:

“Do you think career counseling is for everyone? I felt lost after graduation, but my husband never used career services. He knew what he wanted to do and he’s doing well now.”

I’m sure that most of us don’t find this surprising. Though a great many students come to career services desperate for some sort of post-graduate direction, there are certainly those who have chosen a path and may only want another set of eyes on their resume or some similarly light support. There are still those who never come at all, likely relying on their friends, family, and the Internet to fill in their gaps.

Of course, I can only speak from my own experience, but I believe that there are benefits to one-on-one career counseling that even the most prepared would find helpful. A few of those benefits are:

Career counseling creates space for exploration.

For every student who struggles to choose one career direction, there are those who have prematurely narrowed their options. Students bring different strengths and personalities to the career development process. Decisiveness can certainly be an asset, but so can the ability to tolerate the uncertainty of exploration. The best decisions combine reflection and action, and career counseling provides the space and support to do both.

Career counseling prepares students for a changing job market.

We know that as technology, Millennials, and global communication reshape the world of work, the relevance of today’s positions isn’t guaranteed. If a student chooses to pursue one career today, there is no guarantee that technology may not eliminate the need for that work before that student reaches retirement. With self-driving cars on the horizon, who’s to say what human services we’ll need in another 30 years? Students need to be familiar with current market trends, and the variety of talents and interests they have to offer. This knowledge, combined with the ability to self-promote, will prepare them for the possibility that their career of choice may not always be a viable path.

Career counseling provides frameworks and language for grappling with career challenges yet to come.

A core component of most career development programming is some sort of personality or skills assessment. One thing that the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator tells you, for example, is whether or not you prefer introversion or extroversion. Those who prefer introversion tend to feel more comfortable in workspaces that allow for independent work and alone time to recharge and develop ideas. Those who prefer extroversion, on the other hand, tend to have a need for collaboration and the ability to work with other people for energy and inspiration.

One of the staff members at the UC Career Development Center tells a story about a young man she counseled a few years ago. We’ll call him David. David was an extremely hard-working student who graduated from UC’s College of Engineering and Applied Sciences with a near-perfect GPA. He was hired by a well-known tech company and was making a six-figure salary as a new graduate. Ostensibly, this was a career success story, and yet, within a few years, David came to us for help. He was shocked to find that despite his interest in the work, he was miserable in his new position. So much so that he reported feelings of exhaustion and hopelessness, classic symptoms of depression.

After a few sessions with David, it became clear that his unhappiness didn’t stem from the work itself, but from the environment. My colleague administered the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, and David reported a clear preference for extroversion. During a typical workday, however, he had almost no human contact, from the moment he arrived to the moment he left. Once David had language for interpreting this experience—that he had needed more interaction with people as part of his day—he was able to communicate this need to his supervisor. He was eventually moved to a new role as a sales representative for the product and was much more satisfied.

David knew he was unhappy in his role, but without the language for interpreting these feelings, he struggled to act on them. Even students who are satisfied in their current work may reach a point where their needs are no longer being fulfilled. Career counseling can provide a framework to understand why they aren’t thriving.

As many career development programs at public colleges and universities are being downsized, the relevance of one-on-one counseling will be an increasingly pressing issue. We will need to be innovative as we prepare students for a lifetime of career success, not simply a post-graduate job.