career choice

When Should a Student Select Their Professional Path?

If you had asked 17-year-old me what I hoped to study in college, I would have told you that I was going to study medicine and become a doctor. Everyone I knew assumed that by the time I turned 26, I’d be Thomas Broderick, M.D.

So that didn’t happen.

My story mirrors that of many of my high school and college peers. My best friend, once an aspiring computer engineer, became a Japanese/English translator. Another friend earned a degree in chemical engineering but now works at a TOP SECRET government facility which may or may not have something to do with chemicals. Most surprising of all, my high school’s theater star went on to invent the Nest Thermostat.

Long story short: a person’s professional path isn’t a straight line.

In this article, we’ll examine why American high school and college students rarely have a grasp on their professional future. We’ll also explore the steps you can take right now to ensure that your career path starts off on the right foot.

American College Students vs. International College Students

If you lived 100 years ago (or today in a developing nation), chances are that you wouldn’t have much choice concerning your career. The economic needs of your family, coupled with limited access to higher education, would lock you into one of only a handful of career paths.

After the Second World War, millions of Americans gained access to higher education. With higher education came the opportunity for young men and women to pursue careers beyond those performed by their parents or those living in their community. That was great!

But…

Choice is a blessing and a curse. Too many options can be just as bad as too few. Our college culture, focused on exploring your interests, does little to help students who are undecided about their futures. On graduation day, too many people still have no idea what job will provide them both personal satisfaction and a fair salary.

How about young adults in foreign countries? Do they have this problem? Well, it depends. For example, higher education doesn’t mean the same thing in every country. In Germany, many high school graduates further their educations through apprenticeships. Though apprentices learn only one skill set, the economic advantages of completing an apprenticeship convince young Germans to choose their career paths at a young age.

In other developed countries, such as Japan, young people choose their career path early due to societal expectations rather than economic incentives. In Japanese culture, one’s decisions and actions reflect on one’s family as well as oneself. Combined with the belief in the wellbeing of the group over the wellbeing of the individual, many young Japanese choose a career path in high school.

Do young German and Japanese students always stick to the career paths they make in high school? Of course not! This revelation brings us to my main point:

Preferences Change (And That’s Okay!)

As a high school student, I bet you’ve seen or been a part of at least one nasty breakup. Two people who once said that they’d ‘be together forever’ can’t stand the sight of one another. It’s a natural part of the high school experience; people change, and so their preferences.

The same thing is accurate when it comes to your future career. Today you may want to become a doctor. Tomorrow it’s engineering. At your age, switching back and forth or between a dozen different things is okay!

Don’t believe me? Let’s examine the data. myKlovr recently performed a survey of 106 adults who were asked when they decided on their current career path. The numbers speak for themselves.


The vast majority of those surveyed decided upon their professional path while in college or later in life. Only 21% chose their career as a high school-aged student or younger. What this means is that if you’re still on the fence about your future, don’t sweat it. Most of your peers are in the same boat.

What You Can Do Now

If you’re still in high school, it’s time to start thinking about your future. When I say you should think, I do mean more than just sitting around like The Thinker. Here are a few proactive steps you can take to explore future careers before you enter college:

  • Complete a summer internship in a field that interests you.
    • Besides opening your eyes to different career paths, internships look great in your college application portfolio!
  • Take a few career interest tests to discover potential career paths that you may have never considered in the past.
  • Research the academic and professional requirements related to your current dream job(s).

It never hurts to get a part-time job, either. If nothing else, it’ll help you develop a professional work ethic that’ll impress future employers.

When You Get to College

By all means, take a semester or a year to explore different subjects. After that, it’s time to make some tough decisions, especially if you’re attending a private university with a hefty price tag. Choose a professional path and complementary academic major.

If you’re still not sure about your career path when it comes times to select a major, include a minor or second major that addresses your other interests. Though a double major or minor means that your college experience will be more academically rigorous, your options will remain open. Hopefully, as you get closer to graduation, your career preferences will solidify.

Final Thoughts

I hope that by having read this article, you feel a bit better about what the future might hold for you. Yes, you have a lot of work to do, both the soul-searching and academic varieties. Even so, the sooner you start working towards the future you want, the likelier it is that you can turn your dreams into reality.

How Do I Help My Child Choose a Major… or Even a Career?

As a teenager, my father told me I had two career choices: dental hygienist or secretary. Both ideas filled me with fear, so much so that I made a point to never learn to type so there’d be no chance of becoming a secretary. My dad was a professional ballet dancer. When I was born, he became a dental technician to make money and never danced again. He wasn’t happy in his new profession, but he felt strongly that you couldn’t support a family as an artist.

I grew up watching a lot of TV and it occurred to me that maybe I could do one of the jobs listed in the end credits that ran after each show. I left Baltimore, went to NYU film school and then headed to Los Angeles. I am proud to say I have managed to make a career in the creative arts. I tried a “straight” job once. After college I briefly worked in a real estate office. I wore tight skirts and itchy sweaters, stockings and high heels. I never felt more uncomfortable. I moved from that job into a position at a scenic shop where I could wear paint covered clothes and work into the wee hours. I was lucky to find a career that suited me; I was not suited for a career in a suit.

My daughter is different than me. She is comfortable wearing a suit during debate tournaments and not interested in a career in the arts. Her brother, however, wants nothing but a career in the arts. He hates to dress up, unless it’s in a costume on a stage.

On the college tours we have gone on, administrators consistently tell students that college is a time to explore what interests them and during that exploration they might just discover something they’d never even thought about. Just yesterday at a luncheon sponsored by one of the schools my daughter is applying to, an alumnus explained how she went into college as a pre-med major, but discovered she was good at and passionate about economics. So she switched majors and went on to enjoy a successful career in economics.

I guess working in the arts has allowed me the freedom to explore many jobs, but not necessarily secure a paycheck during my early years of exploration. But I never feared that I couldn’t find a job. I had a strong education and wasn’t afraid to be unemployed.

I agree with the administrators that college is a time for exploration. Not many eighteen year-olds have a clear idea of what they want to do, nor should they. My attitude and lifestyle isn’t for everyone. But maybe I saw how changed my dad was after he stopped dancing. No matter what my kids wind up doing for their career, I hope they’ll always keep dancing.

How Early Is Too Early To Talk About College?

“Don’t even think about discussing college until their Junior year of high school. They are under too much pressure already. “

“Kindergarten. That’s when you start talking college.”

Two conflicting ideas during a small parent panel discussion at my son’s high school college night.

The second parent explained, since she never went to college, it was important her kids grow up understanding that they will. “College might not be for everyone, but in my house college is for you.”

sfw_risd_richardbarnes_1When my son started reading he claimed he was going to go to Ukla for college. I wasn’t sure what he meant until I saw signs on busses advertising UCLA. This early reader was pronouncing UCLA as the one word: Ukla. I can pinpoint that moment as to when we started explaining what college meant. At the time he was very much into drawing so we told him about Rhode Island School of Design (RISDI). We’d spend hours looking through their online catalogue especially at the Nature Lab where you could check out all sorts of taxidermy, shells minerals, seed pods to take back to your dorm room to draw. This was very exciting to an eight year-old. Now at fifteen, RISDI is not so much on his mind. He’s shifted his interests and thinks RISDI might be too limiting.

art-center-south-campus2In sixth grade, his friend’s dad took a carload of kids to The Art Center of Pasadena, his alma mater. It was the seniors open studio week and happened to be our school’s spring break. I went with them and what I thought would be an hour tour turned into a whole day. The twelve year-olds were fascinated walking through the open studios looking at the work. The dad had been a car design major and walked them through that studio with such care and enthusiasm pointing out renderings and models. By the time we left, all the kids declared Art Center was for them.

These early ideas about college leave good impressions but may not leave standing ones. I can’t help but think when a parent shows interest in college from an enthusiastic personal point of view, it will rub off on the kids. So introducing the idea early gets my vote.

 

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