The end of a term is challenging for college students as they complete final projects and take exams.
But for many students, another big challenge comes after the term is completed and the grades are determined.
That’s when they go home and are asked by their parents, relatives and others who know them in the community: “What do you plan to do after you graduate?”
Students (even freshmen) often feel like they should know what their career goal is. But many aren’t sure or are hesitant to announce career goals in case all doesn’t go as planned.
I was reminded of students’ career concerns when I recently observed a graduate student teaching assistant who was teaching the last lab of the semester.
He ended class by asking how many students knew what their career goals were. About a third raised their hands…with a few more raising their hands, it seemed, as they thought they should know.
The graduate student then told his own story. He had earned his undergraduate degree and had internships. But when he graduated, he realized he didn’t want to pursue the career he had selected when he was a freshman.
So instead of applying for jobs in the field, he took a job completely in a different field just to try out another career option. After a year, he applied to graduate school. He is now pursuing a doctorate in an area related to his undergraduate major but with a very different career focus.
I could see his students listening closely as he told that it was okay not to know what career you wanted to be in or to change majors.
He made his student must less anxious as they complete the term and go home to face the “What are you going to do when you graduate?” question.
What we want to do, as instructors — in addition to helping students not be stressed out about not knowing their career goals — is help students work toward making those important career decisions.
How to learn more about potential career
Here are some steps I suggest to students to help them learn about careers and themselves.
- Take courses in the field. Each course provides additional information and insights into the field and provides readings and assignments that let you see how your interests and skills match with those required in the field.
- Join a professional organization related to the field. Professional organizations host guest speakers and are involved in projects that provide career-related experience. When possible, attend the professional organization’s regional or national conference to learn more about the field and to make contacts.
- Talk with your instructors about preparing for a job in the field. The contacts you make during office hours or before/after class can help you develop a rapport with the instructor that can be helpful when the time arrives that you need a recommendation for a job or graduate school.
- Talk with upperclassmen about their experiences with upper division courses and internships. Identifying and getting to know successful upperclassmen can help you cultivate peer mentors.
- Attend events and guest speakers related to the field of interest. Not only will the professional organization provide opportunities, but your university and the community will have activities that can be helpful to you as you explore your career interests.
- Volunteer or job shadow with someone in the field of interest. Sometimes a starting point for such opportunities is to talk with a guest speaker after the presentation or followup with an email.
- Identify businesses, organizations and individuals related to the field of interest and learn more by checking their websites or following them on social media.
- Reach out to individuals in the field to ask questions. Social media and email are great ways to make contact. Be sure to be professional in your writing and realize the person you contact may not respond immediately.
How relatives can help in career planning
I also tell students that when they are asked by relatives about their career plans, use the question as a way to open the door to a discussion or request.
- Ask your relatives how they made their career decisions and what advice they’d give you.
- Ask them if they know anyone in the field that you could contact about volunteering or job shadowing.
- If appropriate, mention a possible career-related gift they could give you, such as a book related to the field or money to be used toward an interview outfit or attending a professional conference. (If you ask for money for a career-related expense, be sure you spend the money as stated. You can send a photo of you in your interview outfit or attending the conference.)
How to develop job-readiness
Talk with students about the value of volunteer and work experience that can help them prepare for a career, even if they aren’t sure what their career choice is or can’t find a job directly connected to the field.
Many organizations and businesses are particularly interested in potential employees who have job-readiness skills and an outlook that will make them successful in a work setting.
For example, as a volunteer with a community group or an employee at a restaurant, the student can demonstrate being punctual, being dependable, taking initiative, being able to accept criticism, working well with colleagues and supervisors, being able to complete assigned tasks, etc.
Being a good volunteer or employee will enable the student to gain a potential reference.
Those volunteer and work experiences also can lead to unexpected insights into new career opportunities and help the student gain more self-confidence.
Use your opportunity as a teacher — and use your own experiences, like the teaching assistant did — to help students think about how they can make progress in making career decisions. They can take steps every semester to learn more about career options and more about themselves.