College student career development refers to the processes involved in making career decisions and the outcomes of those decisions for individuals in college. According to developmental theories of career decision making, traditional-age college students are often attempting to refine their understanding of themselves, learn about the world of work, and discover how they might make work a part of their lives. Nontraditional-age college students report similar challenges, although they generally have less need to select career goals than do younger students. Not all individuals who pursue a college education do so solely for the purpose of preparing for a career, although for many, career preparation is a significant factor contributing to their decisions to enroll in a college or university. Thus, the primary vocational challenge faced by college students is choosing a major and deciding on career goals. Other important challenges include performing effectively in academic pursuits and learning skills that will enable students to succeed in a desired career.
College Major and Career Choice
Some students enter college with clearly defined academic and career goals that do not change over their college years. However, many students find that college promotes self-exploration, and many individuals begin to gain specific information about the world of work during the college years. Just as the average adult changes jobs and even career fields multiple times, the average college student changes majors at least one time. Changing majors and/or career goals is a positive event for many students who discover new areas they believe will be highly satisfying. On the other hand, because changing majors may result in delayed graduation, deciding on a satisfying major early can be beneficial. Deciding on a major with which the student will be satisfied represents an early challenge.
The process of deciding on a major differs from student to student. Some students first decide on a career and then seek an academic major that will help prepare them for that career. For example, a college student who wants to become a physician may choose to major in biology. Other students first decide on a major on the basis of their interests or skills and then seek a career for which they are prepared. As an example, a student may major in history because he or she has enjoyed an introductory history course and then search for specific careers or jobs for which a history degree is beneficial.
Students’ decisions about majors and careers are often made on the basis of their interests and their perceptions that the major and/or career will allow them to satisfy their interests. The trait-and-factor approach to career decision making suggests that individuals seek activities that allow them to express their interests and personalities. With respect to choosing a major, for example, a student who enjoys artistic expression would be most likely to choose a major such as dance, creative writing, or theater.
Students also choose a major and career goals on the basis of their expectations about being able to succeed in the field and their expectations of having positive consequences associated with choosing that field. Self-efficacy refers to a student’s appraisal of his or her likelihood of success. A young woman who doubts her ability to succeed in college math classes, even if she has very good math skills, is considered to have low mathematics self-efficacy, and accordingly, she may be less likely to major in mathematics. Students also make choices on the basis of their beliefs that choosing a given major or career goal will result in positive outcomes, a concept referred to as outcome expectations. If becoming an engineer would present benefits in terms of approval from others, for example, then a student would be more likely to choose engineering as a major.
Other influences on a college student’s career development include family members, who can have both positive and negative influences. Some students perceive their family members as exerting pressure to pursue particular college majors or careers. As a result, they feel free to choose only from a restricted range of possible majors or careers. Other students perceive their family members as providing support and validation for their decisions and therefore experience greater perceived freedom to pursue goals they believe will lead to satisfaction.
A variety of role models, including influential teachers, academic advisors, and even famous people the student does not know personally, can also influence a student’s career decision making by increasing his or her awareness of possible careers and what is involved in attaining them. For example, suppose a memorable grade school teacher has inspired a college student to become an education major. If the student talks to the teacher about how she advanced in her career, the student may learn important information about what it takes to be a successful teacher.
The process of choosing a major and career is also influenced by culture. The socialization of gender roles in Western cultures is such that boys are often encouraged to pursue activities that involve action, whereas girls are encouraged to pursue activities that involve affiliation. For example, in high school, girls may not be reinforced for achievements in science and math classes, and boys may not be reinforced when they show interest in cooking or caring for youngsters. These influences continue into college, and this may explain why men are less likely to choose a careers in nursing and women are less likely to pursue careers in science, engineering, and technology. Students of color; gay, lesbian, and bisexual students; students with physical disabilities; and nontraditional-age college students may experience additional challenges that affect career decisions made during college. For example, students of color in a predominantly White university may find it difficult to find similar role models from whom they can gather career information that resonates with them. Nontraditional-age college students, as well as some younger students, experience challenges managing multiple roles, such as those of student and worker or student and parent. Multiple-role conflict may also affect students who are not yet parents or spouses but anticipate having families in the future and are trying to select career goals they believe will be compatible with other roles they want to pursue in life.
Some college students simply do not know of majors or careers they would like to pursue. This state of being uncertain about career goals is referred to as career indecision. On the other hand, some students are certain that they have chosen an academic or career path that will lead to satisfying learning experiences and employment. The extent to which students have decided on a career is known as career decidedness. Many students experience career indecision at one time or another, so in many respects, this is a normal part of the career development process. However, a prolonged period of career indecision is problematic because for many students, being undecided about a career or college major not only delays entry into a field of study but is also associated with psychological distress.
There are many potential reasons why a student may experience career indecision. Some students have difficulty making decisions in many areas of life, perhaps because they believe that it is important to make perfect choices and that choices are irreversible. For other students, the source of career indecision may be low career decision self-efficacy (i.e., confidence in one’s ability to make a career decision). Students with high levels of career decision self-efficacy have confidence in their abilities to engage in the tasks necessary to make a career decision, and for these students, the process of making career choices is manageable. Students with low levels of career decision self-efficacy perceive career decision-making tasks to be beyond their abilities, and they may benefit from career counseling or other interventions.
Academic achievement represents an important aspect of a college student’s career development. A student must demonstrate adequate academic performance to remain in college, and most college students aspire to a career that requires a college degree. Each year, up to 25 percent of first-year college students leave their colleges or universities before the sophomore year, and the graduation rate for an entering class of freshmen may be only 50 percent. Leaving college before graduating is a positive decision for some students. For example, a student may decide to pursue a career that does not require a college degree. For other students, the decision to leave college is not voluntary, such as when poor grades lead to a student being academically dismissed; in this case, academic difficulties may slow progress toward attaining a satisfying career.
A second reason academic achievement is important is that it increases the likelihood of the student securing a satisfying job after college. In a tight job market, students with the best academic records will have a competitive edge. This achievement extends beyond the classroom to the securing of desirable internships, volunteer experiences, and part-time employment in the student’s field of study.
Academic achievement also helps build a student’s self-efficacy with respect to his or her area of study. Successfully performing a behavior is one of the key ways in which a student develops the expectation that the behavior can be successfully performed in the future. For example, earning high grades in several sociology classes would increase a student’s self-efficacy for completing the tasks necessary to succeed as a sociologist.
Academic achievement in college appears to be facilitated by strong academic skills, good preparation in high school, a motivation to do well, beliefs that one can succeed in college, valuing the process of learning, and integration with the institution. Some barriers to academic achievement in college center on problems with a student’s ability to perform well in the classroom. Such problems might include inadequate preparation in high school, specific learning disabilities that have not been identified, or unrealistic expectations about the amount of work required to do well in college classes. Other barriers to academic achievement in college include low motivation, such as when a student feels pressure to attend college from family members but does not really want to be in college. Finally, social problems may interfere with academic achievement. For example, college students who experience significant homesickness after making the transition from living at home to living at college may simply not do well in their classes until they have become integrated into the campus community.
The Initial Job Search
Finding a job after college is often a primary goal of a college student. Students in this stage of career development must learn skills such as resume writing and interviewing. Students often have had experience applying for jobs, but finding the first career job after college is an imposing challenge for many students. Many students are able to find employment in their desired occupation shortly after graduation, but many students do not. Some of these students merely delay entry into a career consistent with their major, but other students find work in completely different areas.
Market forces, such as the unemployment rate, can dramatically affect a student’s success in finding a job after graduation. Job market constraints can pose potential barriers, such as when jobs in a student’s desired career field are very competitive or scarce. However, characteristics of the job market may also facilitate a student’s entry into work from college, such as when that person’s academic training allows him or her to fulfill needs in careers for which there is great demand.
Graduation from college does not always correspond to an immediate job search, because many students continue their education beyond the four-year degree. For some career goals selected by college students, a graduate degree or additional professional training is necessary. As graduate students choose areas of specialization for post-college training, they may experience challenges similar to those encountered by undergraduate students when selecting a major. The career development process for graduate students is not unlike that for undergraduate students, with one exception being a more limited range of career options for graduate students given their more specialized training.
Assessment and Intervention
Most colleges and universities offer career assessment and counseling services to assist students as they encounter developmental challenges associated with career development or when they experience particular career development difficulties. Regarding assessment, it is often desirable to assess a student’s interests, skills, values, and self-efficacy with respect to different majors and careers. Assessment in general helps with the process of exploring information about oneself, and an accurate understanding of oneself is a critical component of making career decisions. The assessment of interests provides information about the types of activities the student enjoys and can help a student identify specific careers or areas of study in which he or she might be interested. The identification of skills and self-efficacy helps a student narrow down the types of careers that he or she might be prepared to pursue. Many assessment instruments are administered and interpreted by a counselor, but self-guided computerized assessment procedures also exist. Regardless of the format, the assessment process is often a helpful way to enable a student to identify a specific career path that might lead to success and satisfaction.
Because of the large number of college students who would benefit from career development intervention, many colleges and universities offer courses or brief workshops designed to teach self-exploration and job search skills. In such courses and workshops, students may learn about the career development process, engage in self-assessment, learn about the world of work, and learn skills that will help them as they begin to seek employment.
When individualized treatment is desirable, career counseling may be used to reduce barriers associated with making career decisions. If a student is identified as having low career decision self-efficacy, for example, interventions may be implemented that provide opportunities for success. Sometimes a student is undecided about a major or a career because he or she has been depressed or has experienced a personal emotional upheaval. In these cases, career counseling may focus on the personal issues as a way to reduce their impact on career development.
Most colleges and universities also have career centers or other offices that can aid students with practical job skills. Workshops may help students develop resumes, hone interviewing skills, and find internships, for example. Many colleges and universities keep databases about current internships and part-time job opportunities that may be available for students. Colleges are also well equipped to help students experiencing academic difficulties.
Whether career intervention takes place in the classroom, at a counseling or career center, or in a job placement office, the goal is typically to help students learn how to make important life and career decisions both during and after college. As such, it is usual for interventions to enhance the student’s understanding of how to make effective career decisions, rather than just considering the decision made in college as the final outcome of career intervention.
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