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The Importance of Early Career Exploration in Choosing College Majors

Early career exploration is an important, yet an often overlooked part of the college admissions process.

There are many reasons to want to earn a college degree which don't involve simply getting a job upon graduation. Reasons include increased knowledge and credibility in a chosen field, career advancement, societal/familial /personal expectations, increased growth and awareness, salary increases, etc. 

As an educator and counselor, I respect a wide-range of rationales for earning a degree. Still, I am often surprised with the number of students who enter my office without knowing what they want to study and why. Having a clear sense of why you are in college and what you want to accomplish can assist you in persevering when the going gets tough---and it is bound to get tough at some point.  

According to the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems, the six-year U.S. graduation rate of Bachelor's degree students in 2009 was 55.5%. This means that only a bit over half of all U.S. students enrolled in college will graduate! The reasons for this are varied and vast, yet, I would argue that lacking a clear educational vision and purpose for college participation plays a role. 

Getting in is just half of the battle. Staying in and having a rewarding and meaningful experience which you can attach to longer-term goals is equally as important! 

Thorough career development/occupational assessment can motivate and inspire students to think about the connection between a degree and their career. This connection can assist with selecting colleges providing the best fit in the first place, make the college experience more meaningful, and increase fortitude in the face of challenges. 

Many interest/personality inventories are available in booklet form or on-line such as the Holland Self-Directed Search (HSDS), the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), and the Strong Interest Inventory (SII). These are not tests because they don't objectively measure one's aptitudes or abilities. They are subjective, self-report instruments which tally up one's interests and preferences. The results provide valuable insight into one's personality as well as potential occupational matches. There are no right or wrong answers and no code is superior to another. 

I use the Holland Self-Directed Search with my students and prefer the "old-school",  pencil- and-booklet approach which includes an in-depth interpretation and discussion session. An on-line version can also be purchased at www.self-directed-search.com for $4.95. Once students determine their unique code, a series of occupations is listed under that code in the Occupations Finder Booklet which accompanies the interest inventory. Students are then encouraged to further explore these occupations using the Occupational Outlook Handbook.  

The Occupational Outlook Handbook is a terrific 770+ page resource, developed annually by the U.S. Department of Labor. Providing more than just job definitions, it lists typical majors identified with certain occupations, predicts market outlooks, presents average U.S. salaries by occupation, and offers licensing/certification and professional association information. It can be purchased on-line for $23 at www.bls.gov/oco

It is unrealistic, and maybe even undesirable, for students to cling vehemently to their majors! College is about self-discovery and students often choose majors based on teachers' suggestions, parental pressures, or incomplete information about a certain field.  According to research conducted by Penn State University, it is estimated that about 50% of all college students will change their majors at least once during their college years. 

The goal of early career exploration is not to prevent students from changing their minds! Rather, it is to encourage them to attach value to their intended degree and purpose to the college experience. Having an initial road map, and changing course after thoughtful consideration, far outweighs getting on the road with no clear direction!

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Leslie Yager March 23, 2012 at 08:01 PM
I'm all for a solid liberal arts education because not only do teenagers change their majors, but adults change careers (not always by choice).
Siwanoy March 23, 2012 at 08:13 PM
My dad always told me that the avg. person will change their careers over 5 times in their lives, and showed examples of it in my family. I'm not sure if that was a real statistic or a "parents" statistic, but it always stuck with me.
Thalia Thompson, M.S., I.E.C. March 23, 2012 at 10:42 PM
Great comments! A solid liberal arts education is great---especially if you are planning to transfer and/or continue on for a Master's or beyond. If you change majors too frequently or wait too long to change your major, most of the courses in that first (second or third) major will become elective in nature, adding significant time/money in obtaining a degree. Siwanoy, your dad was right! Research shows that typically people change career direction anywhere from 5-8 times in a lifetime. I totally agree with Linda that people should do what makes them happy and not be afraid to change. In reality, it was the Art and Design aspect of Fashion Merchandising that appealed to you----not necessarily the merchandising part. For me, when I thought about becoming a nutritionist, I envisioned sitting at a desk and assisting people with nutritional plans. HATED the biochemistry and organic chemistry courses, and did not care to lerarn about food on the molecular level. I realized as I applied to a Master's program in Counseling, that it was the counseling aspect of being a nutritionist which appealed to me.
Megan Paul May 22, 2012 at 07:26 PM
My intended major was the deciding factor for me when choosing which school to attend next year! It made my college search much easier since I knew what to look for. Great article!
Thalia Thompson, M.S., I.E.C. May 22, 2012 at 10:27 PM
Thanks Megan! It helped me to have a major in mind also when I applied. Of course, I changed majors, but still, I chose a university that had tons of majors and options.

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