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Choosing a Career Path Isn’t Easy When the Game Keeps Changing

By Bob Park

This month my daughter will graduate from high school and, like many of her peers, wonders what the future holds.  It isn’t easy for an 18-year-old to have everything figured out, but still the questions will come from family and friends as if she has it all solved.Nothing could be further from the truth.  There are still important decisions for her to make, and she has a lot more questions than answers.

One of those decisions is what to study when she arrives on her college campus in the fall.  Should she go “undecided” on her major, or will she improve her chances of getting a job if she declares early?  Does it really matter what she picks as a major?  The answers to these questions could be yes or no and may be the same questions you or a loved one is facing.

There is a clear link between a major and a job when students pursue a specific profession (for example teaching or engineering).  However, the link isn’t as clear for students less interested in a structured career path or for those who just don’t know what they want to do.  Perhaps the best way to pick a major then is to first decide if a profession such as accounting is for you (and no, general business is not a profession), and then select the major required to get the job.  If you are not interested in a profession, then you’re off the hook – close your eyes and start throwing darts.  Simple right?  Not exactly.  What makes this hard is change – the rate of change in the market and the amount of change in your life.

It’s well documented that technology is having a profound impact on careers.  The rate of expected change is so significant that the Department of Labor projects 65 percent of all school-age children will work in jobs that don’t even exist yet.  Technology will create jobs and it will destroy jobs.  How do you pick a major if you don’t know which careers will thrive and which will die?  It’s tough to be an accounting major if accounting careers don’t make the cut.

What also makes it difficult to pick a major is the amount of change that will occur with you. People grow and evolve over the course of their lives.  Interests, ambitions, motivations and reasons will all change as you grow older.  The fact that life happens while making plans is daunting when choosing a career at any age, let alone 18.

Now that you are completely lost on what to do, let me offer a simple framework that might help.

Step 1 – Know the market.

Awareness is half the battle.  I’ve worked with thousands of people on their careers, and there is a common theme that runs through everyone who doesn’t like their job – they wish they knew then what they know now.  Don’t fall into that trap.  I understand technology will change things, but at least take time to study functions (i.e., marketing or finance) and industries such as healthcare or energy.  The jobs will change, but the functions and industries will still exist.

This exercise should help you understand whether you should pursue a major with a clear link to a particular job or if you can take a broader approach.

Step 2 – Understand what employers want.

If we take a micro view of market demands, we find that certain jobs need certain skills derived from certain majors (as in our accounting example).  However, if you take a broader view, you will learn that employers are more interested in the transformative impact your education has had on you.

Check this out from the New York Times:

The Association of American Colleges and Universities recently asked employers who hire at least 25 percent of their workforce from two- or four-year colleges what they want institutions to teach. The answers did not suggest a narrow focus. Instead, 89 percent said they wanted more emphasis on “the ability to effectively communicate orally and in writing;” 81 percent asked for better “critical thinking and analytical reasoning skills” and 70 percent were looking for “the ability to innovate and be creative.”

Step 3 – It’s all about performance.

Did you ever engage in an activity where you were so immersed that you completely lost track of time?  This is called the state of flow – a complete absorption in an activity in which you lose a sense of space and time.  According to positive psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the state of flow is needed for peak performance.  Good things happen when you perform well.

Pay attention to activities where you find yourself in a state of flow and connect it back to a field of study.  For example, if you get lost in jigsaw puzzles, then perhaps a computer science or finance degree would be right for you.  Alternatively, if time flies by when you are meeting new people or engaged in live events, then a communications degree could be right up your alley.  The more engaged you are in your studies, the more likely you will be to develop the transformative skills employers desire.

The punch line…

Still unsure what to do?  Remember, we pursue higher education to develop as a person rather than for an occupation.  Whatever you decide to pick as a major do it well and the rest will fall in place.  It matters more how you perform in your studies than what you choose to study.