Planning a career

Before entering higher education most students – or if not the students, then their parents – have an extraordinarily clear idea of what they want to do professionally and what they need from their university or college to achieve this. I have lost track of the number of times that  first year university students have told me of their amazingly fixed expectations of their future professional life. Many of these young people are 17 years old or so, and their sense of certainty frightens me. A few of them are encouraged by their parents to have this sense of purposeful destiny.

But quite apart from the amazing clarity of intention, what also regularly strikes me is how they make their choices. Two things seem to determine this more than anything else: one is their anticipated points score, the other their interpretation of currents news and events. We have already covered the CAO points system previously, but in a nutshell students continue to feel obliged to go for whatever university degree course has a points requirement that most nearly resembles their own points score. If you have 550 points that is enough for Law in Trinity, so why should they consider doing philosophy in Cork, which you can do for much less – it would be ‘wasting their points’ (an extraordinary and destructive concept).

The second source of influence is the news of the day, and their understanding of it. Shortly after 2000 the dot.com bubble burst, for example, and a number of ICT companies experienced difficulties, and a few of them shed jobs. Oh no, said some ambitious parents, this means you shouldn’t do computing, or software engineering, or the like; numbers in those programmes duly fell dramatically. But this way of responding to events is uninformed and unintelligent. For a start, at no point was there a significant reduction in Ireland in demand for ICT professionals at the more qualified end of the market. But actually, what happened was that Ireland began to have significant number of unfilled job vacancies in the ICT field, creating some doubts about the country’s ability to provide human capital for new foreign investment. This is turn is likely to have profound effects economically.

The lesson is that today’s news about market activity gives you absolutely no clue as to what economic conditions will be like in four years time, either generally or in the sector. Basing a career decision on such current news is not clever. It is this kind of thinking that pushed thousands of young people into architecture, civil engineering and other careers in the construction sector, just before that sector collapsed.

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5 Comments on “Planning a career”

  1. kevin denny Says:

    Sadly, what you say is consistent with my undertanding. The financial crisis in 2008 broke when students were registering for their specialisms in UCD. As far as I know, the day after Lehman Bros went belly-up there was a queue of students wanting to switch out of banking & finance. Are the students irrational? Well partly, but I think the parents had a lot of influence in this case & in general.
    Recent research in economics has probed behaviour like this since it is inconveniently inconsistent with how we normally think about behaviour. The hot money these days is on a theory called hyperbolic discounting where people put an excessive focus on the immediate few years. It has even been argued that different parts of the brain are recruited when thinking about immediate versus long term decisions. Bear in mind also that people’s brain are still developing well into the 20s. They have an excuse, we don’t.
    So what is to be done? Switching to the US model where professional degrees are taken after the primary degree is one solution thereby not allowing them to make these decisions when they are 17 or 18. This is probably desirable for other reasons – like eliminating a lot of the madness of the points race.

    • Al Says:

      How would this be funded?
      If we went with the grad school type model who would meet the costs?
      Fees?
      Perhaps a year of national service for all 18 year olds to cover the costs..

  2. Clare Says:

    I was certainly one of those 17-year olds who planned my career carefully and I think it served me well, although not in the way I thought it would.

    Career planning served to put my mind at ease, to remind me that I had a plan while facing out into the big bad world, that I was on the right path to achieving my goals. The comfort of having a plan stopped me from worrying too much and it allowed me to be open to new opportunities as they presented themselves.

    At 22, I definitely do not have the life I imagined when I was 17. Life never goes to plan. But having a plan, helped me to believe that my goals were possible and to give me a focus through college which is for many people a rather chaotic time.

    Encouraging young people to plan their careers is worthwhile provided they can be flexible with their ideas and that they base their goals on what they really want.

    Just my tuppence worth.

  3. wendymr Says:

    How wonderful it would be if we had reliable and valid labour market information! My job would certainly be a lot easier – yet there is easily-available information out there, if students and job-seekers only knew where to look and how to interpret what they’re seeing.

    Even if current labour market information doesn’t appear to offer much understanding of where demand will lie in four years’ time, we can make certain predictions based on past trends and current knowledge, anyway. Technology, and the divergence of wage costs between the developed and developing worlds, have wiped out the need for certain skills in our economies, and that will continue to happen – so we can guess that some occupations will continue to decline. Advances in healthcare, and also increasing incidences of high cholesterol, diabetes and heart disease, mean that people will both live longer and need more care later in life – so demand in healthcare and health prevention occupations will increase. And so on and so on. Economists and so-called ‘futurists’ are actually pretty good at identifying these kind of trends, and schools and universities should be listening to them more (and also, as I’ve argued before, not piling bums on seats in degree courses where there is no demand at all for graduates and not likely to be for the foreseeable future).

    I have no idea whether career counselling in schools is any better than it was when I was at school – but from what I hear, I doubt it. As you say, career choice shouldn’t be all about how many points you can achieve, or what profession is the most prestigious/offers the most opportunity for high pay. Having one’s values met is of very high importance in choosing and staying with a job, or even a career; in fact, it’s been said (though I don’t have the citation) that most people who quit jobs do so because of a values clash. My own anecdotal experience, from work with clients, would support this.

    Perhaps decent career counselling and planning and labour market understanding should be part of the Leaving Certificate curriculum, and a compulsory module in every undergraduate degree programme.


  4. […] When you identify any goal, career or otherwise, strike out using your own initiative and find who and what can help you around your own actions. […]


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