It starts early in life. Family members, teachers and friends enquire, ‘What do you want to do when you grow up?’ The question hounds us. Surely it should be a straightforward decision. Unfortunately, the abundance of career options available can encourage a prolonged state of analysis paralysis.

The New Year is the time when we tend to take stock of our lives, evaluate how we spend our time and make promises to ourselves to ‘do better’. As careers advisers we are always busy in January as people resolve to change their career and pursue their ‘dream job’. University students, in particular, face with trepidation a year of transition and potential upheaval as they seek their first graduate job, the first steps in their career life. And yet research suggests that as many as 46 per cent of final year students are still not yet ready to make a career decision. Well-meaning parents and peers, high levels of student ‘debt’ and destinations focused universities can escalate the pressure of getting it ‘right’. In a climate of economic uncertainty career stability is highly valued.

So how do students and graduates become career deciders?

University careers advisers will tell you that most of the people they see are those who are already proactive and have formulated career plans. Ironically, the people who could probably benefit most from careers guidance tend not to seek help, as if displaying an active avoidance.

A career-decided student or graduate is a rare phenomenon in our experience. We set ourselves the task of investigating the mindset of this far from rare bird. Our research provides some clearer insight into to the first career decision point. We also investigated the mind-state of the successful career decider-graduates as a comparison.

Deciding not to decide

This qualitative research with students, graduates and careers advisers explores the phenomenon of ‘being undecided’. We uncovered amongst the participants a number of interesting phenomena around career decision-making and, more significantly, avoidance of it. For some participants the weight of the decision felt so immense and consuming that they felt paralysed (analysis paralysis).

‘I have always taken career planning as a heavy decision which determines my lifestyle choices in future years.

Decisional tipping point

We were most interested in the decisional tipping point. Our survey with students and graduates uncovered some indications of the common ‘delay mindset’. Example statements suggested three particular attitudes:

‘I am hoping I will work it out… by the time I graduate’, ‘I’ll decide when I have to’ and ‘I want to suddenly realise what is right for me’.

These responses indicate a yearning for certainty and a hopeful expectation of an epiphany experience, a sudden knowing. The ‘dream job’ occurs in many conversations with students and graduates as a romantic notion of that ‘one true vocation’ they have yet to discover. Career epiphany – a magical moment when all becomes clear – was a shared expectation amongst participants. Simply waiting for such affirmation seemed to offer hope and comfort. Yet this could actually discourage ‘undecided’ participants from doing things which could make one more likely.

We noticed a connection in the responses to Sunstein’s ideas that when faced with too many options, people ‘choose not to choose’. This links to the concept of ‘cognitive miser’ (Fiske and Taylor) , a mindstate of decisional fatigue where a person avoids thinking too much. We realised that many students may avoid career thinking because it gives them cognitive overload at a time when other demands (study and student life) claim their attention.

Maximising and satisficing

One common feature of the ‘not yet decided’ group from the survey is that they favoured a ‘maximising’ approach. Their reasons for delayed decision-making focus on the need to know everything about a career or job role before they could permit themselves to make the first career move. This overthinking approach or ‘maximising’ contrasts with the confident career deciders who seem more comfortable with a ‘satisficing’ approach, a defined time-bound approach to researching career directions, which involved finding out just enough to be able to make ‘good enough’ career decisions.

The career misery push

One unexpectedly useful catalyst of career decision, according to the graduates we spoke to is that being in a ‘wrong’ job post-graduation (or even as a part-time or voluntary role whilst at university) helped them to clarify what they didn’t want in a job and so, by a process of elimination, what was really important to them. It also seemed to give them a strong motivation to take action. ’Doing the wrong job acted as a catalyst and helped me to realise what I did want to do.’ This has implications for those who support early career graduates to help them to use this ‘career misery push’ as a lever.

Our own epiphany

As researchers we were surprised by our own sudden knowing about this topic, based on our interviews with successful career deciders. Surveying and interviewing the undecided or the delaying deciders, we were fascinated to learn from the graduates who had made a successful transition. They advocate a sufficiency approach which involves taking time to research career sectors and possible directions through a range of avenues (talking to people, using LinkedIn, employer network events, desk/internet research, careers service workshops and careers fairs), testing out ideas through internships/placements and then taking proactive steps early in the final year. Nothing too surprising there. However, what is gratifying is their recognition that this process was likely to initiate a career epiphany moment, a realisation of the ‘right’ choice. In other words, they create their own epiphany.

Final thoughts

What we would advise can seem both obvious and fierce. In simple terms here’s what works:

  • Give yourself a set amount of time (sufficiency) to do intensive and wide-ranging research that goes beyond a cursory internet search.
  • Try and work out what you want from your life and work (your personal value compass). Use these criteria to rate possible job roles.
  • Go for a less than perfect job. That will motivate you. Be prepared to experience minor or major career misery as a precursor to career happiness.
  • Be proactive, tenacious and open to serendipitous avenues that might lead to career happiness. Remember, it’s just a start.

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Notes:


Eileen Cunningham is a lecturer in social policy at Salford University. She is a chartered occupational psychologist and associate fellow of the British Psychological Society. Eileen is currently completing a PhD exploring the experiences of students and graduates undertaking unpaid internships and work. She is also an experienced and qualified careers adviser.

 

Kathleen Houston is a senior lecturer in employability and enterprise at the University of Central Lancashire. She is an enthusiastic careers adviser and career coach, a published career management author, an NLP master practitioner and a teaching fellow. She is passionate about inspiring students to create their own brilliant careers, helping them consider the unlimited possibilities and career patterns available and motivating them to be proactive in taking control of their career life, including their personal and professional development. She has also worked as a BBC consultant and webwriter for the One Life website, as a radio expert on careers and communication for BBC Radio 1, 2 and 5 Live. She has co-authored a book ‘How to succeed at Assessment Centres’, published by Palgrave Macmillan (with Eileen Cunningham) and has published academic journal articles on online learning, career development and researcher employability.

 

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