Decisions, decisions…

A blog by Jim Reali (Careers Advisor, College of LES)

It’s my six year old son’s birthday soon. He’s very excited. I asked him what he’d like and he produced a list longer than my arm which he’d spent a long time writing. I was very impressed by the effort he’d put into it, despite one or two spelling mistakes and grammatical errors (however, I reminded myself that I wasn’t checking a CV and that he is only six years old, so I let that go).

I thought it might be important to manage his expectations, so rather cautiously I ventured that he might not get everything he’d put on the list. “That’s ok”, he said. (I was in luck – this was easier than expected.) However, he then thwarted me by saying, “I can always get the rest for Christmas, instead”. Ahhhhh….

I decided on a new strategy and asked my son, “if you couldn’t have everything on the list, what would you like most?”

“I dunno”, came the reply (he can be very articulate at times…)

“Ok, what might help you to decide?” I asked.

“I dunno” – this was going well then…

We discussed things a little more and it became clear that there were several influences which had been involved in the present list:

  • Things his friends have got
  • Things that he has seen advertised on tv
  • Things we (his Mum and Dad) have suggested
  • Things he’s chosen based on his previous experiences with some toys

I realised very quickly that there was a strong parallel here with the decisions that we make when choosing careers and that the influences my six year old was experiencing are very similar to those faced by students as they think about the career options available to them when they graduate.

As a Careers Advisor I often have discussions with students about planning their career – undertaking some self-reflection to identify strengths and skills, recognising what might motivate them in a career and then exploring options, all of which are outlined in our “Making Career Choices” course on Canvas. However, there is still that point at which a choice has to be made and students need to decide on a manageable and realistic priority list of careers from everything they have looked at which could be suitable.

Making decisions isn’t easy – we are all very different and an instantaneous, “gut feeling” approach that works for one person might not work for another. Some people are very analytical and the Making Career Choices methodology can really help them to recognise what their character is, what their preferences are and how these fit with certain roles. Other people might see that their preferences still leave them with many options. Identifying what might motivate them to go to work every day can help (for example, would they be encouraged by earning lots, by tackling problems each day, by helping others…) – however, there may still be other influences and it can help to recognise these; just like my son identifying what he’d like for his birthday, these may include:

  • What your friends have done / are planning to do (and perhaps worries about what they will think of your choices – this might lead into concerns about being sociably acceptable and “fitting in” with peers).
  • Options you’ve stumbled on which sound interesting – for example whilst looking at job sites on the Internet.
  • Things your family may want or expect you to do (or perhaps concerns about what they may think if you would like to do something they aren’t expecting).
  • Your direct experiences from work experience and study (many people identify that, although they can read about options to which they may be suited, nothing beats experience – the “try before you buy” approach).

You may recognise some or all of these and might feel that there are other influences I haven’t listed here.

Recognising what is most likely to influence your personal choice of career decision is one of the most important things you can do. It’s an old cliché, but hopefully you’re going to be working for a long, long time, so it would help if you could be happy with your choice. Does happiness equate with social acceptance? Will you be satisfied if your choices are more to please your family than you? If you know that you won’t be able to make a decision without getting experience, what could you do about that? These are all questions only you can answer, but by spending a little time focusing on them, you might find that it becomes easier to decide between the career options available to you. If you’re struggling, you might also find it helpful to think back to times when you have had to make decisions in the past and consider what influenced you and how satisfied you were with the result. (Deciding on which university to attend is an obvious one to think of.)

So, back to my son’s birthday list – perhaps I’m using the wrong strategy. If I take away the tv, stop him seeing his friends and find some way of wiping his memory, he’ll choose whatever his Mum and I suggest. Deep down though, I know he wouldn’t be happy. Perhaps we’ll adopt the approach of “planned happenstance” and just encourage him to embrace whatever surprises await him on the big day…

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About careersbham

Student Engagement Officer for Careers Network University of Birmingham

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