It won’t be news to most readers that undergraduate students everywhere encounter an incredible amount of stress throughout their college years. Colleges and universities offer a considerable range of services and programming to address a variety of stressors, including test anxiety, financial hurdles and personal struggles.
Even with all that focus on helping students to mediate stress and anxiety, I think one source of stress often gets overlooked: career stress. After nearly 15 years serving as a career and academic counselor for undergraduates, I am disheartened that such an oversight remains prevalent, both nationally and internationally, among administrators in higher education.
In a recent survey of 131 undergraduate students, I found that only 12 percent remained undecided regarding what major they wanted to pursue. To assume that only 12 percent of these students remain stressed is misguided, however, especially when learning that 56 percent of respondents to the survey were still uncertain concerning the career path they wanted to pursue. From firsthand experience, I know that this uncertainty causes considerable stress and anxiety for undergraduates.
As for the survey? Of the students who participated, 49 percent indicated that they endured stress over deciding on a major or career path.
Why are so many students battling this stress? We certainly have incredible assets in place to provide undergraduates with career guidance. Most four-year colleges and universities have
career centers staffed with career counselors to help students research majors and career paths. In addition, career centers often offer enrolled students access to free career assessments, including the Strong Interest Inventory, FOCUS, Myers-Briggs Type Indicator or an array of other assessments based on the Holland Career Codes. But even with all these resources available, students rarely utilize career centers for much beyond getting help writing a résumé or cover letter during their senior years (admittedly, I was guilty of this too). Therein lies the problem.
Fellow career counselors and coaches know the following advice all too well, but for other counselors who are working with undergraduate students, I’d like to offer some insight into helping them navigate their career research and mitigate the stress that all too often accompanies that search.
1) Get students to visit their campus career center during their first semester at college. I understand students have a lot to contend with as they enter their first semester of college. Between getting comfortable with the layout of the campus, the location of their classes, college-level course work and the campus food, the first two weeks of the semester are not an easy time for students who are seeking to begin their exploration into majors and career paths. By the third week, however, I find that students are ready to invest time into career research, and a visit to the career center is a good first step. Before sending my students to the career center on campus, I provide them with an overview of the center’s resources and the services the staff provides to undergraduates. Additionally, I discuss career assessments with my students and the information they can glean from assessment results.
Counselors familiar with the career assessment used by a student’s campus career center can provide students with background on the assessment, including information on the assessment’s format and how to access the assessment online if that is an option. Additionally, it is a good idea to stress the importance of seeking a full interpretation of the assessment results by one of the career specialists at the campus career center. In some instances, students can receive assessment results without having to speak with a career counselor or career coach whose expertise includes interpreting these assessments. As I tell my students, they will undoubtedly be able to gain insight from the assessment themselves, but I also stress that there are a multitude of intricacies they will likely overlook. These are bits of information that a career specialist would be able to identify and interpret for the student — information that could be crucial in helping a student identify an appropriate major or career path to pursue.
To avoid a lot of the hesitation and accompanying stress that students have with visiting a career office, I find it helpful to provide students with a few questions to ask the career center staff. In particular, I advise students to ask about the center’s career assessment and how to set up an appointment to go over the results. For those students with majors already in mind, advise them to ask if a particular career center counselor has experience helping students in that major.
A final step is to make certain students know where to find the career center. Yes, it is relatively easy in most cases for students to determine where on campus the career center is located. However, I find that providing the contact information to the students increases the likelihood that they will follow through and visit the career center. Take the extra minute or two to show students the career center’s website, and then email students the center’s contact information, including room location, email and phone number.
2) Seek a follow-up with the student. Before I end my initial meeting with students, I ask them to meet me after their meeting(s) with career center staff. I find that doing so encourages students to follow through on the guidance and their career research. These follow-up meetings offer the opportunity to mediate any stress that arises from visiting the career center. Specifically, students are often stressed that one visit to the career center did not help them immediately decide on or discover the best major and career path for them.
During these follow-up meetings, I help students develop (or adjust) their career research plans. Those counselors who are certified and proficient in the career assessments their students have taken can use these meetings to address student misunderstandings about their assessment results and expand on any feedback the students received from career center staff.
3) Seek additional follow-up after the student completes the assessment. In the event the student took an assessment but did not review the results with a career specialist at the college career center, advise the student to return for a review from the career center staff. It is critically important that students receive that feedback from those who are trained to interpret the results. I have found that the majority of students who meet with career center staff for guidance report that these meetings help reduce their stress and anxiety related to career concerns. In my current survey, 78 percent of respondents indicated that their meetings with a career counselor helped them decide on a major or career path. Furthermore, 69 percent of respondents indicated that meetings with a career counselor helped reduce their stress surrounding career and educational planning.
4) Advise students to communicate with professors on campus whose specializations match the students’ career interests. Even the most experienced career counselor has limited knowledge of the diverse job opportunities afforded by every major and degree. For example, from my personal experience, none of the career counselors on my college campus knew the array of specialties within anthropology, a field that leads to careers beyond professorships, museum curators and forensic specialists.
This is where campus professors are so vital to a student’s career research. The professors in each department likely possess a wealth of knowledge regarding job opportunities and career specializations that a given major affords students. Unfortunately, students often fail to seek career guidance from department professors earlier on (i.e., freshman or sophomore year).
As career counselors, it is incumbent upon us to direct our students to department professionals. Again, drawing from my own experience, speaking with department professors helped me to identify and focus on short-term and long-term careers, which ultimately reduced my stress (especially when many individuals asked me what in the world I was going to do with an anthropology degree).
5) Advise students to communicate with professionals in the communities surrounding the college campus. Connecting with campus professors/professional staff is often not enough to provide college students with a full understanding of the potential (career-wise) that each major offers. To that end, it is important to encourage students to reach out to community professionals to gain an extensive understanding of the possibilities that exist. Another benefit to reaching out to community professionals is that students may learn of unadvertised job opportunities during these discussions, all while expanding their professional networks. What’s more, engaging with professionals who have already put the student’s major into practice often helps to put the student’s mind at ease.
6) Encourage students to seek field experience during summer breaks. Summer vacation is a time for college students to reenergize. That said, there is no reason why students can’t use the summer months to further investigate their major and the career opportunities the major offers. Finding part-time, full-time or volunteer employment opportunities is a great way to gain firsthand experience in the field. Encourage students to speak with their professors and the community professionals with whom they connected to determine what jobs or volunteer opportunities exist that would provide related experience and help students gauge the appropriateness of the major they are currently pursuing.
Such summer experiences are more prevalent than most students and counselors might realize. It comes down to asking the right people what opportunities exist. In addition to giving students related experiences to include on their résumés, such jobs could provide money for college and help students expand their professional networks. Based on my own undergraduate experience, such opportunities reduced student stress by helping them gain a better understanding of the course material from the major, while also revealing hidden career paths not often attributed to the major.
7) Remind students that it’s OK to change their minds regarding their career goals. So what happens when students follow the above advice and determine that they are pursuing a major or career path that is unsuited to their interests, strengths and long-term career goals? Changing a major can be extremely stressful for students because they often feel it is a sign of failure. I remind students that changing a major is a common occurrence. At the same time, I also remind them that it is better to change directions with their newfound knowledge of their major and themselves now than to wait; it is a decision that could save them considerable time and money later on. It is also important in such moments to congratulate students for their efforts. This is encouragement that will help them tackle the stress and worry that often follow a change in major.
Collectively, these strategies have aided me in reducing my students’ stress, while simultaneously helping them determine a worthwhile career and gain valuable field experience prior to graduating. It is especially rewarding when one of my advisees follows through on this advice and has a full-time job lined up before graduation because of connections that he or she has made with community professionals. It is even more rewarding when graduates from years past return to say they still love the major and career paths they pursued after completing the aforementioned research. I believe other career counselors might find similar results as they assist students in managing stress related to choosing majors and career fields.
Neil O’Donnell is a senior counselor for SUNY Buffalo State’s Educational Opportunity Program, where he provides personal, academic and career counseling to undergraduates. O’Donnell is also the author of The Career-Minded Student, a book that provides a plan of action that helps undergraduates succeed in class while preparing to compete for jobs immediately after graduation. Contact him at email@example.com.
From the Counseling Today archives: “Unprepared, undecided and unfulfilled”
Anxiety, confusion and questions of identity greet many college seniors as they consider their impending graduation and the necessity of determining their next steps in the ‘real world.’ wp.me/p2BxKN-3PD
Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.