Honey, here come the new college graduates. Would you invite them in while I get out the trusty happiness-ometer?
Let's warm up on Joe. He looks as if he could use an espresso. But first we must grill him.
So, Joe, you muddled through college on native intelligence and occasional bursts of academic energy? After seven years of putzing around, changing your major with the seasons, cramming for tests and completing term papers at the last minute, you're unleashing yourself on the world of commerce with only a vague idea of what you're going to do with your life, much less from where your first paycheck is coming?
Happiness-ometer reading: Hey, Joe, wake up and drink the coffee. You're about to get hit by a freight train called reality. Sure, you're happy to be done with college, but you've got no idea how to stay happy.
Who's next? Oh, joy, it's Jan. (Honey, she looks as if she could use a massage.)
Yes, Jan, we congratulate you for graduating with highest honors, completing a cooperative-education program and signing on with a corporate giant. What's that? Oh, so you really don't mind that your academic major and job choice bore you nearly to tears, because, well, you know, it's a high-paying field and besides, it's, like, what your parents always wanted you to do.
Happiness-ometer reading: Mayday! Mayday! Prepare to crash and burn! Jan, here's when you might be happy: when you get home from work, if you do get home from work. Meanwhile, you're going to dread every Monday morning.
Dear, we're giving that happiness-ometer a workout. Can we do the dishes later and listen to the experts now?
"It's about 60 percent of people who are not real happy in their jobs," says Mark Pope, president of the National Career Development Association and associate professor of behavioral studies in the School of Education at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. He bases his statement on Gallup surveys.
Pope disputes the conventional wisdom that a person will have three or four different careers over the course of his or her life.
"In career counseling we talk about how you have one career for your entire life," Pope says. "It starts when you're in school, and it goes all the way to when you're in your recreation phase, when you're not working directly. It's that entire thing. It's everything you do during that period. And it includes school."
Pope says career exploration begins as early as elementary school, accelerates in middle school and evolves into career decision-making by high school.
"Career-interest patterns seem to become more concrete around age 15 or 16," Pope says, "and because of that developmental process that occurs, we change the focus of career counseling in high school to making decisions about what kinds of careers are going to be best for this person, are going to be the kinds of things that make them happy, they have some passion for, so that when Sunday night rolls around they're going, 'God, I can't wait to get to work tomorrow.'"
Dating for a career
If you're still clueless about your career when you enter college, you're probably not alone, and at this point you probably shouldn't try to get on track alone. Get some help.
At UM-St. Louis, that would be counseling services, where Sharon Biegen is the director.
"I feel like this is something that should be part of the curriculum -- at least part of an orientation class when people first come to college -- to know these things, to learn these things," says Biegen. She says students need to learn about themselves, which to some extent can be done through testing but also happens through life experience, "through being willing to be open to explore who you are, what you like and what you don't like.
"Who you are is separate from your parents and what they think you should be."
Can you learn this in, say, a weekend?
"I would say, at least, weeks," says Biegen. "And probably it's an ongoing process, because some of it is, for instance, you think that computing is a hot market now, so you think, I should go into computing. Well, you should at least take a computing class to see if it's a good fit for you."
Sort of like dating around for a career, going out with a career field for a semester?
"Yes," Biegen chuckles. "Rather than getting married before you even date."
A no-dating approach can lead to a nasty divorce, whether it's from a spouse or from a job. Even if you do date a career field for a while, perhaps even marry it, things can and do sometimes go sour.
Biegen explains: "If you get to the point where you're graduating from school and you had decided right in the beginning, 'This is what I'm going to be,' and you get to that point of graduation and there's barriers in your way to doing that -- either you decided you don't really like it or there's no jobs in that field or you have to get further education in that field -- then you're going to be stuck if you don't have in your head, 'Well, how do I rethink this? How do I make this kind of decision?'
It can happen toward the beginning of a person's work history, or it can happy well after college is finished, a sort of midlife crisis. In a case like that, it can be like the person who's been married for 20 years, gets a divorce, then doesn't have any idea how to start dating again.
Biegen has a prescription for career decision-making:
"What we try to emphasize is self-knowledge, that you need to know yourself so that you can match yourself to a field, and you need to know how to research a field, doing informational interviews, talking to people."
In other words, if, like most Americans, you're going to change your career field eventually and continually, you'd better learn how to date a career.
Horror story, happy ending
There are horror stories about blind dates. And then there are horror stories about going blindly into a job, especially if one is blind about one's self and one's interests and desires.
Mark Pope tells this one:
"I had somebody who was one of my clients and he came into the office and his parents had said, 'You've gotta go into business. You can't go into any of these arts or things like that, you've got to go into business.'
"So he'd gone in and got a degree in accounting. And he was quite proficient at accounting. He was a good accountant in terms of doing the work. He could do it. But he just hated the job."
He didn't want to go in on Monday?
"He didn't want to go in on Monday, or Tuesday or Wednesday or any other day. And what was happening with him, he had developed ulcers, because he had internalized a lot of this stuff. He was clinically depressed. He had to be put on Prozac. It was interfering with his relationship. He was about to be divorced from his wife, and he had a couple of kids. Everything was falling apart because he was so distressed about his work.
"He finally got referred to me. We sat down and talked for a little bit. He took a couple of inventories. We talked about that. His career interests were much more in the area of social than they were in the area of conventional. And he had very high scores on teaching and counseling and all of these social-service kind of things.
"And his lowest scores, in fact, were in conventional. They were in the minus category. Like six standard deviations below the mean. It was huge. When you see that kind of stuff it just jumps out at you. It was very clear what was going on. So we talked about it. He made some basic lifestyle changes. He went back to school. He had to go back to school for a couple of years. He got a teaching certificate, went off and began teaching history in the schools. Loved it. Had a passion for that.
"And I hear from him probably every couple of years. And he just tells me how wonderful things are. His family came back together. No ulcers. No depression. He's just the happiest man alive."
Avoiding the horror
How can a person avoid the horror part of such a story and get more immediately to the happy ending?
"Get help, that's for sure," says Deborah Kettler, director of career services at UM-St. Louis. "Don't think you can do this yourself. If you don't know what you want to do, you need help. So whether it's career services, a career counselor, your college placement office, get help, because people can walk you through this. Otherwise it's a decision that's going to turn into a huge headache."
Any other advice?
"Don't procrastinate," Kettler says. "A lot of people keep saying, 'Well, I'll make the decision later.' Well, you know what? Later is now."
If, for example, you were at UM-St. Louis and talked to Sharon Biegen and the people at student-counseling services, and then you figured out what sort of career you wanted to pursue and actually took courses to that end, you still might want to head over to Kettler's career-services office.
"We have a test called a career-mapper that actually measures their skills and abilities and fits them into job categories," Kettler says. "So it really talks to them in terms of jobs and careers."
Some jobs -- such as those in biology, chemistry, physics and social work -- often require a higher degree and moving on to graduate school.
That prompts more caution from Kettler.
"The last thing is, just don't put your eggs in one basket," she says. "Many people say, 'Well, I'm going to graduate school,' and they apply and then they don't get in."
Should you have a plan B from the start?
"Have a plan B or explore all avenues at one time," Kettler says. "There's nothing that says while you're waiting for your graduate-school application that you can't be looking for a job."
Either way, she suggests that you get started on postgraduate plans at least a year in advance. The job-market recruiters start coming to campuses in October. Plans for graduate school should be starting by then as well.
"If you're going to do the graduate-school thing right, you should be researching graduate schools," Kettler says. "It's not something you should just wait until the last minute for. It takes time to put together all the paperwork for a graduate-school application."
Some students end up in graduate school only because they've graduated and still don't know what they want to be when they grow up. They might end up with a degree in something that they're not even interested in doing.
"Or they still don't know what they want to do," Kettler says. "So it's a never-ending cycle. What we really try to do is get them career-oriented."
Heating up the happiness-ometer
The guy at Delphi had it right: Know thyself. Polonius had it right, too: To thine own self be true. From elementary school until retirement and beyond, it pays to intimately know yourself and your interests.
Ultimately, career isn't what you do, it's who you are.
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