How frequently has a version of the following scenario happened to you? Emma, a second-year undergraduate student, walks into your office and says she wants some help figuring out a career plan. You start out by asking Emma what interests her and what past experiences have stuck out. Emma grows visibly anxious. She then cautiously responds,
“I don’t know. I’ve taken a few courses that were kind of interesting, but I don’t even know what I’m majoring in yet. I feel like I should already have a career path figured out, and I’m kind of freaking out.”
As career counseling and student affairs professionals, we know that feelings of indecision are normal. Students frequently enter college with declared majors and well-conceived career intentions. However, over 80% of students change their majors at least once (Straumsheim, 2016). Other students reluctantly start out as “undecided.” Waiting to declare a major or switching majors is not necessarily detrimental to student success. There might be inherent value to actively exploring different options and waiting a couple of semesters (or longer) to land on a major. For example, a recent study found that students who switched majors were more likely to graduate than the students who did not. Often, positive transition can lead to greater academic engagement.
Despite earnest concerns from perpetually nervous parents, we also know that students don’t need to have their career path completely figured out by the time they graduate. However, we’ve noticed that students increasingly appear highly uncomfortable at the thought of not having their path clearly determined. We can, however, reassure students that there is wisdom in indecision.
So how can we best support our students in embracing indecision? Here are three core ideas:
Encourage students to experiment and reflect:
Hermina Ibarra might be best known for her contributions in Working Identity (2003), where she researched adults who were changing their careers. We can apply her findings to undergraduate students. Individuals should engage in new interesting activities, or craft new experiments (e.g., encouraging Emma to take an introductory course in a new topic). At the same time, students can begin to interact with different people or, shift connections (e.g., talking to students in the major about internships). Later, students will become aware of these emerging possibilities (making sense) — and their career-related decisions will crystalize. For example, as Emma reflects on positive course experiences and conversations around global politics, she may opt to pursue a major and career in political science. These processes take time and patience. We possess both a responsibility and opportunity to support students through these important steps.
Share our own stories:
When we were undergraduates, most of us went through a process of indecision and exploration. Many of us still don’t know what we want to be doing in 10 years. By sharing our own struggles and journeys with our students, we can help them see that indecision is a normal and positive process.
Understand student context:
In our research, we have found that immigrant and first-generation students are often under pressure from their families to pursue a well-known career path (e.g., medicine, law). Their parents (and the students themselves) may be unaware of the variety of career paths that exist, or that U.S. higher education is structured so that students have time to explore. We can support students by understanding their context and, if necessary, working with them to develop strategies for communicating with their families about their decisions.
As advisors and educators who work with undergraduate students, we enthusiastically welcome more self-proclaimed undeclared students–as well as students who want to switch majors and explore career options. As long as students are intentionally learning from new activities, we contend there is merit in this indecision. During this new academic year, we would be wise to embrace a little indecisiveness — knowing that spaces of uncertainty can lead to opportunities for creativity, engagement, and persistence.
References and Additional Resources
EAB Student Success Collaborative. (2016). How late is too late? Myths and facts about the consequences of switching college majors. Retrieved from https://www.eab.com/technology/student-success-collaborative/members/white-papers/major-switching
Ibarra, H. (2003). Working identity: Unconventional strategies for reinventing your career. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press.
Jehangir, R. R., Stebleton, M. J., & Deenanath, V. (2015). An exploration of intersecting identities of first-generation, low-income college students (Research Report No. 5). Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina, National Resource Center for The First-Year Experience and Students in Transition.
Stebleton, M.J., & Aleixo, M.B. (2015). Examining undocumented Latino/a student interactions with faculty and institutional agents. Journal of Hispanic Higher Education, 14(3), 256-273. doi: 10.1177/1538192715574097
Stebleton, M. J., & Diamond, K.D. (2016, September 1). Supporting immigrant college students towards career success. Retrieved from http://www.ncda.org/aws/NCDA/pt/sd/news_article/126351/_PARENT/CC_layout_details/false
Stebleton, M. J., & Eggerth, D. (2012). Returning to our roots: Immigrant populations at work. Journal of Career Development, 39(1), 3-12. doi: 10.1177/0894845311417131.
Straumsheim, C. (2016, Aug. 24). Decision time. Inside Higher Education. Retrieved from: https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2016/08/24/study-finds-students-benefit-waiting-declare-major
September takes a student-centered focus, with writers sharing inspirational ideas, programs, and resources on how to best serve our student populations.
This post is part of our #SACareer series, addressing careers in student affairs, careers outside of student affairs, and the work of career services professionals. Read more about the series in Jake Nelko’s intro post. Each post is a contribution by a member or friend of the Commission for Career Services from ACPA. Our organization exists to benefit the careers of career services professionals, student affairs professionals, and anyone supporting students in the career endeavors. For more information about how to get involved with the Commission for Career Services or the #SACareer blog series, contact Cristina Lawson at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This post was co-authored by Kate Diamond and Michael J. Stebleton.
Michael J. Stebleton, PhD, is an Associate Professor of Higher Education, located in the College of Education and Human Development at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities. His teaching and research interests focus on: career development, multicultural student development, college student success, and retention issues of historically underserved student populations. Current studies focus on understanding the experiences of first-generation and immigrant college students, including factors that influence career decision-making. Recent publications appear in the Career Development Quarterly, Journal of Employment Counseling, and the Journal of Career Development. Stebleton is lead author of a textbook, Hired, by Pearson. He welcomes comments and feedback on this article at: email@example.com.