December 4th, 2013

What Kind of Career Advice Should We Give Our Students?


career advice

My second cousin will soon graduate with a degree in graphic design. Yet his heart isn’t in his major—it’s in stand-up comedy. He first majored in communications, found that “boring,” contemplated a theatre major, and finally settled on graphic design. His parents supported the graphic design choice. It seems like an employable option.

He arrived at college very knowledgeable about comedians. He’d read biographies and autobiographies, listened many times over to the routines of his favorites, and could talk at length about what made a particular comedian great. All through college he’s worked on his routines, writing new ones, and revising the old ones. In conversations and emails, he plays with language and works hard to make you laugh.

Comedy is his passion, and he’s become pretty good at stand up. He no longer uses notes or freezes in front of an audience. He’s found his way to a kind of cerebral humor that is funny for the way it flies from one unexpected image to the next. His jokes don’t always engender big laughs because they take time to figure out, and his delivery is sometimes too fast for his content. He hasn’t arrived, but he certainly has potential.

But as I sit across the table from him in a funky restaurant, I hear myself talking about the perils of following this dream. “You’re going to have to find a day job and keep it.” “You’re probably going to be poor for a long time.” “You need to have your head on straight—stand-up comedy is done in the presence of alcohol, for sure, and perhaps drugs as well.” “Yes, you need to be in a big city, but it expensive to live there. Try for a city with good public transportation.” During my steady stream of advice, he’s enormously polite, listening intently, and nodding appropriately, but does he really understand how hard it’s going to be?

I drive home after seeing his latest routine delivered to an audience of about 20 people (mostly other would-be comedians) in a dark, dingy lounge with an unpleasant odor. As I’m driving, I think about teachers as mentors, guides, and coaches. And I wonder how much responsibility we have to offer guidance and how we find our way to good advice. Are all passions worth pursuing? Will my cousin make it big? Will he even make a living at it? Will he have to give up his dream and settle for something other than what he loves?

It’s hard to know what advice to offer when someone’s pursuing a passion that’s fraught with risk. But I’ve also looked into the faces of lots of students in college with no passion at all. I advised them in my office: “What would you like to do?” “Accounting.” It’s a one word answer. “Why?” “I can get a good job.” “But will you like doing accounting every day of your life?” “I don’t know. I guess I’ll have to wait and see.” Should I try to shake out that complacency? Wait-and-see-attitudes don’t usually deliver lives lived with excitement and purpose.

Then there were those students whose motivation was not for what they loved, but what they thought they wanted—job security, good benefits, and a decent salary. Daily we encounter people who made the choice to go with these types of secure jobs. Very often they’re bored, do their job poorly, and work with no sense of purpose or joy. Didn’t they need a teacher who challenged that motivation and helped them uncover alternatives?

We stand with students at those times and places when they make decisions that set the course of their lives. We once were in their shoes, and many of us can remember a teacher who shared advice and insights that helped us see the path ahead more clearly. Usually we can see a bit farther down the road than our students or maybe we’ve been down a road that looks a lot like the one ahead of them. Do we tell them what we see? Do they need reminders that what we’re trying to get them to learn is something they need to know? Should we keep after them to use what they’ve learned and to practice their skills to the point of exhaustion? Should we tell them to follow their dreams, even those that require great effort and lots of luck?

8 comments on “What Kind of Career Advice Should We Give Our Students?

  1. I remember reading once about a man with a passion for music, that wanted to play and share music and entertain. Yet, there was no way to earn a living at it. So, he worked for years at a job where he earned a living, and did his music on the side. Upon retirement, he went into his music career and enjoyed.

  2. I'm one of those people who studied business because it would get me jobs – and I was right, it did keep me employed. It was only after turning 40 and a burnout that I started seriously reconsidering my options, since I still had at least 20 years left in the workforce. I knew then that I couldn't keep doing what I had been doing. Thank goodness that we are never really too old to learn. I now have a certificate in Adult Education. Through my career change I've discovered that I like instructional design, coaching and web design. I still have 9 years left before I get to pursue my real passion, quilting, full time but at least I'm mostly doing what I enjoy and generally don't feel like I'm just putting in my time before I retire. All this to say that no matter what path we choose, there will always be alternate routes that will come up. I think the real trick is to realise when a path needs to change.
    Thanks Dr. Weimer – I really enjoy your blogs.

  3. "Usually we can see a bit farther down the road than our students or maybe we've been down a road that looks a lot like the one ahead of them."

    We shouldn't kid ourselves. Many of the jobs college students will get do not even exist, so how can we imagine we see further?

    I'd suggest that some students need job security, some need inspiration. But most will find joyful learning a useful tool, and most need their horizons, professional or practical, expanded. And most would be helped by what I'd call creative empowerment.

    As far as being a comedian, that could have some lucrative outlets in the fields of education, or marketing, or politics! (Wheelock College currently offers a course entitled "Clowning for Sociopolitical Change."

  4. I think it very important, not to talk about what you will do for the rest of your life, but rather what do you want to do next? Their first career has been to be a student. What comes next? Do they see further down the road from where they are now? Maybe next is a stepping stone to wher they wish to be later. And I fully agree with Ray, someone's dream job may not even exist yet.

  5. I'm puzzled by this article. A young man is about to get a degree in a major that should (as much as any) provide him with an income. At the same time, he has enough energy and passion to continue working on what may become as reliable a job, or even eclipse a position in graphic design. So the writer talks to this 20-something year old man who has probably done more research in the success and failure of comedians than the writer has ever done, and proceeds to be pessimistic about this passion.

    What should we tell our students? Maybe the question is how should we listen to our students. A student wants to be an accountant; that student sees reliable income. I have students who love accounting and can't wait to be an accountant, and others whose parents are insisting on it while the students yearn to do something else. I can't assume who is who until I hear from them, listen to why they are interested, listen to what they know about their chosen profession (or dream). A desire to be an accountant can be just as "impractical" as one to be a comedian depending on what the person knows of the odds of success, what information they have about their day to day lives in those positions, what they are willing to do to succeed, and what they are willing to give up. That's not something we "tell" our students: we listen, we offer resources, we let them do the work of finding out. They will not simply listen and do, but they may hear us say how we admire their perseverance, how we appreciate their passion, how we know they will do what it takes to learn about their chosen goals and realize what it takes to achieve them.

  6. Something about this whole scenario seems a bit off to me. Who says college or life is about finding a career we enjoy? I went through four years of college with this idea in mind, only to find myself in my last semester of college and beyond finding a completely different passion and realized that college is not about prepping for a career. It is about finding yourself! Some people do not live for their careers or jobs. They find their passion in living life – family, friends, avocations… Who says that what we do for a living has to be what we live to do??? I tried to get by for 15 years doing odd jobs – some of which I actually enjoyed but none of which I found fulfilling (and none of which I stuck with much more than two years before moving on to something else), trying to console myself that "what I do for a living is not what I live to do". However, in the end, I did manage to combine my passion with making a living. I've been teaching my passion for the past 17 years. Perhaps one thing we can tell our students is our own life story of how we found our passion (through work or otherwise).

  7. It's very important to remember the Boy Scout motto: "Be prepared." I've always tried very hard to make sure I was teaching students *How* and *Why* to learn and not just *What* to learn, even in the most basic classes for undergrads. This is how I was taught as an undergrad 25 years ago – learn everything because you don't always know what you'll need. Don't specialize too closely too early, because you need a host of skills to be marketable. It applies even more today. Those kids that get great jobs out of school are the hardest workers, the ones that never ask "Is this going to be on the test?" They have no sense of entitlement, only an appreciation of what they bring to a potential employer. They can discuss their skills, but they are modest to know that "how we did it in school" isn't really relevant. Usually, I guess, these are the students with a passion for what they're doing, but I can't tell you whether that passion comes from their interest in business or their interest in reducing uncertainty in their future.

  8. Great essay. I bring the issue of career choices into my philosophy classes emphasizing the need to find first what you enjoy doing rather than what makes for you a lot of money. I also recommend finding a second avocation, perhaps a more artistic/creative one, and use myself as an example (google my name and "Lightsculpture" to see what that is). I also emphasize the need for a broad education in a variety of subjects as preparation for a future likely to include a myriad of jobs.

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