What are your Career Influencers?

Several months back, a reader asked the following question (thanks Andrea!):

Are there any longitudinal studies being performed on different influences imposed on young children that affect career choice?

I had intended to answer this question right away, but it proved to be a bit more complicated than I had first thought. I had initially assumed that there would be tons of research out there on factors that influence career pathing and decision making for young people.

But surprisingly, I didn’t find much.  I did find a helpful review by Duffy and Dik (2009) Beyond the Self: External Influences in the Career Development Process. They grouped external career influences into 4 broad categories: family expectations and needs, life circumstances, spiritual and religious factors, and social service motivation.

For example, an individual’s career influencers could stem from sociocultural factors such as parents who have a pre-determined career plan for them, life circumstances such as an injury or job loss that affects the planned career course dramatically, spiritual and religious factors that can lead to a belief in a “calling”, or social service motivation reflecting a need to identify a career that can help them make a difference in society.

But this type of research wasn’t quite what I was looking for. So I tried to conceptualize the question in different ways and think about it from different angles. I thought of my own experience and influencers and looked at data from respondents to career interest assessments.

When looking at the data, something jumped out at me. Career interests with the highest mean score seemed to consistently point to teaching. In other words, the most common top job group for this career interest assessment, across all students who have taken the assessment, was teaching.

And I thought: could this be due to the fact that the respondents are high school and college students who are and have been exposed to the job role of a teacher for as long as they can remember?

For this reason, I became interested in studying this concept of job exposure and job familiarity in more depth, and hope to be able to share results from a study I’m working on with our research team later this year.

In the meantime, it might be helpful for us to think about our own career influencers to try to brainstorm and help me explore further to see if research can guide a better answer to Andrea’s initial question.

Perhaps one complication is that career influences are multiply determined, which could be difficult to study and pinpoint with any consistency, or absolute accuracy. We can probably all recall a “turning point” in our career plans and we would be remiss to think that we won’t continue to experience these “turning points” as our careers unfurl and blossom.

For me personally, I thought I always wanted to be a lawyer. When I was young, the prestige of the career, coupled with a good salary, the reliance on strong writing and researching skills, and of course its portrayal in the popular media were probably strong drivers for me. I always had an interest in English and writing, and didn’t find careers associated with these subjects to be very abundant or lucrative, so I naturally thought that law might be a good way to play out my interests in these areas.

My next set of influencers probably came in high school when I had a relatively engaging and somewhat scandalous teacher for law and sociology. He helped reinforce my interest in these two areas.

Next stage: university and a whole host of career influencers. This is arguably the most influential time of one’s life in that the educational decisions you make are irreversible. You can obviously add to your set of skills and build on your knowledge throughout the span of your life, but your accumulated educational knowledge or formal training certainly should have the potential to set you on a certain path.

While attending university, I first ruled out law due to a slightly disappointing mark in first year English and a good mark in first year psychology. That was it. No other factors really came into play in my decision, which is interesting since the point spread between marks was probably only 6 or so, which is really not that large in the grand scheme of things. I can confidently say that at this important junction, I should have sought out career counselling.

But instead I pursued psychology and let one piece of advice (?) or information guide my path. I placed a little too much weight in the words of my 2nd year clinical psych prof and placed too little faith in my own abilities at the time. My prof told her class that, among the group of 100 of us (give or take) only 4 of us would make it to grad school. I have to admit I don’t remember the exact number she threw at us, but it doesn’t really matter. This was what I took away from it, and it dissuaded me from entering the field. This was a regret for awhile but since then I’ve come to realize that this change of course was not a bad thing, and could have been the best thing for my career, in a sense.

I ultimately chose to pursue Industrial/Organizational psychology because it sounded like a practical application of the field that could lead to a career, and the rest is history (with a few wonderful mentors to guide me along the way).

I can summarize by highlighting my key influencers as teachers, with substantial support from my parents to pursue my areas of interest (not without some prodding from my dad to enter computer science)…

I’d like to open up the discussion to find out what influenced all of you. Please share your own career influencers!

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