Career coaches often advise students to find a career that fits with their talents and interests. Various assessment tools and personality inventories are aimed at unearthing strengths and attributes which jobseekers can then use to identify roles that best suit them. Research by Gallup suggests that knowing one’s strengths can lead to greater engagement, productivity, health, and happiness. On the surface, finding a good fit sounds like sage advice. However, this perspective can be problematic for a number of reasons.
It’s a limiting perspective
I found a career that fits me, but I don’t seem to fit it – what now? The notion of career fit is everywhere, even finding its way into rejection letters from hiring managers: “Unfortunately, you aren’t the right fit for the job at this time”, or equally perplexing to weary jobseekers “I’m sorry but another candidate is a better fit for the current position.” These responses can be especially devastating when students are inundated with messages about choosing the right career or landing their dream job. Aspirational language does not seem to live up to the reality of job seeking.
It’s not a level playing field
Career fit can minimize barriers faced by students before they ever set foot on a university campus, a problem made clear in the recent college admissions cheating scandal. Many students, despite their immense talents and interests, simply do not have the same access to opportunities enjoyed by their more privileged counterparts. For example, students returning to school after raising a family or pursuing a career in a different field may have the requisite skills and experience, but have not had the time to build up a network of connections. Others may not have had adequate exposure to the range of career opportunities that are available.
It’s not a one-time decision
Unpredictability and uncertainty seem to be the norm both in terms of the labour market and the experiences of jobseekers. Students entering the workforce must contend with an abundance of short-term and part-time positions and a lack of job security. Millennials change jobs frequently compared to other generations in the workforce, requiring new incentives to stay put. Matching one’s skills to a particular career can be a daunting task when jobs are rapidly evolving, as well as, the qualifications that are in demand.
Why not swap out fit for feel?
In light of these concerns, educators and career advisors are wise to pull back from language about career fit and instead, encourage students to strive for career feel and career resilience. Here’s why career feel can be a helpful perspective for advising students.
- Career decisions can be hampered by an overreliance on rational thinking and information gathering. By focusing on feel rather than fit, students can draw on intuition as an anchor for decision making. These ideas are not new. Some 30 years ago H.B. Gellat proposed a decision-making strategy known as positive uncertainty. This strategy involves embracing uncertainty and recognizing change as a normal and expected part of a career.
- Self-knowledge is not only important for identifying potential job opportunities but also serves as a vehicle for increasing resilience and personal agency. Resilient individuals are able to adapt to changing circumstances with greater self-confidence and flexibility. Career assessment tools can help students build self-awareness, and this in turn can promote greater self-regulation in response to stressful or ambiguous situations.
- Intuition is sustained by experiential engagement with the world of work. Such hands-on experience can be gained through co-op placements, internships, informational interviews, and job shadowing. Students can try out different roles and judge for themselves what feeds their curiosity and keeps them feeling engaged.
And lastly, here are some questions career advisors can use to steer their conversations with students:
- Now that you’ve had a chance to explore job opportunities and gather information about various career paths, what is your gut telling you?
- As we are talking about this particular career path, what do you notice about yourself?
- Do you feel engaged and excited?
- Does every job you hold have to be connected to your talents and interests?
- Are your talents and interests connected to other roles outside of paid work?
- What other considerations (e.g. family expectations, location, remuneration, etc.) are there when deciding on a career?
Nandini Maharaj is the research grants facilitator in the faculty of education, office of research in education, at the University of British Columbia.