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Friday, September 14, 2012

Challenges in Career Counselling for Post-Secondary Education

by guest blogger David Lindskoog

My topic deals with challenges facing modern career counsellors in post-secondary education (PSE). While it’s certainly true that such challenges exist (where do they not?), I can’t help but think that when it comes to challenges in career counselling, PSE may be the sector facing the fewest, or perhaps the least daunting.

Raising an eyebrow? Perhaps readers who work in the sector as I do disagree? Let’s pause to reflect on just how good we have it.

We get to work with a population of relatively young, attractive, verbal, intelligent, and successful people, Schofield’s magical YAVIS population, who are theoretically most willing and able to reap the benefits of our interventions. While there are certainly pressures to justify our services to funding sources, such as the institution and/or its stakeholders, the typical post-secondary career counsellor doesn’t have to meet specific quotas or job placement rates in order to retain their position. Finally, we have the pleasure of working in vibrant, intellectually stimulating, collaborative environments that often encourage variety, creativity, and ingenuity in our tasks.

What in the world could we possibly complain about?

Well, we won’t call it complaining, but there are certainly challenges facing career counsellors in PSE. I’ll be sharing a few of my own observations, but I encourage readers to share their own opinions in the comments section as well.

Client Factors

High Pressures
There are a lot of pressures facing any client seeking help from a career counsellor, but the combination of high-achievement personalities, overly involved, though well-meaning, parents, and all of the growth and change that occurs during PSE years creates a disproportionate amount of pressure on students. More often than not, this leads to feelings of shame and damaged self-esteem when students believe they have to “have it all figured out” but don’t, especially if they have friends in ‘practical’ majors such as engineering.

Quick Fix Mentality
By the time they hit PSE, students are often accustomed to an educational culture of instant feedback and quick answers. It shouldn’t come as a surprise, then, that they expect much of the same when accessing student services such as career counselling. While PSE students are not the only ones guilty of wanting a quick fix to their issues when it comes to counselling, I would be willing to bet that anyone who’s done career counselling work with this population has had a client ask them to “just give them the test that tells them what they should do/study.” Educating students about what career counselling really looks like, then making a case for how that might be valuable to them, despite the fact that it usually takes a certain investment of time and effort, can be a real challenge.

Systemic Factors

Career Development Myths
Career counsellors in PSE hear a lot of things that can signal the presence of unhelpful myths regarding career development. There are myths about certainty, happenstance, and change. For example, we hear “if I don’t know what I want to do after I graduate, I must be a failure;” “changing my major and/or taking extra semesters to finish my degree is just a waste of time and money”. There are unrealistic expectations about the relationship between PSE and careers such as, “all I have to do is graduate, then there will be a job waiting for me;” “I’m in my first year – it’s too early to start thinking about my career!”. These are only a couple of the widespread myths that career counsellors attempt to dispel, not just with individual clients, but also parents, other institutional staff and faculty members, even employers.

Funding & Institutional Priorities
The bottom line for any PSE career centre of course, is funding. Though many different funding structures among Canadian PSE career centres exist, the common realization and increasing emphasis these days seems to be on the justification of that funding. Often, that means aligning the work of career counsellors with the larger goals of the institution. If an institution is particularly concerned about the retention of students, as most, if not all, are, it’s up to the career centre to demonstrate to the institution that their work supports the retention of students (fortunately, it does [i]). It may not be a skill set that most counsellors have, but such marketing is essential to ensuring the necessary resources to help as many students as possible.

Ultimately, these are only a few of my own observations from personal experience in the sector. Additional challenges facing PSE career counsellors could likely occupy more than a brief blog article!

Are you one of the third of career development professionals [ii] who work with PSE students? What other challenges do you face in your work? What rewards offset those challenges? I welcome and encourage your thoughts in the comments!

David Lindskoog, MA

David is a Career Advisor at Simon Fraser University in Surrey, BC. In addition to his work, he is an avid blogger and social media enthusiast. Catch up with him on twitter at @lindenforest!

[i] Braxton, J. M., Brier, E. M., & Steele, S. L. (2007). Shaping retention from research to practice. Journal of College Student Retention: Research, Theory, and Practice, 9(3), 377-399.
[ii] Canadian Education and Research Institute for Counselling (2011). Survey of career services professionals: Highlights report.


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