Helping a child face, and embrace, a career

Your college sophomore shows no signs of a career track. How can you help her choose a path?

Parent advice

(from our panel of staff contributors)

I think colleges are far too career-focused these days, a natural consequence of their sky-high costs. College is where you go to be exposed to new ideas, new experiences and (maybe) new career goals. I'd say do not push your sophomore onto a career path, but do push her into trying new things. If she thinks she'd like to be a teacher, get her to be a volunteer tutor somewhere. Prod her into internships that might help identify/eliminate some career choices.

Phil Vettel

I think kids might be intimidated by the thought of picking a "forever" path, especially if they have friends who have known from kindergarten that they'd like to be a doctor, so it's a kindness and a necessity to start the conversation. You might direct your student to the college's counseling department, where she can take aptitude tests to see what careers might be a good fit. Also take a look at grades. In what does she excel? Most colleges expect students to declare a major by junior year, so her rudderless existence is about to end anyway.

Maureen Hart

It's tough to stay out of it when the meter is running. She's either draining her college savings or amassing student loan debt. I would chat with her about taking a year off, making it clear that she would have to get a job, preferably in a field that she might be interested in.

Denise Joyce

I remember my dad sitting me down and lecturing me on my own lack of a career goal at a somewhat younger age. He had compiled a list of careers that I could look into — the professions that were going to be most in demand, kind of like the lists Fortune magazine publishes every so often. No. 1 on the list was actuarial science in the insurance industry. That sort of registered, right or wrong, like if I don't get my tail into gear I might have to try to become an actuary.

— Doug George

Expert advice

Before you don the career counselor hat, make sure you're not misreading a larger message from your child, says child psychologist Jennifer Powell-Lunder, co-author of "Teenage as a Second Language" (Adams Media). Like maybe she's afraid to tell you what she wants to do.

"Sometimes parents can't even admit that they're doing this, but they can be putting pressure on their child to move into a certain field or claim a certain identity," Powell-Lunder says. "Especially if they come from a long line of doctors or lawyers or there's always been talk in the family about what your child would become. It could be that your child is afraid to admit to you, or maybe even herself, that she's not really excited by the idea of becoming what you always assumed she would."

A conversation directly addressing these expectations may set her free to finally think clearly about what she truly wants to pursue.

If, however, a child is truly directionless, you're wise to help steer him or her in the direction of current interests.

"Use the resources at school: academic counselors, career counselors," Powell-Lunder suggests. "And look at the clubs she's interested in. Encourage her to get involved in on-campus activities and volunteer work. … Just try all kinds of new things."

In her case, Powell-Lunder entered college intending to pursue fashion. But after volunteering for the school's Big Brothers Big Sisters program, she became interested in working with children and eventually decided to pursue psychology.

"There's so much opportunity on campus," she says. "Your approach needs to be, 'The world is a big, exciting, open place,' rather than demanding, 'You better go find something to pursue because you're running out of time.' Approach it as an exciting time to try something new."

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