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Responsibilities May Include

Career exploration needs to start before students graduate

Students will feel more in control if they are exposed to career exploration early and within their academic discipline.


Seventy percent of university graduates are stuck in jobs not related to their education. Too many people acquiesce to opportunities in front of them, rather than strive to find something that truly interests them. Not having a job that brings a person joy can lead to disengagement, poor productivity, substance abuse, mental health issues, and more. Universities should be mitigating this major societal problem by teaching students how to pursue meaningful careers that leverage their education.

Because the workplace is becoming hypercompetitive, millennials are beginning to question the popular myth: “Go to university, if you want a good career.” In Canada, concerns about under-employment following higher education is a wellspring for student anxiety and depression that is on the rise in universities. Students feel that they have little control over their destiny. Exposing students to career exploration early and from within their academic discipline, can help them to develop a strong locus of control.

Optional career services are unfortunately not enough, because only a small percentage of students are actually engaged. Most students kick career exploration down the road, at their peril. This career orientation failure is enabled by myths such as: “A career is something you pursue after you are finished your education.” In reality, the two should play off one another, as part of a continuous and reciprocal learning strategy.

New research suggests that one of the most productive things a professor can do for their students is discuss their career interests. This is a great start because it opens a wayfinding conversation. However, for many reasons, it’s not enough. Students (and professors) may not know about all the careers that are available. Their view could be limited by the university and simply not knowing what’s out there. Students need to be put into the driver’s seat of their own career. They need to visit job boards, examine career lists and read career blogs. They need to consider how they might fit into different organizations and sectors, even.

Although professors are not in the vocational business, they are in the education business. If education and vocation are going to be inextricably tied in the future, then professors are going to need to become more aware of career opportunities for students at a higher level. This means not only knowing about technical roles inside companies, but also recognizing that there are many careers in the business, regulatory, and finance area. Here, domain expertise is leveraged and combined with professional skills such as communication, critical thinking, project management, teamwork, etc. – all of which can all be parlayed into an exciting career.

Students, on the other hand, will need to focus more on the granular level. In the knowledge economy, companies and jobs are constantly in flux. Eighty-five percent of the jobs in 2030 are considered to be “unknown” at this time. Being on the cutting edge of knowledge, students need to invent their career paths or land into an emerging niche. “Go to where the puck is going, not where it’s been.” Students should become proficient at strategic planning and landscape analysis in order to find a career they may want to pursue. This is research and it is something that students are trained to do. Niches can take time to appear, so students should be advised to start early.

PEST (Political, Economic, Societal, Technical) analysis can be used to assess the landscape. An important strategic planning tool, it helps identify future opportunities and risks. Disruptive technologies (i.e. artificial intelligence, automation) disturb existing value networks and create new opportunities. They also create new employment opportunities for the immersed. Career interests can be influenced by many other factors beyond the technical. Remember that opportunity favours the prepared mind.

One of the most powerful approaches a student can use to explore career opportunities is informational interviewing. In my undergraduate and graduate teaching, I ask students to interview a working professional in an field that interests them. This assignment helps them to understand the career, how it is changing, and how they might map themselves onto that career in the future. Students learn the pros and cons of a particular role and can choose to pivot to a variation of their original career model. As a networking technique, students learn that most working professionals can be giving with their time. It promotes professional development by helping them develop tacit skills, and to imagine themselves in particular roles.

By teaching students how to explore careers in their discipline, universities can help them to escape their helplessness and to become more engaged in their education.

Derrick Rancourt is a stem cell biologist and professor in the Cumming School of Medicine, University of Calgary. He is an entrepreneurial scientist and director of Alberta’s Genome Engineering Centre. He teaches biotechnology business and professional development and serves on the Alberta Council of Technologies.
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  1. Karae White / April 4, 2019 at 10:35

    yes, yes, yes! and phrased so well, thanks for adding words to my thoughts!

  2. Cheryl Melatdoost / April 10, 2019 at 00:06

    Dear Dr. Rancourt,
    Loved this article! Thank-you. Do you see a role in Academic Advising for this? I feel that I spend more time talking with students about the “bigger picture” and trying to connect that to their studies, than I do helping them navigate the complexities of their program. Without an early understanding of how these things may or may not be connected students struggle with motivation and quickly become an at-risk population in the post secondary landscape.

  3. Chris Fernlund / April 16, 2019 at 10:16

    Thoroughly enjoyed the article Derrick; thanks for the read. You might be interested: a few post-secondary students, who were supported by the eCampusOntario SXD Lab designed a solution to the problem highlighted. They came up with the concept of Undiscipline (, which is a tool and platform that utilizes strategic foresight methodology to stimulate thinking about the future (and possible future decisions). The current prototype exists as a game, workshop and stand-along methodology. I thought you’d be interested in this bit of student-led innovation.

    Happy to chat further if interested!

  4. Chantal Rackley / April 16, 2019 at 12:24

    The PEST analysis is an excellent method! I have suggested to clients that they use the good old ‘SWOT’ – Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats’ analysis when analyzing a company. This is such a great article with really valuable points. Thanks for sharing.

  5. Candy Ho / May 7, 2019 at 21:09

    Thank you for your article Derrick and I couldn’t agree more as a fellow faculty member. My doctoral research focused on the phenomenon of ‘Career Influencers’ – post-secondary employees who informally help students with their careers; people like faculty members and academic advisors are identified by students as people they would turn to for career advice prior to walking into their campus career centres (if at all). Therefore, when we can help students engage in career exploration through our curriculum and courses, their career success is enhanced.