By April Dyrda
Post-secondary education is increasingly viewed as necessary to a person’s successful integration into our competitive workforce. Fortunately, this reality comes as no surprise to today’s youth, with approximately 60% of students across North America choosing to continue their education after high school1. Unfortunately, post-secondary learners are not always prepared for the demands of higher education.
While post-secondary enrolment rates are at an all-time high, students are increasingly underprepared for their studies and the career decisions that are made during this time. To put this into perspective, more than 40% of students attending a post-secondary institution within Canada will drop out before completing their studies2, and almost half of students across the United States enrolled in a four-year degree program will not graduate3. Although statistics across nations vary, it is consistently found that post-secondary institutions fail to graduate a large number of the students they enroll.
To address these issues, a recent study conducted at the University of Calgary4 asked first year undergraduate students about the sources of support they found to be most useful in preparing them for their post-secondary decisions and career aspirations. Below are a few of the highest rated sources of career support as indicated by students, and how taking advantage of these opportunities has worked to benefit their education and career:
1. Become involved in internship/volunteer work: The highest rated source of career planning support among first year university students was internship and volunteer work. Whether enrolled in post-secondary or still deciding on an educational path to take, internship and volunteer work provided meaningful employment experiences to students. These experiences create opportunities for hands-on learning that is not available in a classroom setting, allowing students and first time job seekers to ‘test the waters’ in a particular field of work on a short-term basis. Not only that, but internships and other volunteer positions also provide potential employees an edge in the job market, offering valuable work experiences, skill training, and networking opportunities.
2. Take a productive gap year: First year university students who took a gap year after finishing high school spoke highly of their experience, and were significantly more likely than students who had not taken a gap year to indicate that their personal life experiences were helpful to their career planning. Increased self-awareness is a commonly cited benefit of taking a gap year, providing students with greater clarity in their career ambitions. To get the most out of a gap year, it is important that students continue to pursue their educational and career goals during this time. Applying for internships or volunteer jobs, conducting informational interviews, and taking advantage of other opportunities to explore and build on strengths all contribute to a productive gap year experience.
3. Seek out the support of a career counsellor: The third highest rated source of career planning support among first year university students was counsellors. Private career counsellors or guidance counsellors who work in an educational institution are important sources of career planning support. These professionals assist individuals in understanding their talents and interests, as well as help students and job seekers determine the best educational or career options available to maximize success in achieving their career goals. Students thinking about beginning, or who have already begun, their post-secondary studies are encouraged to seek out the guidance of a career counsellor, who can provide insight and support to individuals in the process of discovering their career path.
April Dyrda is currently pursuing her Master of Science degree at the University of Calgary, with a specialization in counselling psychology. April currently works as a research assistant at Calgary Career Counselling and is involved with the University of Calgary’s Career Services. Her interests include the career development needs of higher learners and the transition that students make from academia to the workforce.
1 Pancer, S. M., Pratt, M., Hunsberger, B., & Alisat, S. (2004). Bridging troubled waters: Helping students make the transition from high school to university. Guidance and Counselling, 19, 184-190.
2 Council of Alberta University Students. (2011, June). Securing Alberta’s future: How Alberta can lead in post-secondary education.
3 Jansen, E. P. W. A., & Van der Meer, J. (2012). Ready for university? A cross-national study of students’ perceived preparedness for university. The Australian Educational Researcher, 39, 1-16.
4 Dyrda, A., & Hambley, L. (2014). Ready or not? Preparedness of first year university students for career decision-making (Unpublished honours thesis). University of Calgary, Calgary, Alberta.