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Tim Kirkner.jpgTim Kirkner and Julie Levinson, Montgomery College

Julie Levinson.jpgCareer decision making can be complicated and overwhelming for both students and advisors. How many times have we had a student drop in during walk-in advising hours hoping for a quick fix to his/her career decision making dilemma? With a sense of urgency and impatience, they want to decide the rest of their lives in the span of a half hour. To the other extreme, many appear otherwise preoccupied, seemingly unmotivated or paralyzed in making choices regarding major and/or career.

Since many students come from an environment in which they are told what to take in order to complete their high school requirements, it is no wonder that they come to us with unreasonable expectations and a desire for “prescriptive” guidance. Whether the inability to adequately resolve their decision-making predicament stems from conditioning in high school, individual temperament or from some external source (e.g., family members or institutional pressure), we need to be equipped to assist our students with moving plans forward.

Crunched for time and knowing resolution will require us to roll up our sleeves and go in deep, often our instinct is to refer to other college resources, such as a career development class or the career services office. It comes as no surprise then that many advisors express some apprehension with wandering into the realm of career counseling during peak advising times. Yet, as we all know, the process of solving career problems is intertwined intrinsically with developing sound academic plans and naturally spills over into the academic advising arena.

With added institutional pressure to have students complete efficiently, there is an even greater need to provide students engaged in career decision making with the tools to move in a more positive, productive direction. How do we go about assisting our students in their unrealistic quest to make a “right,” “best” or “lasting” decision in a brief advising session? In this article, we will highlight several career concepts and decision making strategies that are useful for working with students in this context.

Current career development theories tend to emphasize career adaptability as an essential skill since vocational planning typically does not occur in a logical or linear fashion. This construct supports what we already know about our students’ process for choosing majors and/or selecting a career path. Many start off with one program of study only to discover that they are better suited for something completely different, or with little exposure to the larger world of work, did not even know a major or occupation existed. How many pre-med students have we seen that quickly discover they have no interest in biology, blood, or staying in school for years and accruing massive amounts of debt? For that matter, how many of us knew we were going to be advisors until much later in our academic career?

Taking this into account, we can lessen the pressure for ourselves, as well as our students, by presenting career decision making not as a single decision made in a brief encounter, but instead a lifelong, developmental process. Doing so, we help students resist the urge to map out the perfect, detailed plan and emphasize the value of letting plans develop and unfold more gradually. It also buys time for students to incorporate new information and capitalize on experiences gained during their college years.

The Happenstance Learning theory provides an ideal framework for teaching this perspective on career planning (Krumboltz, 1999). Krumboltz and Levin’s book (2004) offers a quick primer on planned happenstance and includes stories, thought-provoking questions and exercises that can be incorporated into advising conversations. Using a planned happenstance approach, we can more effectively shift students’ focus from formulating plans and making a decision to being more adaptable and open-minded. As a result, we foster resilience and promote positive attitudes about the uncertainty they may be feeling about their future.

H.B. Gelatt (2003) presents a similar paradoxical approach to career planning with his notion of “positive uncertainty.” He also calls attention to the non-rational processes that underlie career decision-making. Several vocational psychologists, including Gelatt, have pointed out the important role of emotion and intuition in making significant life decisions. Researchers (Dijksterhuis, 2006) have demonstrated people make better decisions if, at some point, they stop thinking about the pros and cons and let the unconscious mind do some of the work. So in fact, “contrary to conventional wisdom, it is not always advantageous to engage in thorough conscious deliberation before choosing” (p. 1,005).

Following the same line of thinking, Sheena Iyengar (2010) noted the key to making decisions about future happiness is to use 'informed intuition,' which is where reason and the gut intersect. Malcolm Gladwell described a similar process in Blink (2007), which he termed “rapid cognition.” Similarly, in How We Decide (2009), Jonah Lehrer examined this phenomenon by looking at the inner workings of the brain as it impacts our decision making strategies. All three books offer insights into others ways we can assist students stymied by the decision making process in a relatively quick manner.

We can infer from Iyengar that students will be more successful with making significant decisions if they effectively inform their gut over time by making smaller, incremental decisions. Once we determine that a student may simply be stuck at a decision making point, but otherwise has reasonably sufficient self-knowledge to make an informed decision, we can give them the confidence to rely more on their gut. To that end, the decision grid is an exceptionally useful tool for helping students make a decision during a brief session.

The decision grid draws information out simultaneously from the logical and non-rational sides of the brain. Instead of simply asking students to list the pros and cons of a particular option they are considering, we ask them to go a step further by rating on a plus/minus scale of 0-10 how positive or negative they perceive the pro or con to be. Doing so we can account for the student's subjective experience as weighed by emotion. Completing the decision grid in concert with another person, such as an advisor or friend, gives the student an opportunity to dialogue and process in order to better explain how his/her intuitive side came to inform the decision. It also opens up the possibility for creative, out-of-the-box thinking that may lead the student to feel less stalled by either coming to a decision or generating new possibilities.

Iyengar also calls attention to another common decision making pitfall -- paralysis due to too many choices. She and many others have described the toll that too much choice can have on our students. In fact, Barry Schwartz (2004) cautions of choice overload. More opportunities for choice means: 1) decisions require more effort; 2) making mistakes is more likely; and 3) the psychological consequences of mistakes may be more severe. (Both argue that having less choice can actually have counter-intuitive benefits for psychological wellbeing.)

They would also likely make the case that our task as advisors is to narrow down the options and make the process of choosing more manageable. The decision grid can again be used to help students narrow choice down to accomplish this task. Typically the first step is to simply ask the student to identify the specific decision they are trying to make. Instead of deciding on their major, we help them chunk the decision into smaller parts, such as 'which classes could you take next semester that may help you clarify interests.'

Another strategy Schwartz (2002) suggests is encouraging students to be “satisficers,” not “maximizers.” In essence, we teach them to choose something that meets the general requirements instead of searching for the “best” option. With all this in mind we can help students develop a timeline by which incremental decisions can be made. By alerting students to significant decision making milestones, we can help them resist “maximizing” tendencies and reduce the anxiety that they have somehow “missed the boat.” For example, an advising syllabus can direct students to certain key junctures, such as “where should I be after my first semester or year?” Several examples of academic advising syllabi are available in NACADA’s Clearinghouse of Academic Advising Resources.

Hopefully we have demonstrated that it is possible to assist students even during a brief session. By pointing out to students that time really is on their side and exploration is possible and even desirable, we can help reduce stress as they plan out their futures. Showing that the “best” option in the student’s mind is not the only option, and may even be detrimental, can lead to even more satisfying selections. By encouraging decisions using “informed intuition” students can increase their comfort with the decisions they have made and will make. They will also have an explanation for others as to why they have made certain choices.

Finally, if nothing else can be accomplished in a brief session, we can at least acknowledge the difficult nature of career decision making. Peterson, Sampson, Reardon & Lenz (2003) summarize the complexity by stating “students are often faced with ambiguous information, a range of conflicting feelings, multiple options with no single correct choice, and an uncertainty about the outcome. Additionally, finding a solution or making a decision typically creates new problems.” A key aspect of their Cognitive Information Processing model is that students can be taught to solve career problems just as they can learn to solve math or chemistry problems. Ultimately, they stress the importance of teaching improved decision making skills in order to bridge “where students are and where they want to be” -- a perfect thought with which to begin our career decision making conversations with students.

Tim Kirkner
Professor and Counselor
Montgomery College

Julie Levinson
Associate Professor and Counselor
Montgomery College


Academic advising syllabi. Retrieved from NACADA Clearinghouse of Academic Advising Resources Web Site: https://www.nacada.ksu.edu/Resources/Academic-Advising-Today/View-Articles/Career-Decision-Making-in-a-Brief-Advising-Context-Yes-We-Can.aspx.

Dijksterhuis, Ap, Bos, Maarten W., Nordgren, Loran F., van Baaren, Rick B. (2006). On making the right choice: the deliberation-without-attention effect. Science, 311, 1005-1007.

Gelatt, C. and Gelatt, H.B. (2003). Creative decision making: Using positive uncertainty. Thomson Crisp Learning, Los Altos, CA.

Gladwell, M. (2007). Blink: The power of thinking without thinking. Back Bay Books: New York, NY.

Iyengar, S. (2010). The art of choosing. Twelve: New York, NY.

Jacob, M.C. (1987). Managing the internship application experience: Advice form an exhausted but content survivor. The Counseling Psychologist, 15 (1), 146-155

Krumboltz, J.D. and Levin, A.S. (2004). Luck is no accident: Making the most of happenstance in your life and career. Impact Publishers: Atascadero, CA.

 Krumboltz, J.D., Levin, A.S., and Mitchell, K. (1999). Planned happenstance: Constructing unexpected career opportunities. Journal of Counseling and Development, 77 (2), 115-124.

Lehrer, J. (2009). How we decide. Houghton Mifflin: Boston, MA.

Peterson, G. W., Sampson, J. P., Jr., & Reardon, R. C., & Lenz, J. G. (2003). Core concepts of a cognitive approach to career development and services. Unpublished manuscript, Florida State University, Center for the Study of Technology in Counseling and Career Development, Tallahassee, FL. Retrieved from http://www.career.fsu.edu/content/184830/1602582/core

Schwartz, B. (2002). Maximizing versus satisficing: Happiness is a matter of choice. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 83 (5), 1178–1197. Retrieved from http://www.swarthmore.edu/SocSci/bschwar1/srp.html

Schwartz, B. (2004). The paradox of choice: Why less is more. Harper Perennial: New York, NY.

Cite this article using APA style as: Kirkner, K. & Levinson, J. (2012, September). Career decision making in a brief advising context: Yes we can! Academic Advising Today, 35(3). Retrieved from [insert url here]  


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