Why Do School Leavers Keep Making the Wrong Study and Career Choices?

By Simon Jedwab


People are asked to make career decisions at all stages of life. Whether it is to seek a promotion, apply for a new job, or embark on a career change, choices are made daily that shape the career paths of people. However, it is at school, particularly the later stages of secondary school, where young people are first asked to make important career decisions.

At secondary school, the key focus for career advisors and teachers is to help students make realistic choices about tertiary study and future careers based on enthusiasm and passion for a field of study and employment. If school leavers are entering tertiary courses linked to careers in fields they are passionate about, then why do so many young people drop out of tertiary courses or later regret their career choices?

This is a pertinent question, given that VCE results will soon be released and students may be faced with the opportunity to change their tertiary course preferences. Young people may be tempted by better-than-expected results to select courses with higher entry scores despite lack of enthusiasm for the course and associated careers, or feel pressured to give up on career aspirations based on receiving a lower ATAR score than required for entry into the course they desire. Decisions may seem wise at the time may result in withdrawal from tertiary studies or regret, unhappiness, and stress in future careers.

In January 2017, The Australian reported that one-in-three students failed to complete the University course they began.  It’s worse for non-university tertiary study where close to 25% do not complete their first year. So how do young school leavers avoid making a choice they may regret?

My advice to young school leavers making study and career decisions is twofold; take a deep breath and think about your career aspirations, and seek out further advice from trusted sources before making important study and career decisions.

A recent survey by school leaver career counselling website The Footnotes suggests:

  • Of 2600 current year 12 students surveyed, 89% looked to parents as their first source of information. As a group, parents may have made their most-recent tertiary study decisions over 25 years ago. A lot has changed since then; entry pathways into tertiary courses require careful navigation for industries that didn’t even exist when parents left school, but are now some of the fastest growing businesses in the world.
  • Decisions made by school leavers about tertiary study are less-frequently made about what to study than where to study.
  • Television and movies are particularly influential in inspiring young people and are often consulted as a key source of career information. In a raking of influences, television and movies occupied fourth place in The Footnotes survey, well ahead of school career counsellors (seventh place). No wonder psychology, particularly forensic psychology, was the third-most preferred profession cited in The Footnotes survey. Who wouldn’t want to be like the scientists, investigators and psychologists on CSI or in Law and Order?
  • Whilst external and internal factors influence career choices, people often find it easier to identify and rely on external factors such as family and peer pressure, location of tertiary institutions, and potential salary when making career decisions. More difficult to identify are the internal factors such as strengths, weaknesses, passions, career and personal expectations, etc. These intrinsic factors have a significant impact on career decisions, as when school leavers select a course they feel connected to, matching passions and life purpose, study is often found to be easier and more rewarding.

At Jewish Care, offering career counselling to school leavers is not one of our main services. What we do see are university graduates struggling to turn degrees into jobs, jobs into careers, and careers into fulfilment.

Why? For some, the bright lights of start-ups, entrepreneurships, and big ideas result in the lack of foundation experience and the often-unmet expectations of getting rich quick. For others, grand dreams of winning landmark cases in front of juries have resulted in five torturous years studying Law (sometimes describes as ‘the Arts degree of our generation’) and have left them with hefty student debts; struggling to get a job; and when they do, flailing under the pressure. But for most, insufficient information about career paths, study options, and outcomes, leave them in careers they never desired, feeling stressed, unfulfilled, and regretful.

Let’s face it; these days, jobs for life are very rare. Some people are fortunate to work in their ‘dream jobs’, but the reality is that many others often feel stuck in a job they don’t enjoy just to ‘pay the bills’. Research shows that most people will have an average of six career changes during their lifetime. Career paths often trail off in unpredictable directions, and many careers that will be vital in the future do not yet exist. Yet tertiary education often begins with a specific career in mind, for example, education, accounting, law, or medicine. The problem is; many people, including young people, are overwhelmed by making career choices they feel will dictate their future career and impact the rest of their life.

So, what makes a good career choice? The answer is different for every person and often influenced by external factors. What I would strongly recommend is that school leavers in the midst of making choices about tertiary education and career direction consider the following:

  • What are my strengths and what is my ‘dream’ career?
  • Who am I making this decision for? Is the career path I am following to please someone else, because of societal expectations, for money, or for my own excitement and enjoyment?
  • Am I choosing a path I believe I will enjoy for years to come, and can I make money doing it?
  • What do I want out of a job and can my choice fulfil that?
  • What career path am I looking to follow? Do I want work to be a job, a career, or a ‘calling’?
  • Am I willing to take a risk and leave my comfort zone in order to achieve the career I want?
  • Do I have enough information to make a decision I think I will be happy with for many years, and if not, where will I find this information?

I suggest school leavers, and indeed, any person seeking to make career decisions start with these questions and answer them honestly. After all, the study and career choices made by school leavers are not a signed guarantee for life, but rather, a good opportunity to head in a direction that will begin with energy and passion. To school leavers I offer this final piece of advice: Marks do not define you and your future career and there are many pathways that lead towards where you want to go.

Simon Jedwab is the Manager of the Jewish Care Employment and Education Centre. He is a trained social worker. Over the years, he has tried out a number of tests that ‘pick’ what career path he should follow. He always gets ‘social worker’. 


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