Choose your own adventure: how to decide on a post-secondary program

How to decide between college and university in Canada

Which one is better? What career is right for you? Here’s a step-by-step guide to figuring it out.

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Vancouver Campus (Hover Collective/UBC)

Career coach Sarah Vermunt always loved writing. In her book, Careergasm: Find Your Way to Feel-Good Work, she describes how, when it came time to decide which career path to follow, a “very well-intentioned guidance counsellor” suggested she become a journalist. Four years later, at 23 years old, she had a shiny new journalism degree hanging on the wall and was working full-time selling eyebrow rings and trippy candles at her “crappy summer retail job.”

“I didn’t like journalism, so I never became a journalist,” Vermunt writes. Instead, she ended up accepting a four-month contract working as a university recruiter. She didn’t have a degree in the field, nor did she have any related experience or training. It wasn’t part of her plan for her career, she explains, “but it was the perfect fit.”

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After working in recruitment and academia for 10 years, Vermunt switched gears again and launched her career-coaching business. Now she helps young professionals “find careers they can fall crazy drunk in love with.” Her story is a relatable one for many. The modern-day career path is non-linear—an illustration would be more likely to resemble a web or matrix than a trail.

“For most of us, our career paths are incredibly diverse,” says Tony Botelho, director of career and volunteer services at Simon Fraser University. “They shift a lot, and that change is actually one of the defining features for many of us.”

In other words, you don’t need to—and probably shouldn’t—have it all figured out at 17. In fact, Statistics Canada reported in January 2015 that only 6.9 per cent of those surveyed had the same career goals at 25 as they did at 17. The world can change significantly between the time that a student chooses a program and actually gets their degree. Factors such as globalization, changing demographics, shifts in the world economy and advances in technology have driven many career shifts.

Consider the oil industry. In June 2014, a barrel of oil sold for US$107. Six months later, it was half the price. This meant Albertan students graduating from geological sciences in 2013 were almost guaranteed a high-paying job after school. Those who graduated on the other side of that correction, however, struggled to find any work at all.

In addition, young adults experience a major developmental period between the ages of 18 and 23. “Those going to university [at that time] are being exposed to courses and materials designed to challenge the way they see things, by some of the smartest people in the world,” says Botelho. “And they start thinking of the possibilities of being in the world differently, which, for many of them, is going to change the career paths they want to explore.”

It’s no wonder many young students today are experiencing debilitating indecisiveness and angst when it comes to choosing a path for their career. “It’s not a new problem. People have struggled to figure out what they want to do for centuries,” says Anna Cranston, director of management career services at Dalhousie University. “But what has changed is this proliferation of information available. It makes it even harder to make a decision because there are so many options.”

So, how does one decide?

According to the experts, in many ways, there is no wrong choice. The most important factor is treating a post-secondary education as a foundation of knowledge for your career. “It’s not about having it all figured out; it’s about embracing the fact that things are going to shift and change, and putting yourself out there anyway,” Botelho says. “When [today’s students] start approaching retirement age—if that concept still exists—they’ll likely be around 70. That’s 45 years to figure things out—to shift, to change, to grow. It’s not like your learning development stops when you get your degree. It’s the end of one stage of a lifetime of learning and growing.”

You may end up working in a completely different field than the one you applied for in university; in fact, research shows this is the norm. A 2015 study by the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario used data from the Canadian Household Survey to determine where graduates work now, in comparison to their chosen fields of study. For example, according to the study, 65 per cent of graduates who studied architecture or engineering are now working outside those fields. Similarly, 51 per cent of college graduates who studied health are now working in an occupation outside that industry. The results demonstrate that nearly every occupation is made up of people from almost every discipline.

“There are many points of entry for various careers,” Vermunt says. “The best you can do is choose something that feels good for you right now. And that may be a perfect fit for your whole life, or you may decide that what you want to do changes over time; both of these things are okay.”

As with many life experiences, sometimes the act of making the decision is the most difficult part. Once the decision is made, you may find yourself in places you had never dreamed of when formulating the initial decision. “Just start moving forward, intentionally, and take advantage of the tools and resources available to you,” says Botelho, who compares the undergrad experience to driving down a foggy road. “Drive slowly, use your lights. Pay attention to the signs and clues that say go this way, or reassess and go that way. And remember, it’s okay to change your mind.”

Niagara College student entrepreneurs. (Gerry Kingsley/Niagara College)

Just as the path we choose for our career is not linear, neither are the steps one takes in determining what that path looks like. Below are a few guidelines the experts recommend following:

1. Do your research in person

While the internet offers an overwhelming amount of information, the opinions shared by others are not the same as experiencing your school or program of choice for yourself. “Make sure you go visit the campuses you’re thinking of attending, because you’re going to be living there for four years of your life,” says Vermunt. “Sit in on a lecture. Speak to professors. Does your older sister have a friend who went there? Talk to that friend.”

By visiting, you are able to get a true feel for the campus, the people and the learning environment. This allows you to use a combination of logic and intuition when making your decision. “Most people say, ‘I should have listened to my gut.’ The gut is almost always right,” says Vermunt.

2. Think about what career ingredients you want in your life

If you’re feeling a little lost in choosing your major, you’re certainly not alone. “Take some time to understand who you are and what you have to offer,” says Cranston. “Anything you can do to better understand the skills, characteristics and attributes you have that make you happy will help inform which direction you take.”

The tasks you enjoy doing, the types of people you enjoy surrounding yourself with—these are all important career ingredients to consider. “You don’t actually have to know what your dream job is to be able to choose what program you want to study,” says Vermunt. “It’s your job to choose something that is going to have better odds of moving you in the right direction.”

Even if you head down one path only to later decide you’d like to pursue a different direction, you will still gain valuable experience, build meaningful relationships and learn important life lessons along the way. “I think navigating your career is like a game of hot and cold,” says Vermunt. “Turn away from the things that feel cold and you’ll have a much better chance of moving toward something that feels warm.”

3. Choose action over inaction

When you’re feeling stuck, sometimes the best solution is simply to keep moving. Once one door opens, it leads to another door, and then another door. “The longer you sit and wait for it to magically become clear, the tougher you’re making it for yourself,” says Botelho. Career exploration is the central purpose of the undergrad experience. “This notion of going to school and then starting your career is not a strong strategy,” he adds.

Seek out opportunities to volunteer in your chosen field, and to pursue internships and co-op placements. “Look for classes that allow you to work on real-life projects,” suggests Cranston. “That experience will provide some context you wouldn’t otherwise get just through academic work.”

If taking on a lighter course load allows you to work part-time to finance your studies, helping you to graduate with less stress, so be it. “In the grand scheme of life, taking one or two more years to complete your undergrad studies is a drop in the bucket,” says Cranston. But use your time wisely. Your future employer will be less concerned with what year you graduated, and more interested in what skills you were developing in the workplace while studying part-time. “That experience will have a great deal of weight towards that person’s future job success,” Cranston explains.

4. Be careful about advice

It’s natural to turn to parents, friends and colleagues for some direction. Getting feedback from others can help you reveal skill sets or characteristics you didn’t realise were there. Just remember, not all advice is good advice.

“You probably have lots of people in your life who care about you and want the best for you,” says Vermunt. “Sometimes the path of least resistance is to do what your mom thinks you should do, or what your best friend is doing. But if it doesn’t feel right for you, that’s not the direction you should be moving in.”

In her role as a career coach, Vermunt asks her young clients the meaningful—and sometimes difficult—questions designed to help them come to their own conclusions about what they want to do with their lives. “That’s really different than giving advice,” she says.

5. Don’t grip too tightly to the original plan

There’s nothing wrong with taking plan B—or plan C, for that matter. “If you’re mid-program and very unhappy and you hate most of your classes, that is a good time to consider changing direction and switching majors,” says Vermunt. “A lot of people see that as a failure or a mistake, but it’s absolutely not. It’s an incredibly wise thing to do.”

Your post-secondary experience is meant to be a time of decision-making. It’s a chance to explore which classes you love and which ones put you to sleep. It’s about developing an inventory of which subjects you excel at, and which keep you up at night. “You may be an absolute whiz at math, but if that doesn’t actually make you happy—if one hour of work feels like 10 hours—then that’s probably not what you should be doing,” says Cranston.

People change, the world we live in changes, and it’s only for natural your career path to evolve and change too. “There are certain things we can’t control; we can’t change the state of the economy, we can’t make someone hire us. But we can do things that give us a better chance of getting where we want to be,” says Botelho. The key is to keep an open mind. “Start to expand what you think is possible,” he says. “That’s one of the magical parts of it.”

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