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Making Students' Career Dreams Come True

By College Planning Bankrate.com

All of us have dreams, especially when we are young. Whether we achieve those goals is a matter of hard work and a little luck. But success also may require something more.

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A new study from The Ohio State University finds that it takes a little extra work to convince a student that he or she is qualified to succeed in a dream career.

In fact, it is not enough to simply tell a student that he or she has the skills or grades to achieve success, says Patrick Carroll, author of the study and an assistant professor of psychology at The Ohio State University at Lima.

Instead, students require vivid descriptions of how pursuing a dream career can help them be successful.

Carroll explains the study findings in the following interview.

You found that it is not enough to tell people they have the skills or the grades to make their dream a reality. What else do these people need to reach their goals?

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People are unlikely to embrace a new dream when evaluators simply highlight a desired discrepancy between their present standing and some external standard.

People are more likely to embrace a new dream when evaluators fully specify the meaning or implications of a desired discrepancy.

So when a student who plans to pursue marketing learns that she exceeds entrance requirements for clinical psychology -- (the) desired discrepancy -- she will be more likely to change her career goals if she also learns that it means she will be more likely to succeed, to become a top clinical psychologist in Boston, than (to) fail if she does pursue psychology.

You mention that it is important to give people a "vivid picture" of what will happen if they succeed. Why is this important?

Prior work on intuitive predictive judgments suggests that people don't attach their expectations to abstract future events (such as) marriage. Rather, people attach future expectations to concrete outcome scenarios about how their future will unfold -- (for example) my wedding in my hometown, with my friends and family there.

Of course, the tendency to consider specific outcome scenarios rather than some abstract event (e.g., "personal success") makes sense. After all, in daily life we are responding to specific situations, not abstract events.

For example, we don't just experience academic success; rather, we experience success in particular concrete contexts of success in math, English or biology class last semester.

Thus, when we think about our future, it is much easier for us to consider specific and concrete scenarios rather than abstract and vague possibilities.

Which types of people are most likely to benefit from "vivid picture" validation?

Although most people are quite good at elaborating the implications of positive feedback to support new goals, it may not be so easy, spontaneous or natural for others.

In particular, people who have chronic self-image disturbance have more difficulty elaborating the implications of validating feedback (e.g., good grades, awards) spontaneously. So, for example, people high on chronic self-doubt have difficulty imagining a strong desired self to guide the motivated pursuit and acquisition of new dreams.

Thus, specified validations may be particularly good in helping these students -- who have the ability (good GPA, entrance exam scores) and motivation, but simply have chronic doubts -- to embrace a new dream that can build the self-confidence that they currently lack.

How can parents, teachers and others use these insights to help motivate loved ones to pursue the career of their dreams?

Despite the effectiveness of specifying validations in prompting students to embrace new dreams, these insights should still be used cautiously. Just because this work shows how to do it, it doesn't mean that we should always do it.

These insights should only be used when there is ample evidence that the student does have the necessary ability/qualifications to achieve the new goal if he/she does decide to embrace its pursuit.

In particular, if teachers or parents push students to embrace a new dream, they need to do their homework first to make sure the student is qualified to achieve the goal but just needs a bit of a confidence boost.

Specifically, before telling a student to pursue a new dream, parents/educators should first show convergence across multiple objective measures of student aptitude -- e.g., prior GPA, aptitude tests, teacher evaluations, etc.

In addition, (there should be) consensus across multiple evaluators that the prior objective measures do converge on the point that the student is qualified to pursue this career.

An example may help to illustrate. Let's say a student shares with a professor that they want to pursue psychology graduate school, but are not sure if they can make it. Before saying anything more to the student, the professor should first ask for the student's transcripts to check the student's prior undergraduate GPA, upper division GPA and psychology GPA to see if these meet or exceed admissions standards for graduate programs in psychology.

In addition, if the student has taken the GRE or practice GRE exams, the professor should see if those scores converge with the GPA indices to meet or exceed the admissions requirements for graduate programs in psychology.

If both sources of evidence -- GPA and test scores -- converge to support the student's candidacy for graduate school, the professor should obtain permission from (the) student to share their record with other professors. If the student provides permission, the professor should ask other professors to look over the student's prior GPA record and test scores to see if there is consensus between their own positive evaluation of the student's candidacy and the evaluations of other professors and/or advisers.

The importance of this preliminary assessment of student qualifications cannot be overstated. The absolute worst thing we can do as educators and parents is to prompt a student who already has self-doubts to embrace the pursuit of something they simply cannot achieve, even if they would like to achieve it.

In this case, the only thing the well-meaning professor accomplishes is to set an already vulnerable student up for additional failure and, in turn, increased self-doubt.

But, if there is consensus among different evaluators that multiple objective indices all converge to support the student's candidacy, then the professor has a strong empirical basis for encouraging the student to pursue their dreams.

Copyright 2014, Bankrate Inc.