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How Career Dreams Die

March 20 2010 - Research from Ohio State University and the University of Florida published in Social Cognition studied what is required to convince people that their career aspirations are unrealistic. Researchers found that informing participants they did not have high enough qualifications or appropriate skills was insufficient. The negative consequences of failure also had to be made explicit.

Patrick Carroll, assistant professor of psychology at Ohio State explained:

"Most people don't give up easily on the dreams. They have to be given a graphic picture of what failure will look like if they don't make it."

The researchers suggest that this is of particular relevance given the impact of the current economic situation on the graduate employment market.

Patrick Carroll said:

"Educators are trying to lead students to the most realistic career options. You want to encourage students to pursue their dreams, but you don't want to give them false hope about their abilities and talents. It's a fine line.

"This research is important to understanding how students make revisions in their career goals and decide which career possibilities should be abandoned as unrealistic given their current qualifications. They can then zero in on more realistic possible selves that they actually are qualified to achieve."

The researchers studied separate groups of 64 and 70 senior business and psychology students at Ohio State. A career advisor informed participants about a new master's degree program designed to qualify them for lucrative consultancy work as business psychologists. However, the degree was non-existent. The study analysed participants' reactions to varying degrees of threat to falsely-raised career aspirations.

Participants provided background information including their current grade point average (GPA). They were then divided into four groups: a control group was told there was no GPA requirement for the program; the other three were told the GPA requirement was .10 above whatever figure they had provided.

The participants were provided with increasingly detailed negative feedback. One group was simply advised that their GPA was lower than that required.

The second group was told they were not suitable and that they were unlikely to get a place. However, they were encouraged to persevere if they were sufficiently interested, because their application might be reviewed sympathetically by a lenient admissions committee.

The third group was given similar feedback to the second with the proviso that, if they gained admission by this means, they would probably struggle with the demands of the program. If they managed to graduate they would have no job prospects. The careers advisor cited known examples of futile outcomes of this type.

Patrick Carroll said:

"In this case, the students were given a very vivid picture of what might happen if they failed."

The study found that students in the control group and those who were told their GPA was was not high enough continued with their ambition, demonstrating less self-doubt about their ability and greater commitment to pursing the degree.

Patrick Carroll commented:

"We have a brilliant ability to spin, deflect or outright dismiss undesired evidence that we can't do something. We try to find reasons to believe."

Conversely, participants given the most detailed negative feedback experienced greater self-doubt and a significantly higher level of anxiety about their future prospects. This diminished as they lowered their expectations of a career in business psychology.

Researchers point out that in non-experimental settings students with unrealistic expectations frequently seek advice about career plans or the possibility of graduate school.

Patrick Carroll concluded:

"I'm very cautious about using what I know with students. You're dealing with people's dreams and hopes, and with that awareness comes great responsibility. The dreams of who you could become are a very important part of how you define yourself, yet they are very vulnerable given that they exist only in our mind's eye as the best possible guesses from current evidence of what we could become in the future. We need to learn more about how those career dreams are constructed and revised."

Further research will focus on whether the experience of having to reject goals for the future helps or hinders the process of identifying new goals.

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