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The Effects of Career Goals on Students

© February 2007 Claudia Garcez
February 2007
Claudia Garcez

The Effects of Career Goals on Students


Claudia Garcez

Executive Summary


The value of studying the differences between students with career goals, and students without, will help us learn why students who set goals early have more self-confidence. The purpose of this paper is to analyze, compare, and interpret numerous research studies on the effects of career goals on students. I gathered my data from periodicals, and research studies. Although studies have different methods, modes, and measures, the results are almost unanimous that students, who are certain about their career choices, are more likely to be successful and self-confident than those who are uncertain.



Have you ever wondered why some individuals earn a professional degree while others drop-out of high school? Or do you ever think about why some individuals strive to be presidents of large corporations while others seem destined and satisfied to be in a minimum wage, manual labor job? Setting career goals at an early age might just be the answers to these questions.

This paper will focus on numerous research studies and will analyze, compare, and interpret their results.As a HR professional, I want to ascertain whether individuals who make early career choices are more likely to be self-confident and successful in their jobs than those who don't make an early choice.In addition to attempting to answer the above questions, this paper will discuss two main specific areas. The first area of focus will be the effect that career goal setting has on an individual's self-esteem. The final area of focus will be a detailed plan on how to teach young students to set career goals.

The effect of career goal setting on an individual's self-esteem

The effects of career goals on students was a subject of a 2003 study conducted by Richard T. Lapan, Bradley Tucker, Se-Kang Kim, and John F. Kosciulek. In this study, the authors evaluated the impact of four career development curricular strategies to help highschoolers have successful post-high school transitions. The four curriculum strategies studied were as follows: 1- Organized curriculum, which is the organization of classes around a specific career goal, 2- Relevant curriculum, which uses teaching instruction to demonstrate to students the relevance of course content to the world of work, 3-Work-based learning experiences, such as job shadowing (the student has the opportunity to go to a workplace and see what someone actually does in a job), and 4- Connected learning activities, which connects and integrates learning in school and career-relevant workplace settings. Additionally, the authors believe that there are three support groups, which they call"Stakeholder Support." The three levels of stakeholder support are: (a) school counselors, (b) teachers, and (c) multiple stakeholders, such as parents. Stakeholder support is necessary to make the student's development and transition as smooth as possible (Lapan et al., 2003).

The authors hypothesized that career development, curriculum strategies, and stakeholder support would each explain significant portions of the variance in student satisfaction that their education was helping them to attain their educational and career goals. Also, it was hypothesized that career development, curriculum strategies, and stakeholder support would each explain significant portions of the variance in the level of education required by the student's anticipated setting immediately following high school. Finally, the authors hypothesized that curriculum strategies and stakeholder support would each explain significant portions of the variance in career development (Lapan et al., 2003).

The study was conducted in rural areas of a large midwestern state. The authors used a total of 347 8th graders (206=girls and 141=boys), 281 10th graders (160=girls and 121 boys), and 256 12th graders (143=girls and 113=boys). Lapan et al. (2003),randomly selected the students to represent both a wide range of academic achievement levels and extent of participation in school-to-work activities. The students were required to answer a survey. Each grade level had to complete a different survey with different time limits. The older students needed additional items to assess the wider range of activities that were available for them. Also, there was a requirement that all data collection activities for 8th, and 10th graders should be completed within one class period (Lapan et at., 2003).

The authors included in the survey items from the career development subscales of the Guidance Competency Self-Competency Self-Efficacy Scales (GCSE). An example of a question from the GCSE was:"I am confident that I can make good decisions about the education and training programs that I will need to get after high school""(p. 5). They also included items from the Career-Related Efficacy Scale, including six expectation items related to career paths and career related attribution. Among the many different questions they answered, the students had to rate on a 7-point Likert scale (1=very dissatisfied to 7=very satisfied) the following question:"How satisfied are you that the education you are getting in your school is adequately preparing you to meet successfully your future educational and career goals?" (p. 5).

In all three samples, it was found that increased career development activities predicted greater student satisfaction with the education they were receiving. The students felt they were better prepared for their future and for their plans to enter post-high school settings that require further education. Also, it was found that students with course work organized around a career goal were more satisfied with their education than students whose course work was not related to a career goal. In addition, students with courses relating to career goals had higher educational aspirations. Interestingly, the results of this study showed substantive differences between rural girls and rural boys.Girls reported more positive levels of career development, satisfaction with school, and educational aspirations than did boys. The authors believe that autonomously chosen goals help individuals develop direction, meaning, social connectedness, and subjective well-being in adulthood. The authors also believe that it is critical that students receive both emotional and instrumental support from multiple sources (e.g., school, counselors, teachers, parents, peers, and relatives) to promote positive career development in adolescence (Lapan et al., 2003).

The relationship between career goals and self-esteem was also analyzed in a school- work transition project. This project, called My Turn, was a cooperative effort of public schools, institutions of higher education, corporations, and small businesses seeking to improve educational opportunities for disadvantaged young people (My Turn," 1996)."My Turn" provided internship experiences that included formal counseling or mentoring to designate training and educational needs for career paths associated with job experience ( My Turn," 1996).

The project involved eighty high-school students which were placed in six-to eight-week internships that matched their desired career interests. There was special attention given to maintain meaningful connections between internships and the students' potential career goals. The students had the opportunity to learn about the overall workings of a business (My Turn," 1996). They spent four to six hours each week training in a different area of the business, including sales, human resources, shipping and receiving, telemarketing, billing, and payroll. The students also had one or two sessions with the chief executive officer or a senior vice-president as a way of acquainting them with organizational philosophies and missions (My Turn," 1996). In addition, the students were required to keep a journal of their work experience. Journal keeping was important because it enabled students to map out their own thoughts and understanding concerning their experience. Also, it provided feedback, which allowed the staff to identify areas of failed expectations or inappropriate experience (My Turn," 1996).

The results of the My Turn project showed an increase in the students' self-esteem. Also, the students reported having learned a great deal, considering they had very little practical business knowledge prior to the internship. Finally, the high-school teachers observed a significant increase in the students' confidence and interest in school (My Turn," 1996).

Another research study involving high-school students in this area was conducted by Lian-Hwang Chiu. In this study, Chiu (1990) investigated the relationship of career goals and self-esteem among adolescents. The purpose of the research was to test the hypothesis that adolescents with some career goal tend to have higher self-esteem than those without an idea of what they want to do after graduation from high-school (Chiu, 1990). The study was conducted in a small Midwestern city with a total of 221 students in tenth and eleventh grade English classes (Chiu, 1990).

One of the instruments used was the Rosenberg Self-Esteem (RSE) Scale."The RSE is a global measure of self-esteem composed of 10 statements, such as,"On the whole I am satisfied with myself."" (p. 594). Another instrument used was the Self-Esteem Rating Scale for Children (SERSC)."The SERSC consisted of 12 items, such as,"Hesitates to speak up in class" (p. 594).

The teachers administered the RSE and rated the students' self-esteem (SERSC). The students were divided into two groups. One group was named"career decisive group" and the other group was career indecisive group." The group who knew what they wanted to do, the career decisive group, was predicted to have higher self-esteem on the RSE than the career indecisive group. Also, The career decisive group was predicted to score higher in self-esteem on the SERSC than the career indecisive group (Chiu, 1990).

The prediction that adolescents who knew what they would do after school would score higher on the RSE than the career indecisive group was supported by the data. Nevertheless, the difference in self-esteem was only substantial for males. Also, the data confirmed the same result on the SERSC (Chiu, 1990). Based on the results of this study, Chiu believes that there is a normal period of indecision in the process of making career choices but significant indecision may be a reflection of other psychological problems, including low self-esteem (Chiu, 1990).

Researchers haven't stopped studying the relationship between career goals and self-esteem only when students graduate from high-school. It is believed that helpful information can be learned even at the college level. One such study, involving college students, provides further support for the notion that people that have made a career choice, even before they have started working, have a higher self-esteem than people who are undecided about their career. This notion was the hypothesis of Harvey Resnick, Marianne Lesson Fauble, and Samuel H. Osipow in a 1970 study. The authors hypothesized that college students who have a high self-esteem show more advanced vocational crystallization than college students low in self-esteem."Crystallization refers to the formulation of tentative ideas regarding the level and field of future work, along with a tentative commitment, and should be complete by age 18, thus making way for specification where the general choice becomes specific" (p. 465).

The subjects of the study were 114 male and 102 female college students enrolled in"Introductory Psychology" at Ohio State University. The instruments used were the Biographical Inventory Questionnaire, The Kuder Preference Record, and The Tennessee Self-Concept Scale. The first instrument, The Biographical Inventory Questionnaire, was an important device for this study to ascertain a number of attributes. Some of the attributes included age, parental income, college major and minor, grade point average, extracurricular activities, expected career patterns, and for women, purpose for attending college and their mother's working pattern. This questionnaire also included information about certainty of career choice. The second instrument, The Kuder Preference Record, was used to assess differences in degree of preference for various career choices. The final instrument, The Tennessee Self-Concept Scale, was designed to provide a convenient and objective measure of self-esteem. This questionnaire presented a number of scores, of which self-esteem, or P score, was of most interest to this study. According to Resnick et al. (1970), the P score was a reflection of how individuals valued themselves.

The three questionnaires were administered to the students in small groups, ranging from 10 to 20 students. Students had a total of two hours to complete the three questionnaires in standardized conditions.They were informed that the data was being collected for research purposes and that they could fill the questionnaires anonymously. The results of this study showed that high self-esteem males expressed greater certainty about their career choices than did the low self-esteem males. Similarly, high self-esteem females showed greater certainty about their career plans than low self-esteem females. Also, it revealed that the relationship between self-esteem and vocational crystallization was the same for both sexes (Resnick et al., 1970).

Another study involving college level students was a 1991 study, which Paul E. Levy and Ann H. Baumgardner discuss the effects of self-esteem on goal choice. The authors conducted a laboratory experiment in which subjects' choices of goal difficulty was the major dependent variable. Gender and self-esteem were the independent variables. It was predicted that self-esteem and gender would account for a significant proportion of the variance in goal choice. Levy and Baumgardner (1991) predicted that participants with high self-esteem would select more difficult goals than those with low self-esteem. Also, they predicted that males would select more difficult goals than females (Levy and Baumgardner, 1991).

202 students from an introductory psychology class participated in this study. There were a total of 92 males and 110 females. The instrument used was the Rosenberg Self-Esteem Inventory. The participants arrived in the laboratory in groups of four to six. They were given a consent form and were assured of confidentiality. Also, they were separated from each other so that they could not share feedback information among themselves. Initially, the experimenter read the overview to the participants. After the debriefing, the students were dismissed (Levy and Baumgardner, 1991).

For clarification, the authors described the expectancy theory, which emphasizes that motivation to perform a given act is a function of the strength of the expectancy that the act will be followed by a certain outcome (the goal or reward) and the value of that outcome to the individual"" (p. 529). The authors believe that individuals are more likely to choose a given goal when they have high rather than low expectations of reaching it, and when they believe the goal is somehow valuable to them.

The results confirmed their predictions. It was found that high self-esteem participants chose more difficult goals than did low self-esteem participants. It was also found that male participants chose more difficult goals than did the females. Their data showed that high self-esteem males chose the most difficult goals. The results indicate that self-esteem affects goal choice. Also, the results suggest that high self-esteem leads to harder goals and that males opt for harder goals than females (Levy and Baumgardner, 1991).

The study's relevance is the implication that self-esteem, gender, and goal choice have on goal setting. Knowing what leads to achieve a goal, we may be able to teach students ways to increase their self-esteem by setting goals at an early age. Also, we may be able to develop new ways to motivate them how to commit to their goals so that they are determined to achieve them. It is vital that students learn the importance of having a career goal at a very early age and learn how to reach it. One way of teaching students this is to show them the rewards of achieving a goal.Hopefully, this will instill in the students a desire to work hard to reach their goals.

A plan on how to teach young students to set career goals

The findings of a 2000 study by Ellen H. McWhirter, Saba Rasheed, and Marciana Crothers support the value of career education in facilitation of the School-to-Work transition (STW). McWhirter et al. (2000) state that the"STW initiatives are based on the premise that traditional guidance activities which focused on formal individual counseling and rational choice are not sufficient to meet the vocational needs of middle-class youth" (p. 330). In this study, the authors explain that"The School to Work Opportunities Act and other initiatives are designed to help kindergarten through 12th-grade students obtain the experience, knowledge, and skills required to explore the world of work, develop employment skills, make decisions, and to identify, pursue, and attain vocational goals" (p. 330).

In furtherance of the School to Work Transition, McWhirter et al. (2000) believe that it is important to develop a comprehensive guidance curriculum. This increases the students' awareness of themselves, as well as to develop relevant vocation skills in a manner consistent with their developmental level. The authors found that unfortunately,many states and districts do not require career education classes in their curriculum. McWhirter et al. (2000) hope that their study serves as a model for other districts to invest in the efficient delivery of STW-transition information in a manner accessible to all students.

Attempting to find an answer on how to provide stimuli to students, Nancy E. Betz and Gail Hackett (1987) state the importance of"discussion and role-playing practice of means of proactively influencing one's educational environment and of how to assertively respond to problem situations arising along the way" (p. 307). They believe that creating such situations could be extremely beneficial to many college students. Betz and Hackett (1987) also recognize that a major problem of research has been directed at testing a model of career development in which perceived efficacy functions as a major mediator of career choices. Perceived efficacy"refers to beliefs concerning one's capability of successfully engaging in a target behavior; strong perceived efficacy is postulated to lead to behavioral approach, and weak efficacy to lead to avoidance" (p. 34). In order to help students to better understand themselves, the authors believe that the modification of perceived self-efficacy can strongly affect subsequent behavior.

In addition, the results of a 1992 study conducted by A. Timothy Church, Judith S. Teresa, Ron Rosebrook and Dottie Szendre indicate that interventions to clarify and expand students' self-efficacy, interests, and incentives will be beneficial to increasing the range of occupations that students will explore in career decision making. The authors of this study believe that counselors and instructors should help students understand the potential impact of prior socialization on the students' self-perceptions of ability and occupational preferences. They also believe that it is of extreme importance to modify their perceptions when appropriate.

Self-efficacy was also the focus of a study by Albert Bandura and Daniel Cervone (1986), which found that motivation through aspiration provides an important and continuing source of self-efficacy, interest, and personal satisfaction. They believe that students should be given challenges so they can strive to succeed. Bandura and Cervone (1986) explain that"without aspirations and active involvement in activities, people are unmotivated, bored, and uncertain about their capabilities. Life without elements of challenge can be rather dull" (p. 111).

A more practical approach for education is taken by Laurie Shepherd Johnson (2000), who states that the American educational enterprise should refocus on how students can best learn what they need to know in order to be able to meet the demands of the job market. Johnson believes it is extremely important to focus on educating our students differently through a multitude of integrated approaches. This would ensure the students' ability to understand what they are learning, why they are learning it, how they will use it, and what difference it will make in their lives. Johnson (2000) emphasizes that"students need to know how what they are learning fits into the world they live in" (p. 273).

As a way to help students understand the reasons why they are learning, Johnson (2000) suggests a total community effort. First,"teachers need to be encouraged and reinforced by school administrators, parents and community members to create connections with the world of work" (p. 274). This would facilitate"that" understanding and ultimately incorporate the"real world" relevance of their subject matter into their pedagogy. Second, school counselors need to enter into consultative collaboration with teachers, co-curricular advisors, coaches, parents and employers. Johnson (2000) believes that this would create a link between school and work which would be apparent throughout the student experience. Finally, Johnson (2000) states that it is crucial that employers do more to articulate to schools their needs in terms of learning outcomes and skills. She believes that if employers provide teachers externship and shadowing opportunities to learn about the contemporary work world and how it applies to their subject matter, teachers will be better able to apply these insights in their pedagogy, and consequently increase student learning.

All studies reviewed provide clear support for the notion that students have a better chance to succeed in a career when they set career goals early on, and when they have adequate information upon which to base their choices. It is very important for parents and teachers to know how to formulate a plan for teaching young students on how to set career goals. The most comprehensive plan on how to teach young students to set career goals is contained in an article by Kelly Arrington (2000). Arrington (2000) believes that is extremely important to expose students to information concerning multiple careers so that it will help the students realize what is required from them when they are interested in a certain career, thus making them form realistic career plans. Arrington's (2000) plan is a six-year plan of study which covers three phases.

The first phase is titled career awareness and should begin when the student is in the third or fourth grade. Phase one simply helps the students become aware of groups of occupations and also helps them understand the role of work in our society. In this stage, students are provided with lists of occupations, which are defined and discussed, so that the students have an understanding of the vast amount of possible career choices. Here, Arrington (2000) also believes it is important to develop the students' self-confidence and give them a better understanding of themselves. She suggests three strategies to implement in the career awareness" phase. The first strategy is"curriculum infusion," which helps identify career competences to be taught and"folds" them in the academiccurriculum. This means that the knowledge or skills needed in a particular career choice are identified. Then, the teacher can provide the students with school-work which is consistent with the knowledge and skills that the students will need in that particular occupation. The second strategy is called"assessment of current interests," which includes taking a history of the students' families, inventories of their interests, and having the students identify information about themselves. These items may provide indicators to help students select certain career choices. Arrington (2000) comments that the third strategy is"life-skills/ personal development" and includes cooperative learning, self-confidence, self-esteem, and individual learning style. This strategy is intended to help students know themselves better, and develop more confidence and a good feeling about themselves as students and people. Also, it is meant to identify a particular learning style that is better suited for each individual student. Arrington (2000) believes that phase one should last approximately two years.

Phase two is titled career exploration and should begin when students enter the next school year after phase one ends. In the"career exploration" phase, the focus is to help the students discover their individual interests, abilities, career values, and needs. This is done by allowing students to explore different jobs and how those jobs fit in the working world. Arrington (2000) believes the best way to accomplish job exploration is through job shadowing. Job shadowing allows the students to actually go on a particular job with a worker that is employed in a chosen occupation. The student gets to stay with that employee for a specified period of time, such as the entire day. As an example, if a student chooses a police officer as a possible career choice, the student will get to be side by side with the police officer for the entire day. This would allow the student to observe exactly what the police officer would do during a work day. Arrington (2000) believes that proper job shadowing requires that a student interview the person that the student observed at work. This would give the student a deeper understanding of the job they observed as well as give the student more information with which to decide whether or not their occupation is the one they wish to explore further. Arrington (2000) believes that this phase can be accomplished in one full year.

Finally, phase three, which is titled career guidance, should begin approximately in the seventh grade."Career guidance" concentrates on helping students explore the world, as well as their interests, strengths, and weaknesses. Arrington (2000) recommends that students complete a year long"career class" in the seventh grade. Once they have completed the career class, their eighth grade year should include at least a semester of technology education. Finally, the students' ninth grade year should include an elective education class. Arrington (2000) strongly believes that phase three requires a tremendous cooperative effort between school counselors, teachers, school supervisors, and parents. School counselors and teachers need to have the support and resources from their school districts to make the plan work. Also, parents are important to the process. They need to give their children the support and freedom to explore the career options they chose. Only then, can the development of a tentative study plan be formulated, which is consistent with working in the child's career choice.

In the final year of phase three, students should be placed in small groups of between 15 and 20 students and assigned a teacher advisor. The teacher should meet with each student at least once per month until the student's graduation from high school. Also, the plan of study should include a meeting between the students' parents or guardians and the students' teachers at least once a year to discuss the students' progress toward accomplishing the plan of study. If the students are motivated and complete their comprehensive plan related to setting career goals, Arrington (2000) believes that as students progress through their career development, planning and preparation, they will better able to develop academic skills which will enable them to master, at least, the basics of their chosen career.


The studies reviewed provide ample evidence that setting career goals at an early age has an impact on the future of our youth. We saw that by increasing career development activities, which includes setting career goals, students had a higher self-esteem. Maybe even more important, however, is that students were more satisfied about the education they were receiving. This will, in turn, hopefully lead to students having a deeper desire and commitment to succeed in their education. Another outcome of a higher self-esteem, is that those students chose more difficult goals than students with low self-esteems.

There is an excellent detailed plan for teaching parents and teachers how to teach young students to set career goals. The plan requires a total community effort through educators, parents, and businesses. Students must be given an opportunity to identify and explore their desired careers. They can accomplish this through the"School to Work Transition" or"Job Shadowing Program." Through the cooperative efforts of the entire community, students can identify career choices, set career goals, and have higher self-esteems at an early age. Ultimately, they will further their education and have a better chance of succeeding in the"do or die" world in which we live.


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