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College Students Often Feel Call to Certain Careers Years before Graduating

Far from being undecided about what direction to take in life, many students just starting in college already know their career callings, a new University of Florida study finds.

More than 40 percent of freshmen surveyed at a large East Coast university indicated they had a career calling and another 30 percent said they were searching for one, said Ryan Duffy, a UF psychology professor who led the research.

“I think often we have a stereotype of the typical student changing majors 10 times over the course of their college career,” he said. “That a sizeable minority of these undergraduate students, whose average age is about 19, believe they have a career calling dispels this idea.”

Believing one is meant for a particular profession often correlates with academic achievement in college and eventual success in the workplace, said Duffy, whose study is published in the September issue of The Career Development Quarterly journal.

“It provides students with meaning and purpose that can help guide them in their career path across the college years,” he said. “If you have a calling, you’re more likely to be satisfied in your major, feel comfortable with your career decisions and have a lot more self-clarity about how your interests and values relate to your life’s work.”

Duffy said he was surprised to find so many students with a career calling, expecting it to be closer to 10 percent. Career counselors should consider asking students if they have career calling and let them take the lead, he said.

Making the right career decision has long lasting and even lifetime effects, Duffy said. “Work occupies the majority of our waking time as adults, so ideally we want people going into jobs that they enjoy, are productive at and perform well at,” he said.

Duffy and William Sedlacek, an emeritus education professor at the University of Maryland, surveyed 5,523 students who were entering the university in 2006 or 2007. Forty-four percent said having a career calling was “mostly true” or “totally true” of themselves. Its presence was determined by how strongly respondents agreed or disagreed on a five-point scale with the statement “I have a calling to a particular kind of work.”

A century ago, the term “calling” meant a direct call by God to a religious vocation, Duffy said. In this study, students who searched for meaning in life were more likely to feel pulled to a particular profession, but it had little relationship to how religious they were, he said.

Those seeking advanced degrees, such as in medicine or law, or a doctorate in other fields, were more likely to feel called to a certain line of work, Duffy said. The opportunity for personal meaning in terms of helping others may make work as a professor, doctor or lawyer especially attractive to young people experiencing a career calling, he said.

Of all groups, students interested in pursuing medicine were most likely to endorse a calling, perhaps because doctors are such role models for community service, he said.

Surprisingly, students who reported a calling were only minimally more satisfied with their lives than those not drawn to a particular career, but that could be because they are several years away from full-time employment, Duffy said. “Unlike adults, students who have a calling aren’t doing it yet, so its impact on life satisfaction is not going to be that large,” he said.

By the time students graduate from college, though, there is no guarantee that the tough economy will allow them space in the field of their choice, Duffy said. “They’re probably going to be doing a job that’s either not their calling to start out with or is not completely their calling,” he said.

But all is not lost for these thwarted students because they could become accustomed to, and later greatly enjoy, the career that circumstances brought their way, he said.

“I think you can build a calling based on where you’re at,” he said. “If you’re stuck in a job because you can’t change, it’s not that great a job or for whatever reason, there are ways you can find meaning or make the job more pro-social so you will start viewing it as a calling.”

People are well-advised to rethink their careers to consider both personal and social aspects, Duffy said. Americans are so used to viewing occupational choice in terms of the most desirable personal fit, which is very much a Western idea, he said.

“What we don’t do much of is ask students what work could you do that would best meet society’s needs, taking into account both personal and social fit,” he said. “We know that people who pay attention to both these things are much happier in their jobs.”

Despite its relevance to people’s lives, the idea of a career calling has been the subject of little or no research, Duffy said. “In an ideal world, we would want everyone to have a calling because it’s such a motivating force in people’s lives,” he said.



Cathy Keen,, 352-392-0186


Ryan Duffy, , 352-273-2199

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