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Sunday, December 8, 2019
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Students & Youth

Preventing career regret among university students

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I studied chemical and biological engineering in my undergraduate. Although it is an exciting field with a lot of career opportunities for many, it was definitely not a good fit for me. I remember dragging my heels going to classes. I used to come up with very creative excuses not to study for my tests. More importantly, I was feeling as if I had no choice but to live a miserable life after graduation. I was feeling career regret to my bones.

How I felt about myself and my life took a sharp turn when I decided to pursue a career in organizational psychology. This major but swift change peaked my interest in understanding the phenomenon of career regret. If I could change it in my life, maybe there was a hope for other people as well. I have been reading, thinking, studying about the issues of career regret and career change for a while. My latest study on the determinants of career regret was recently published in the Canadian Journal of Career Development. Here is a short summary of it.

What is career regret?

Regret is a common emotion and it is a popular topic of conversation. Researchers define it as a remorseful feeling experienced under certain circumstances. First, the person must think about the alternatives to their actions or inactions. Second, this alternative must be more desirable than the current situation. For example, let’s say you went for shopping to buy a shirt and picked the blue shirt from the shelf instead of the white shirt. You could feel regret as a result of this decision if you thought that buying the white shirt was an option and, if you had bought it, it would look better with your jeans.

When you think this way, having a choice comes with the risk of feeling regret. The types of regret can be as diverse as the decisions we make. However, regrets caused by irreversible or costly actions can be stronger than regrets caused by reversible or less costly ones. Career regret is one of those strong feelings because career investments are costly and not easy to reverse. Interestingly, although there is a lot of research on regret, the topic of career regret was largely ignored by researchers except for a couple of studies.

What is my study about? What did I find?

In this study, I examined why university students experience career regret. Social cognitive career theory satisfaction model guided my research. This theory makes predictions about how people perceive their environment and how these perceptions result in satisfactory or unsatisfactory outcomes. I found that some people have pre-dispositions to experience negative emotions regardless of how positive the environmental factors are. These people are less likely to believe that they are capable of achieving success in their careers; therefore, they do not have positive outcome expectations after graduation. All these factors make such people more vulnerable to career regret.

How can career counsellors use these findings?

This study is the first step in uncovering the relationship between dispositional characteristics, cognitive (or thought-related) factors, and career regret. We definitely need more findings to support this relationship. However, based on the findings of this study, career counsellors and other career practitioners can take the following steps.

  • Acknowledge that the predisposition to feel negatively (or negative affectivity) is a stable factor that is related to career regret. Some people will feel career regret regardless of the environmental conditions.
  • Work on enhancing clients’ career self-efficacy (the belief in individuals’ ability to achieve successful outcomes in their careers) and outcome expectations (expecting positive experiences in individuals’ careers up on graduation). Self-efficacy and outcome expectations are strongly related. The more students believe in their ability, the more positive expectations they may have. This ultimately reduces career regret during the school years.
  • Use the strategies suggested by social cognitive career theorists to enhance career self-efficacy and outcome expectations. These are 1.) Working with the student client to identify opportunities to have positive experiences in their chosen career field, 2.) Encouraging the student client by giving positive feedback, 3.) Inviting student clients to observe role models, and 4.) working with clients on emotional barriers such as anxiety.

In short, career regret is a negative but powerful experience. Unfortunately, it is a bigger risk for individuals who are predisposed to negativity. The good news is that personality is not the only predictor of career regret. Factors such as how much we believe in our ability to succeed in our careers and what we expect from our careers can also influence whether we experience regret or not. Focusing on these latter two factors, counsellors and career practitioners can develop interventions to prevent career regret for university students.


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Duygu Biricik Gulseren is a research associate in the Canadian Centre for Advanced Leadership in Business. She is also a PhD Candidate in Industrial/Organizational Psychology program at Saint Mary’s University. Her primary research interest is leading healthy workplaces. She also conducts research on chronic pain at work, work-life balance and career development from a leadership perspective. Gulseren holds a Bachelor of Science in Chemical and Biological Engineering and a Master of Arts in Social and Organizational Psychology. Prior to her doctoral studies, she worked as a human resources consultant and career counsellor and coach.
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Duygu Biricik Gulseren is a research associate in the Canadian Centre for Advanced Leadership in Business. She is also a PhD Candidate in Industrial/Organizational Psychology program at Saint Mary’s University. Her primary research interest is leading healthy workplaces. She also conducts research on chronic pain at work, work-life balance and career development from a leadership perspective. Gulseren holds a Bachelor of Science in Chemical and Biological Engineering and a Master of Arts in Social and Organizational Psychology. Prior to her doctoral studies, she worked as a human resources consultant and career counsellor and coach.
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