Career planning tips for parents

Choosing a career is a process that students experience in different ways and at different rates of speed. Some come to university already decided, while many feel they have “no clue” as to what they might want to pursue. And, of those already decided, many will change their minds – sometimes more than once. With a vast array of majors and over 14,000 possible occupations to choose from, making a decision can be overwhelming for some students.

Recent surveys of Canadian university students indicate that University of Waterloo students consistently name their parents as having the highest influence in their career decision making process. You can do much to support your son or daughter as they encounter new options and information, rethink existing plans, and consider all the “what ifs…” that arise during this exciting time of life. Here’s what you can do to help.

Try not to pressure your son or daughter to make a choice
Education is expensive and parents who pay the bills may want to see a return on their investment. However, pressure to choose a major and/or career can result in an increased inability to make a choice, rebellion, or making a hasty and potentially inappropriate choice in order to reduce pressure.

Many students experience indecision as very unpleasant: not knowing leaves them feeling anxious and stressed. They may find it difficult to focus on or truly enjoy their studies because they lack a concrete direction and plan. They often believe (usually mistakenly!) that all of their peers have already made this decision, and therefore something is wrong with them because they haven’t been able to. They are also usually very aware of their parents’ hopes and expectations.

Allow your student to make the decision
Although it is helpful to occasionally ask about career plans, too much guidance can backfire. Support your son or daughter’s exploration of new areas of study and interests. Don't assume that if your child chooses to major in a subject area that you consider to be "impractical" that he or she will never get a job. The majority of study areas help students to sharpen skills which are critical to the "package" employers are seeking: strong written and oral communication skills; problem-solving skills; the ability to critically analyze and synthesize information; and research skills, to name a few.

Realize that picking a major does not mean picking a “forever career “. In today’s world, it is predicted that workers will change jobs 9-13 times, and careers 3-4 times. Plans will develop and change. It's okay to change majors—and careers.

Sometimes a parent may pressure their son or daughter to pursue a career that fits with their own interests and values. If they are successful in steering their son or daughter in this direction, the student may then pursue a career that does not match with their own values and may be one in which they ultimately have little to no interest. Lack of interest and passion in one’s career makes for an unpleasant life situation. And, a person who lacks passion for their work will typically not achieve the same level of success in their field as someone who has chosen that field based on their own interests and values.

One of the most valuable things you can do to help your son or daughter with career planning is listen: be open to ideas, try to help your student find information, and be nonjudgmental. Empower them to make their own, well-informed decisions.

Support your student’s self-exploration process
During their first year and beyond, it is important for students to assess their interests, skills, values, and personal attributes. They will achieve this through success (or failure) in courses they take; work experiences; involvement in activities; discussions with friends, professors, and faculty advisors; and generally being exposed to different ideas and trying out a variety of experiences.

Encourage your student to engage in these activities and to reflect upon them. What is enjoyable? What is challenging? Communicate and affirm what you consider to be their areas of skill and ability – often students overlook these and benefit from being reminded by someone who knows them well. It is helpful to check in with your son or daughter at various times throughout the first year by asking them what their favourite courses are and how they are doing.

The importance of volunteer work and extracurricular activities cannot be overemphasized. These activities, both on and off campus, can be immensely helpful to your student’s growing awareness of their strengths and weaknesses, and likes and dislikes – all of which are critical to the career decision making process. These activities are also viewed positively by employers.

Challenge your student to learn about occupations and the world of work
Introduce your student to people who have careers/jobs that are of interest to them. Suggest your son or daughter contact people in your personal and professional networks for information on potential career areas. “Informational interviewing” with these people can be extremely helpful in giving your student a realistic view of what it’s like to work within a particular field. You might encourage your child to "shadow" someone in the workplace to further increase their awareness of interesting career fields.

Your son or daughter can also gain first-hand knowledge of potential occupations by sampling career options through co-op jobs, internships, and experimenting with summer/part-time employment opportunities or volunteer work. Direct experience in a potential field of interest can be very informative: actually performing the work can open their eyes to aspects of an occupation that may have been missed through their research.

Emphasize the importance of skill-building work experience
Employers are interested not only in a degree: they look for relevant skills and experience as well. If your son or daughter is not in a co-op program, encourage them to seek paid (and unpaid) work opportunities that will provide a range of skills and experiences. While directly relevant experience is best, a variety of work experiences may help your student to develop skills important to their future career. These might include communication, organizational, interpersonal, teamwork, and customer service skills, to name a few. A student who plans early in their university career to integrate relevant work experience will have a definite advantage.

Encourage your student to visit the Centre for Career Action
Meeting with a career counselor or advisor can take place at any point in a student’s university career. Many first year students believe that career help is more relevant to older students who are graduating and will therefore delay seeking assistance until their third or fourth year. The sooner a student becomes familiar with the services, resources, and programs, the better prepared he or she will be to make wise career decisions.

The Centre for Career Action offers:

  • a resource library on a wide range of occupations and job search topics
  • web-based resources on occupations and career decision making including our CareerHub , which contains comprehensive information and advice on career planning and work search (
  • individual appointments and workshops on topics such as career exploration and decision making, job search, interview skills, professional/graduate school planning and applications, résumé/ letter writing
  • a variety of assessment tools

The university years are a time of exploration, experimentation, and learning on many levels for students and for their parents. Some challenges may seem more positive than others, but all contribute to the educational outcomes of the university experience. We wish you success as you navigate the challenging – and rewarding – waters of parenting a university student.