Time to choose a career? A psychologist offers tips on the journey after high school


Pivotal decisions loom large for high school graduates and those with responsibility over them. The trajectory has been a fairly straightforward line until now – learning and more learning. Having completed high school, will the journey now lead directly to university? If so, what field of study? Will it be the technical training route? Or will it be perhaps a direct leap into a “dream” job?

Suddenly there are many options to choose from. It’s important to determine what’s advisable and what’s not. Some may benefit from parental guidance, others may not. Some guardians may be ill-equipped to offer proper guidance. Knowing when and from whom to ask for help can make a big difference.

I am a researcher and educational psychologist with a particular interest in career counselling and helping people find their life’s purpose. I have previously worked with thousands of students who need to make subject choices, learners who need to make career choices with a view to tertiary studies and other students who are uncertain whether they are pursuing an appropriate field of study.

The focus of this article is to provide a compass for families navigating the labyrinth of decisions for their high school graduates. It becomes especially pertinent as the new year dawns and important choices loom ahead. I highlight four key guidelines.

1. Coping with disappointing grades
The final high school exam is water under the bridge. Not all will have attained their desired success, that’s for sure. But there are still ample reasons to remain optimistic about the future. First, let’s discard the term “fail” from our vocabulary. Your current marks may limit your acceptance into your preferred field of study, but they don’t dictate your overall success in life. They don’t limit your career prospects.

It is essential to step back emotionally and to approach the experience logically. Everyone encounters both successes and setbacks and this is entirely normal. If your results fall below expectations, view this as a manageable challenge. It’s an opportunity for personal growth and development, and for exhibiting resilience in rapidly changing and uncertain times.

In the face of disappointment, sadness, anxiety, or even depression following your exam results, dwelling on what might have been serves no purpose and offers little benefit. Instead, consider for example the fact that your parents, guardians or caretakers cherish you as precious and love you unconditionally. Foster open communication with them. Share your feelings with them through conversation or text, and actively listen when they express their thoughts. They are crucial pillars of your support structure.

It is crucial not to fixate on a preferred university, college or training institution. While research indicates that individuals with degrees often find employment more easily and earn higher salaries, university is not the only path to success. Non-university study holds its own value, and each study discipline and tertiary training institution should be evaluated on its merits.

Consider specialised diplomas and certificates, such as those in information technology (for instance, cyber security), or technical qualifications (for instance, renewable energy wind turbine service). These qualifications can be personally enriching and offer diverse career opportunities, often making students highly employable.

Don’t hesitate to seek career counselling from a qualified psychologist (career counsellor).

2. What to do if grades fall below expectations
You may have secured decent grades – but not good enough to secure admission to your preferred course of study. There are several avenues to explore. Some examination boards entertain requests for a reevaluation of exam papers, supplementary exams, or even repeating classes or specific subjects. These options call for diligence and dedication.

I always encourage determined learners to translate their aspirations into actions. For example, you could explore the option of pursuing your favoured field of study at training levels or institutions other than university. Consulting with a career counsellor in this regard is essential. Seek advice from individuals who have successfully navigated similar situations – and from those who were unable to do so.

Consider the inspiring story of a student aspiring to study medicine, but failing to achieve desired grades and lacking exposure to mathematics or physical sciences in high school. After completing high school, the student enrolled in mathematics and physical sciences at a post-school training institution, subsequently pursuing a general degree at a university. Achieving excellent results, the student gained admission to study medicine and is now a final-year medical student. This illustrates that diverse routes can lead to a successful career.

The significance of high school subject symbols diminishes over time. You are encouraged to reflect on your short-, medium- and long-term goals and understand the purpose of your studies. It should not primarily be about pleasing family or outperforming others. Instead, focus on becoming the best version of yourself. Competition with others serves no meaningful purpose.

3. Discovering a sense of meaning and purpose
It is imperative to ensure that students cultivate a profound sense of meaning, hope and purpose in their lives. This is to say that you get a clear understanding of life’s purpose, why you are pursuing your studies, and what serves as your “north star”.

While choosing a field of study that supports financial stability is crucial, you should also consult a professional, such as a career psychologist, to uncover and enact your central life theme(s). This helps you identify what you genuinely wish to achieve in life (for instance, helping others that have been bullied), beyond the numerical goals you aim to attain. Furthermore, you need to be instilled with the belief that you possess the capacity to reach these goals and bring your dreams to fruition.

4. Identify your key life themes
Once you have identified your key themes, you gain the ability to articulate your career-life purpose, addressing existential questions such as “Why do I live?” “Where am I headed?” “Why am I on this planet?” and “Is life worth living?”

For example, one female high school graduate said to me:

I lost my father due to cancer, and I love helping people with cancer. More than that, I want to help others who do not have access to medical help.

This evolves into a vision statement, revealing the social significance of her work.

Another shared her story, stating,

I fell pregnant before completing high school and was compelled to give my child up for adoption. I subsequently studied social work. Today, I use my profound understanding of the challenges faced by young girls who become pregnant while still in school to help them navigate their pain and trauma.

A common thread weaving through these real-life stories is the transformative power of turning personal pain, hurt or “suffering” into triumph and social contributions. In essence, it is about converting passive suffering into active mastery. The eminent Swiss psychologist Carl Jung once said:

Be grateful for your difficulties and challenges, for they hold blessings. In fact … (Humans) need difficulties; they are necessary for health, personal growth, individuation, and self-actualisation.

By assisting others who have overcome challenges similar to their own, individuals actively confront the pain they themselves have experienced.

Professor of Educational Psychology, University of Pretoria. THis article was first published in The Conversation.