Can I really be a doctor?

Posted by: Jeffrey Landine on June 3, 2011 9:15 am

Most career counsellors and almost all school counselors can provide stories about having to counsel a young person who was determined to pursue a career that seemed, to the observer at least, to be outside their ability level.  Teaching courses in vocational counseling, I have, on a number of occasions, been faced with the following question from teachers who are working towards being counselors: What do I do when a student tells me that they want to be doctor and I know they don’t have the cognitive level of functioning or the grades to meet the entrance to pre-med science programs?  One of the important, and particularly interesting, dimensions of the self-system is the dimension of realism.  My colleague, John Stewart, wrote about the realism of vocational choice (Stewart, 1995), referring to it as the degree of fit between an individual’s work-related characteristics and the characteristics of the chosen work environment.  A lack of realism in vocational choice can result in aspirations towards careers that require different skills and abilities than the individual possesses and can result in frustration or shock when the reality of trying to meet the demands of the job become obvious.  Conversely, it can result in under-utilization of an individual’s skills and abilities, which can result in poor job satisfaction and a lack of productivity.  The latter situation was at one time a more common phenomenon with females (Wolfe & Betz, 1981), stemming from the tendency to aspire only to careers that have been gender stereotyped as appropriate for women.  This often resulted in women under utilizing their skills and abilities.

It seems to us that the realism of fit between personal characteristics and those of the occupation would need to be preceded by a personal realism of the self-structure.  This sense of personal self is often identified in the literature as an important component of Vocational Identity.  While vocational identity is a broad subject, for the sake of our discussion of realism, we can define it as “the clear and stable picture of one’s goals, interests and talents” (Holland, 1997, p.5). In the process of developing a realistic vocational identity and, subsequently, a realistic fit between self and vocational choice, there exist a number of foreseeable barriers.

An obvious barrier is a lack of awareness of either the characteristics that one possesses or the characteristics of the occupations that are of interest to an individual.  This lack of personal realism could be easily rectified with the provision of self or occupational information.  A second hurdle comes from the tendency for vocational identity to change as a result of experiences throughout life (Stewart, 1995).  The growth and experience one achieves as one moves through life can alter the personal realism and the realism of fit between chosen vocations and self.  A third barrier refers to the scenario we started with: personal realism may become distorted as a result of conditions of self-worth and self-esteem.  One of our most basic psychological drives is to protect the self and the maintenance of positive self-feelings, which can lead individuals to distort their vocational identity to better fit a desired identity.  Finally, a fourth barrier may exist when one fails to engage in “thinking better about myself” (Reardon, Lenz, Sampson & Peterson, 2000, p.39).  This refers to a failure to do things that improve the quality of our personal realism, such as overgeneralizing from past experiences or relying too much on another person’s opinion about our goals, interests and talents.

Holland, J. (1997). Making vocational choices, A theory of vocational personalities and work environments (3rd ed.). Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Reardon, R., Lenz, G., Sampson, J., & Peterson, G. (2000). Career development and planning: A comprehensive approach. Scarborough, ON: Nelson/Thomson Learning.

Stewart, J. (1995). Counselling individuals who experience career decision-making difficulties. Guidance and Counseling, 10(4) 52-56.

Wolfe, L., & Betz, N. (1981). Traditionality of choice and sex role identification as moderators of the congruence of occupational choice in college women. Journal of Vocational Behaviour, 18, 43-55.

*The views expressed by our authors are personal opinions and do not necessarily reflect the views of the CCPA

0 comments on “Can I really be a doctor?”

  1. Mario Charette says:

    This is a very interesting and important article. If I may add, there are also sociological factors that invite a lack ot realism. First, occupations are not considered of equal value but are organized into a hierarchal structure. Those occupations at the top of the hierarchy are seen as most desirable. Ambition toward those occupations can be confused with strong self-esteem. Youth are explicitly and implicitly encouraged to choose those occupations whether or not they are realistic for them. Second, the social timetable requires youths to make those choices at a time when their self-concept is not fully developed. Resisting the influence of the occupational hierarchy requires a strong self-concept that is often acquired later in life. Because of those factors, kids coming in considering unrealistic career options will probably always be part of a counselor’s clientele.

    Unrealistic career expectations may be confused with healthy ambition. I wrote a column on that subject if the French langage is not an obstacle.–comment-etre-a-la-fois-realiste-et-ambitieux

    Mario C.

    1. Jeff Landine says:

      I would agree Mario. There are many other variables that influence career choice. Can I suggest that without some degree of personal realism, a client would be unable to overcome the social barriers you so correctly identify.

      As for the timing of decisions, I believe that the time will come when we recognize that the days of a one-time decision in Grade 12 or university are over. We need to accept that career development is a process that corresponds with development in other areas or our lives.

      You have correctly identified the unfortunate obstacle to this development. The adults in our students’ world are invested in pushing in both areas you identify: getting the best job (in the hierarchy) and making the decision early. maybe we are counselling the wrong people?

  2. Sonya says:

    Personal realism… An interesting concept. I would rather not put
    myself in the position of expert on another person’s capabilities, or
    tell someone that they can’t or shouldn’t do something. There are always exceptions
    to every thing (the undersized athlete who still make the NHL or NBA as
    an example).

    So much of what we achieve in life has to do with our motivation and the
    effort we put forth.

    1. Jeff Landine says:

      You are quite correct Sonya. I too would be quite hesitant to be in the position of making such an important decision for another person. I believe that our role as counsellors is not to be the expert or to impose our beliefs on our clients but rather to help them come to a realistic and appropriate realization of themselves. The undersized athlete recognizes that she is undersized and compensates with skill development, desire and hard work. But she is still operating from a place of realism. As a faculty member in a Counsellor Education program I am approached by students on a regular basis who want to be a counsellor but may lack some of the criteria necessary for entrance or important to success in the profession. My message to them is not “Too bad, I guess you can’t be a counsellor”. Instead we talk about what it means to be a counsellor and what they bring to the table. Entrance criteria can be overcome, much like the obstacles faced by the athlete above. And misconceptions about the profession can be corrected. The purpose of this blog, however, was to recognize the importance of developing and having a realistic picture of one’s self. I wanted to be a professional football player in high school. As personal realism developed I recognized that I lacked some of the physical attributes and, more importantly, the desire and drive to overcome these. Personal realism is not limiting, rather it frees us to pursue what we were meant to do. Thanks for commenting. Career development issues don’t always command the attention that some of the more lively subjects do. Until somebody struggles in this area… 🙂

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