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Helping Students Explore Their Vocations

Please, God, Send Us More Priests

Some of the most important questions we can ask our students to reflect on during their time here at DePaul centers around the idea of vocation. The word vocation, which stems from the Latin term vocatio, meaning “a calling, a being called”, originates from Christianity and in that context is often understood to be the process of discerning a call from god. It was in this sense that I first learned of the term growing up on the “catholic coast” of south Louisiana, where during weekly mass the prayer for vocations was generally understood to mean “please God, send us some more priests.”

Career Counselors Become a Thing

But of course the word vocation can be understood in a more secular sense as a calling to a certain profession or even a way of life. In 1911 the book Choosing a Vocation by Frank Parsons, an engineer by schooling who later became a prolific writer and social reformer, was published after his death. Parsons’ general theory of the idea of vocation can be distilled into three points:

Screenshot of Parsons' "Choosing a Vocation" book.

A page from “Choosing a Vocation” by Frank Parsons.

  • Choosing a vocation is an individual’s decision, but is best done in consultation with another person (and in Parson’s view, that person should be a trained vocational counselor);
  • Honest self-reflection and analysis of our interests, personal traits, and attitudes can help uncover a profession in alignment with our predispositions. (One sample question: “Do you love animals, children, nature?”);
  • Knowing what the current status and outlook is for a profession can help us further refine whether it would be a good match or not. (If Parsons was still alive, he’d be the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Occupational Outlook Handbook‘s #1 biggest fan).

Parsons’ thinking laid the groundwork for much of what modern career counselors do. For example, students at DePaul can make an appointment with a full-time career adviser to discuss options for exploring potential careers, including taking the Strong Interest Inventory and Meyers-Briggs Type Indicator instruments, which can give insight into one’s interests and personality type, respectively.

Enter the 21st Century Vocation Design Gurus

But if Frank Parsons was the 20th century vocation guru, then Bill Burnett and Dave Evans just might be his 21st century heirs. Burnett and Evans are experts in the world of product design, both having worked at Apple developing things that have since become ubiquitous, like laptops and computer mice. Their new book, Designing Your Life: How to Build a Well-lived, Joyful Life, is adapted from a popular class they’ve taught for years at Stanford.

Burnett and Evans’s approach follows Parsons’ general outline for vocation exploration, but offers much more detailed and practical methods for discovery. Their thesis is that one should consider her life as a professional designer would, using the same tools of the trade that are used in Apple’s design labs. Among these design strategies, a few stand out:

Man's feet standing on "You Are Here" sign

Credit: Flickr / Joe Loong / CC BY-SA 2.0

  1. Begin by creating a “You Are Here” perspective on the current state of your life. One way to do this is to visualize how satisfied you are with the following aspects of your life: love, play, work and health. What areas could use improvement? What aspects are you doing well in? Burnett and Evans have created a worksheet you can use to get started on understanding your “current state.” This understanding can then help you decide which problems you want to tackle.
  2. Identify the assumptions and beliefs you hold about the purposes of work and life. What’s work for? What makes for a good life? After reflecting on questions such as these, see if your work values and life values are in alignment. If they aren’t, then consider what steps you can take to re-align them.
  3. Try Stuff. Before building anything that ships to clients, designers build prototypes… lots of them. Similarly, you can “prototype” different ways of working and living life. This can be as simple as grabbing a coffee with someone who is doing interesting work, or redirecting some of your time and energy to work (or volunteer) on a project that sounds exciting.

Of course there’s a lot more to what Burnett and Evans cover in their book, with additional suggestions for actively exploring potential vocations. Whether or not you pick up the book for yourself or your students, you are invited to share your own experiences and discoveries in the comments section below.

DePaul Resources for Vocation Exploration

The Explore Your Purpose initiative at DePaul is a two-year grant-funded program designed to engage students in reflecting on and exploring possible vocations. Two workshops for faculty centered around vocation and purpose exploration will be offered in January 2017. Click the below links to RSVP for a workshop (the same workshop will be given on both the Lincoln Park and Loop campuses): Explore Your Purpose at DePaul University

Teaching with Purpose in Mind – Teaching Commons Workshop (lunch will be served)

RSVP: Thurs., Jan. 26, 2017, 12 – 2 pm (Lincoln Park Campus)

RSVP: Fri., Jan. 27, 2017, 12 – 2 pm (Loop Campus)

You can also share your own purpose-driven inspirations with the DePaul community online.

Students can tap into DePaul’s expansive alumni network to ask questions about what it’s like to work in a particular field. DePaul students can also take advantage a range of services offered by the Career Center, including workshops on career exploration and more. The Student Success website, in particular the Start Exploring page, can be a good jumping off point for students.


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