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Career PlanningThis document has been retired from the active collection
of the ERIC Clearinghouse
on Disabilities and Gifted Education.
It contains references or resources that may
no longer be valid or up to date.
The ERIC Clearinghouse on Disabilities and Gifted Education (ERIC EC)
ERIC EC Digest #E492
Author: Barbara Kerr
Career Planning For Gifted And Talented Youth
Although parents and teachers may be concerned about academic planning for gifted and
talented young people, they often assume that career planning will take care of itself. Students
may have many choices available because of multiple gifts or a particular talent, and a career
choice in that area seems inevitable. There is no need for career planning: The student is simply
expected to make an occupational decision around the sophomore year of college and then
follow through on the steps necessary to attain that goal.
Unfortunately, evidence is
mounting that youthful brilliance in one or more areas does not always translate into adult
satisfaction and accomplishment in working life. Studies with such diverse groups as National
Merit Scholars (Watley, 1969), Presidential Scholars (Kaufmann, 1981), and graduates of gifted
education programs (Kerr, 1985) have shown that the path from education to career is not
always smooth, and it may be complicated by social-emotional problems and needs of gifted
students that differ from those of more typical students.
Recognition of these problems has produced counseling models that address student
needs (e.g., Berger, 1989; Buescher, 1987; Silverman, 1989; VanTassel-Baska, 1990). Some
factors that can contribute to problems with career planning are presented here, along with ways
of preventing and intervening with career development problems.
Multipotentiality is the ability to select and develop any number of career options because of a
wide variety of interests, aptitudes, and abilities (Frederickson & Rothney, 1972). The broad
range of opportunities available tends to increase the complexity of decision making and goal
setting, and it may actually delay career selection. Multipotentiality is most commonly a
concern of students with moderately high IQs (120-140), those who are academically talented,
and those who have two or more outstanding but very different abilities such as violin virtuosity
and mathematics precocity. Signs that multipotentiality is a concern include the following:
- Elementary school: Despite excellent performance in many or all school subjects,
students may have difficulty making decisions, particularly when they are asked to make a
choice on topics or projects from among many options. Multiple hobbies with only brief periods
of enthusiasm and difficulty in finishing up and following through on tasks (even those which
are enjoyable) are additional signs for concern.
- Junior high: Despite continued
excellence in many or all school subjects, difficulty with decision making and follow-through
continue. Students may participate in multiple social and recreational activities with no clear
preferences, and they may overschedule, leaving few free periods and little time to just think.
- Senior high: Decision-making problems generalize to academic and career
decisions, resulting in overly packed class schedules and highly diverse participation in school
activities. Students often accept leadership of a wide variety of groups in school, religious
activities, and community organizations. Adults may notice occasional signs of stress and
exhaustion (absences, frequent or chronic illness, periods of depression or anxiety, etc.), or they
may see evidence of delay or vacillation about college planning and decision making. Students
are able to maintain high grades in most or all courses taken. An important clue to continuing
multipotentiality is the student's vocational interest test profiles. These tests often show interests
and similarities to an unusually large number of occupations.
Multipotential students often have multiple academic majors. Three or more changes of college
major are not unusual for an individual who cannot set long-term goals. They continue intense
participation in extracurricular activities and have outstanding academic performance but are
concerned about selecting a career. They may make hasty, arbitrary, or
"going-along-with-the-crowd" career choices. They may encounter the dilemma of
opportunities lost in giving up some interests in favor of others.
- Adulthood: Some
of the implications of multipotentiality can be seen in bright adults who, despite excellent
performance in most jobs, hold multiple positions in short time periods and experience a general
feeling of lack of fit in most jobs. Some experience feelings of alienation, purposelessness,
depression, and apathy despite high performance and excellent evaluations. Some experience
periods of unemployment and underemployment, or they fall behind same-age peers in career
progress and sometimes social development (marriage, family, community involvement).
Possible intervention strategies for multipotentiality at different educational levels include
- Elementary School
- Provide realistic exposure to the world of work through parent sharing and exposure
to parents' working places.
- Encourage career fantasies through dress-up and plays.
- Encourage focusing
activities such as class projects or achievement of Scout merit badges, which require goal setting
- Use biographies of eminent people as primary career education
- As teachers or parents, carefully evaluate skills, talents, and interests in order to help
children understand possible areas of greatest interest.
- Junior High
Discuss the meaning and value of work.
- Discuss family and community values pertaining to work.
- Provide for light
volunteer work in several areas of interest.
- Provide "shadowing" experiences in which
students spend the day with an adult working in an area of greatest interest.
overinvolvement in social and recreational activities for the sake of involvement; prioritize and
decide on a few extracurricular involvements.
- Senior High
- Seek appropriate vocational testing from a guidance professional or
- Encourage visits to college and university classes in a few areas of
- Provide for more extensive volunteer work.
- Explore possibilities of paid internships with professionals.
- Insist on a solid curriculum of coursework in order to insure against
inadequate preparation for a later career choice.
- Provide value-based guidance, which emphasizes choosing a career that
fulfills deeply held values.
- Discourage conformist, stereotyped career choices.
- Expose students to atypical career models.
- College Students and Young Adults
- Seek career counseling including assessment of interests, needs, and values.
- Enroll in a career planning class.
- Encourage careful course selection.
- Avoid conformist and stereotyped major choices.
- Seek a mentor.
in long-term goal setting and planning.
Early emergers (Marshall, 1981) are children who have extremely focused career interests. A
passion for an idea and an early commitment to a career area are common childhood
characteristics of eminent individuals in a wide variety of professions (Bloom, 1985; Kerr,
1985); thus, early emergence should not be thought of as a problem of career development, but
rather as an opportunity that may be acted upon, neglected, or, unfortunately, sometimes
destroyed. Acting upon early emergence means noticing an unusually strong talent or
enthusiasm, providing training in skills necessary to exercise that talent, providing resources,
and keeping an open mind about the future of the talent or interest. Neglecting early emergence
means overlooking the talent or interest or failing to provide education and resources.
Destroying the early emerger's passion may not be easy, but belittling the talent or interest
("Who cares about someone who doodles and draws all the time instead of listening?" "What
makes you think you can become an anthropologist?") may easily extinguish the flame.
Insisting on well-roundedness or disallowing needed training (e.g., refusing to allow a
mathematically precocious child to accelerate in math) may diminish the passion. Overly
enthusiastic encouragement and pressure may also remove the intrinsic pleasure the child feels
in the interest or talent area.
As with multipotentiality, there are signs of early emergence:
school: Avid interest in one school subject or activity with only general liking for other subjects
and activities and extraordinary talent in one area and average or above average performance in
others are underlying signs of early emergence. (These students may be mistakenly labeled as
underachievers). Students may also try to write more papers than required, choose too many
subjects in the area of interest, and mention early career fantasies about success and fame in a
particular area of interest.
- Junior high: Students continue highly focused interests and may express a strong
desire for advanced training in an area of talent and interest. Development of adolescent social
interests may be delayed because of a commitment to work in a talent area or because of
rejection by others, yet performance in the talent area grows, while performance in other areas
- Senior high: Students may develop a strong identity in the talent area (the
"computer whiz," "artist," or "fix-it person," for example). They may express a desire for help
with planning a career in an area of interest. A desire to test skill in competition with or in
concert with peers in the chosen talent area and continued high performance in the talent area to
a degree that causes neglect of other school subjects or social activities are additional signs of a
focused interest and passion.
- College students and young adults: These young people make an early, but not
hasty or arbitrary, choice of career or major. They often show a desire for completion of a
training period in order to "get on with work," seek out mentors, continue intense focus, and
often neglect social and extracurricular activities.
- Adulthood: Adults may continue their intense focus, desire eminence or
excellence in the talent area, and possibly forego or delay other aspects of adult development
such as marriage, nurturing of a younger generation, social and community involvement, and
Possible intervention strategies for early emergers at different educational levels include the
- Elementary School
- Provide for early identification of unusual talent or area of precocity.
Consult with experts on the nature and nurture of particular gifts or talents.
- Consult with
the school on ways of nurturing the talent or gift.
- Encourage fantasies through
reading of bibliographies and playing of work roles.
- Provide opportunities to learn
about eminent people in the talent area (attend a concert; visit an inventor's workshop; attend a
math professor's class).
- Relate necessary basic skills to the area of interest.
Provide opportunities to socialize with children with similar, intense interests through such
activities as music camps, computer camps, and Junior Great Books.
- Strike a careful
balance between encouragement and laissez-faire; provide support for the strong interest along
with freedom to change direction. Do not become so invested in the child's talent or interest that
you fail to notice that the child has changed interests. (Early emergers most often change to a
closely related interest; that is, they switch musical instruments or transfer an interest in
mathematics to an interest in theoretical physics).
- Junior High
Provide support and encouragement during the intensive training that often begins at this point.
- Allow for plenty of time alone.
- Seek opportunities for job "shadowing" (following a professional throughout the
working day) in area of interest.
- Seek opportunities for light volunteer work in area of interest.
pressuring the student into social activities.
- Senior High
- Continue support, encouragement, and time alone.
opportunities for internships and work experiences in the areas of interest (internship on
archaeological dig; job as camp counselor at a fine arts camp; coaching younger people in
musical or athletic skill).
- Seek career guidance from a guidance counselor who is
familiar with the talent area or from a professional in that field.
- Make a detailed plan
of training and education leading toward the chosen career goal, including financial
- Explore higher education or postsecondary training early and thoroughly, with contacts
- Help the student establish a relationship with a mentor in the area of interest. Early
emergers often fare better in a less prestigious institution where they have access to an
enthusiastic mentor than in an Ivy League or high status institution where they do not.
- College Students and Young Adults
- Help provide support for extended education and training.
Encourage the development of knowledge of career ladders in the area of interest (auditions,
gallery shows, inventor's conventions, etc.).
- Encourage a continuing relationship
with a career counseling or guidance professional for support in decision making and problem
The career development problems discussed here are nearly opposite one another: The
multipotential student seems unfocused, delaying, and indecisive, whereas the early emerger is
focused, driven, and almost too decisive. Both types carry with them dangers and opportunities.
Skillful career education and guidance can help ensure that neither multipotentiality nor early
emergence leads to difficulty in career planning and development.
Planning For Special Populations
Minority Gifted Students
Minority gifted students have special career planning needs as well as needs related to
multipotentiality or early emergence. Minority students from Black, Hispanic, and American
Indian backgrounds are less likely to have been selected for gifted education programs and less
likely to perform well on standardized achievement tests than their nonminority peers. In
addition, they may have lower career aspirations because of lower societal expectations.
Nevertheless, the patterns of leadership and out-of-class accomplishments of gifted minority
students are very similar to those of nonminority gifted students (Kerr, Colangelo, Maxey, &
Christensen, 1989). Minority gifted students are active leaders in other communities.
Therefore, career counseling for these students may be most effective when it focuses on raising
career aspirations and emphasizes out-of-class accomplishments as indicators of possible career
directions. Career planning must also go hand in hand with building a strong ethnic identity if
later conflict between ethnic identity and achievement in majority society is to be avoided.
Colangelo and LaFrenz (1981) have provided suggestions for how this can be accomplished.
Gifted Girls and Women
Persisting sex role stereotypes and the continued socialization of girls for secondary roles means
that, despite great gains in certain fields such as medicine and law, gifted girls are less likely
than gifted boys to achieve their full potential. Although gifted girls outperform gifted boys in
terms of grades, gifted boys achieve higher scores on college admissions examinations.
Compared to gifted boys, gifted girls are underprepared academically, having taken fewer
mathematics and science courses and less challenging courses in social studies. As a result, they
have fewer options for college majors and career goals (Kerr, 1985). Bright women apparently
let go of career aspirations gradually, first through underpreparation and later through decisions
that may put the needs of husbands and families before their own. Gifted women fall behind
gifted men in salary, status, and promotions throughout their working lives.
In order to
ensure that gifted girls have the greatest possible chance to fulfill their potential, career planning
should emphasize rigorous academic preparation, particularly in mathematics and science;
maintaining high career aspirations; and identifying both internal and external barriers to the
achievement of career goals. Many suggestions for career planning for gifted girls are provided
in Smart Girls, Gifted Women (Kerr, 1985).
Berger, S. (1989). COLLEGE PLANNING FOR GIFTED STUDENTS. Reston, VA:
The Council for Exceptional Children.
Bloom, B. S. (1985). DEVELOPING TALENT IN YOUNG PEOPLE. New York:
Buescher, T. (1987). "Counseling gifted adolescents: A curriculum model for students,
parents, and professionals." GIFTED CHILD QUARTERLY, 31(2), 90-93.
N., & LaFrenz, N. (1981). "Counseling the culturally diverse gifted." GIFTED CHILD
QUARTERLY, 25, 27-30.
Frederickson, R. H., & Rothney, J. W. M. (1972). RECOGNIZING AND ASSISTING
MULTIPOTENTIAL YOUTH. Columbus, OH: Merrill.
Kaufmann, F. (1981). "The 1964-1968 Presidential Scholars: A follow-up study."
EXCEPTIONAL CHILDREN, 48, 164-169.
Kerr, B. A. (1985). SMART GIRLS, GIFTED WOMEN. Columbus, OH: Ohio
Kerr, B. A., Colangelo, N., Maxey, J., & Christensen, P. (1989). "Characteristics and
goals of academically talented minority students." Paper presented at International Educational
and Vocational Guidance Conference, Edinburgh, Scotland.
Marshall, B. C. (1981). "Career decision-making patterns of gifted and talented
adolescents." JOURNAL OF CAREER EDUCATION, 7, 305-310.
(1989). "Career counseling for the gifted." In J. L. VanTassel-Baska & P. Olszewski-Kubilius
(Eds.), PATTERNS OF INFLUENCE ON GIFTED LEARNERS: THE HOME, THE SELF,
AND THE SCHOOL (pp. 201- 213). New York: Teachers College Press.
VanTassel-Baska, J. (Ed.). (1990). A PRACTICAL GUIDE TO COUNSELING THE GIFTED
IN A SCHOOL SETTING (2d ed.). Reston, VA: The Council for Exceptional Children.
Watley, D. J. (1969). "Career progress: A longitudinal study of gifted students." JOURNAL
OF COUNSELING PSYCHOLOGY, 16, 100-108.
Barbara Kerr is the author of Smart Girls, Gifted Women; Associate Professor,
Counseling Education, and Associate Director, Connie Belin National Center for Gifted
Education, The University of Iowa.
ERIC Digests are in the public domain and may
be freely reproduced and disseminated, but please acknowledge your source. This
publication was prepared with funding from the U.S. Department of Education, Office
of Educational Research and Improvement, under Contract No. RI88062007. The opinions
expressed in this report do not necessarily reflect the positions or policies
of OERI or the Department of Education.
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