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First-time university students shouldn't rush to pick a career; explore instead

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TORONTO - Students who worry too much about picking the "perfect" major as they enter university aren't necessarily setting themselves up for success, say experts who caution that school should be seen as time to learn, network and explore different career paths.

"Sometimes university is about more than getting it perfectly, it's often about the journey," said Eileen Chadnick, a career coach with Big Cheese Coaching in Toronto.

"You may start in a career and you may, through trial and error, change it, so don't worry about having all the answers before the first semester of university. Go in with an open, curious mind."

Students today have access to an unprecedented amount of information over the Internet, so focusing on something they are passionate about and using their time at university to learn how to think and to meet people is as important than any particular content expertise they may gain, said Sharon Irwin-Foulon, executive director of Career Management and Corporate Recruiting at the Ivey Business School at Western University.

"Often you want to stay in your dorm room and study and get 90s, but I'm not sure that that's actually going to impact your career and the satisfaction you get out of your career," said Irwin-Foulon.

"Being able to interact with different personalities, getting a network of like-minded people who have had this shared experience, I would argue is just as important as the degree content itself."

The way the job market is evolving is another reason why getting set on one track too early can be a mistake.

"You've got jobs that are being created that didn't exist five years ago," Irwin-Foulon. said. "Being too rigid is the tricky part, or doing a degree because you think it will get you a job."

Abdallah Al-Hakim, 36, has a PhD in science but works for a California-based technology company, and says he would encourage students to look at their options early and often.

"Educationally, I was definitely in one track; I was following the path you would follow to become a professor at a university," said Al-Hakim, from Hamilton, Ont., who earned a PhD in science and did a post-doctorate focusing on biochemistry before deciding a life in science wasn't for him.

"The issue with science is that there are a lot of PhDs that are graduating every year and there just aren't enough faculty positions."

Al-Hakim set out to explore alternatives and spent a year of his post-doctoral talking to as many people as he could, including those who had left a career in science.

After meeting with several players in Toronto's start-up scene, he realized he would enjoy working for a small, fast-paced company where he could immediately see the results of his work and, nine months later, landed a contract in a small Toronto company. He was eventually hired by a bigger startup, and recently became a marketing automation consultant with Blue Jeans Network, a U.S. technology company focused on video communications.

"I wish that after high school or maybe before my master's (degree) I'd stopped and looked at my options and maybe even worked," Al-Hakim said.

"Working is really the best thing to figure out what you want to do."

Nathan Laurie, president of online student job board Jobpostings.ca, says it's never too early to start thinking about a career.

"I would talk to as many people as possible about what they're considering doing," said Laurie.

Speaking with parents' friends, looking up industry organizations or following people who work in a field you're interested in are all good ways to learn more about it.

"I also think you're allowed to change your mind as many times as you want through your career, and many people do."

Given the cost of education, "it's a good idea, if you're not feeling good about what you're taking, to stop, re-evaluate and reconsider what you want to do, and then move forward when you have a new plan," Laurie said.

Whatever you choose to do, Irwin-Foulon urges all first-time students to make sure they are choosing their career for the right reasons.

"Do it because it legitimately interests you and you are in the zone and you're engaged with it," she said.

"You don't know what you don't know, so go and be open to learning things about yourself, things about the world and don't do it because your parents told you to, don't do it because you're supposed to, don't do it because it's going to get you a job."

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Follow @maurinor on Twitter.

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