Career Planning for Gifted and Talented Youth
ERIC Identifier: ED321497
Publication Date: 1990-00-00
Author: Kerr, Barbara
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on Handicapped and Gifted Children Reston VA.
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:
Possible intervention strategies for multipotentiality at different educational levels
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.
- College: 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
- 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).
- 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 and follow-through.
- Use biographies of eminent people as primary career education material.
- As teachers or parents, carefully evaluate skills, talents, and interests in order to help
children understand possible areas of greatest interest.
- 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.
- Discourage overinvolvement in social and recreational activities for the sake of
involvement; prioritize and decide on a few extracurricular involvements.
COLLEGE STUDENTS AND YOUNG ADULTS
- Seek appropriate vocational testing from a guidance professional or psychologist.
- Encourage visits to college and university classes in a few areas of interest.
- 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
- Discourage conformist, stereotyped career choices.
- Expose students to atypical career models.
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.
Engage 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
As with multipotentiality, there are signs of early emergence:
Possible intervention strategies for early emergers at different educational levels include
- Elementary 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 diminishes.
- 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
- 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 biographies 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
- Provide support and encouragement during the intensive training that often begins at
- 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.
- Avoid pressuring the student into social activities.
COLLEGE STUDENTS AND YOUNG ADULTS
- Continue support, encouragement, and time alone.
- Seek 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 arrangements.
- 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.
- 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 solving.
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
CAREER 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,
Prepared by Barbara Kerr, 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.
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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