What do you want to be when you grow up? Most high school students have three or four wildly divergent careers in mind and little or no idea of the academic background and training required for any of them, according to researchers from the University of Chicago and the National Opinion Research Center.

Since 1992, researchers have been following some 1,000 students from 33 schools in 12 urban, rural and suburban communities across the country. The study, which is ongoing, aims to find out how young people form their ideas about work and how those ideas change over time. Preliminary results, outlined in the Oct. 2 issue of Education Week, are due to be published next year.

University of Chicago social scientist Barbara Schneider tells Education Week that in one interview a teenager told her “he’d like to be an architect and how much he’d like to build houses, how he envisioned what an architect was and what an architect did. And then he said, ‘But I also might be a dog trainer.’ “

Major findings from the study are:

Regardless of socioeconomic background, young people tend to have unrealistic expectations about their future careers. Most expect to finish college and work in high-status, highly paid professions; 10 percent expect to be doctors, and another 10 percent expect to work in the sports or entertainment industries. Very few teens expect to work in blue-collar jobs. However, studies have shown that only half of all high school graduates will enroll in college, and only a quarter will eventually receive a degree.

Most teenagers work part time but typically at jobs that are unrelated to their career goals.

High school counselors focus primarily on getting students into college, not helping them sift through career options and decide what type of post-secondary education is most appropriate.

Economic and social conditions in the surrounding community shape how schools and families direct students toward college or jobs. In one high-unemployment city, for instance, high school graduates were encouraged to enroll in the local community college rather than seek scarce jobs. In contrast, in one community with low unemployment, more graduates entered the workforce directly after high school. And in one wealthy suburb, young people’s families spent considerable time and money to get students accepted at high-status, four-year colleges.

Students report that most of their academic classes are “boring.” However, students who found their academic classes challenging and engaging were more likely to report that they saw a connection between those classes and their future career goals.

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