How design thinking can help students map out their careers

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How design thinking can help students map out their careers

Career planning can be overwhelming for students. According to one survey, 45% of students don’t have a clear plan for their life after graduation.

To ease students’ stress, two professors at Columbia University—Adam Royalty, designer-in-residence at Columbia Entrepreneurship, Innovation and Design, and Joseph Heritage, Columbia Entrepreneurship’s design lead—created a new three-week course: Design Your Future.

In the course, Royalty and Heritage ask students to plan their careers using design thinking, a problem-solving technique that reframes complex challenges to brainstorm innovative solutions, writes Vicky Valet for Forbes.

While design thinking is common in Columbia’s Design Lab, Design Your Future is the first course that invites students to apply the concept to their own lives. “There’s not a lot of programming that really dives into what reflecting on what the choices you’re potentially making actually mean for you,” says Royalty. “We said, ‘We’re applying design to business problems—why don’t we apply it to people?'”

Design Your Future, which is modeled after Stanford University‘s Design Your Life program, first opened in the spring of 2017 for a three-week pilot course. Royalty expected only a few students to apply, but was surprised to find widespread interest: “It wasn’t just students. We had staff and alumni asking if they could take it, people working in the career services office across campus,” he says. “Everybody is facing a transition in life.”

The course isn’t graded and it takes place off-campus in Columbia’s Design Studio. The location “allows [students] to feel like it’s a safe space where they’re not getting judged or getting a grade,” says Heritage. “We’re doing serious work, but we’re doing it in an innovative, different way.”

It’s important that students feel comfortable because the course asks them to share and learn from their personal experiences, desires, and fears. The instructors share their experiences, desires, and fears as well. Students “can share as much or as little as they want, but it’s important for us to share as facilitators,” explains Heritage. “We don’t have stock answers that we can pull from.”

According to Royalty and Heritage, here’s how the course works:

During the first week, Royalty and Heritage ask students to draft “reflection grids” (charts that detail hobbies, passions, discomforts, and critical life moments) and “energy scales” (lists that describe a typical day, including tasks that feel either inspiring or exhausting). Royalty and Heritage then ask students to share their charts with partners. They explain that thinking out loud about the past can help students determine what will inspire them in the future.

Next, students outline the career trajectory they are currently following, as well as two alternate routes that don’t necessarily relate to their degrees. Royalty and Heritage ask students to prototype these alternate trajectories for the following week by trying tasks associated with the job.

One student, for instance, was considering a career as a food blogger. So, “she rented camera equipment and started taking pictures of food around town at different restaurants,” says Royalty.

After students “try on” the potential professions, they share their findings with the class, including the barriers they would face if they chose that route. For example, one student shared, “If I quit my job to teach abroad, I’d fall behind my peers.”

Royalty and Heritage then ask students to reframe the barriers as opportunities. After this exercise, the same student shared, “When I return from overseas and interview for jobs, I can leverage my experience as evidence of my soft skills.”

In essence, the course transforms the thinking of “people who feel like they are stuck,” says Royalty.

At the end of the course, Royalty and Heritage ask students to write themselves letters that will be mailed back to them in six months. The point of the letter is “not to say, ‘Did you apply to that job?'” says Royalty. Rather, it’s to help students remember what they learned in the Design Studio: “You are not stuck along a trajectory” (Valet, Forbes, 1/23).

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