Exploring Vocation in the Health Professions: Promoting Longitudinal Discernment

As students gain clarity about their vocational choice(s), we must create a longitudinal path that provides opportunities for students to revisit vocational discernment throughout their college experience.

A series of posts about a collaborative project at the University of Dayton to develop courses, programs, and opportunities for undergraduate vocational discernment in the health professions, including a first-year course, “Discover Health and Medicine.”

I am always amused when I’m asked if I work in the field in which I earned my undergraduate degree. The answer is no, and in fact, I go out of my way to explain to students my meandering path to my current vocation. When I reflect upon my experiences, I accept that had I made different choices as an undergraduate, my path may have been straighter and more efficient, but I would not be the same person that I am today.

In my initial blog post in January, I shared my colleagues’ and my plan to develop a Discover Health & Medicine track for students who express interest in a career in the health professions but had not been initially accepted into a traditional pre-health major. Our two-semester, first-year class will incorporate an intentionally extended vocational exploration and discernment process. For those students who are interested in exploring a vocation in the health professions, this class will teach the skills of discernment and provide tools and resources to use in setting goals.

But vocational discernment shouldn’t just stop at the end of a class, after the first year of college, or when a student selects a major. A vocational path may take twists and turns throughout life, as Catherine Fobes suggests, and individuals may find themselves at various times questioning whether they pursued their true vocational calling or not. We should be mindful of not just teaching our students about vocational exploration in the present but also equipping them to continue their discernment throughout their lives.

One way to equip students with the necessary skills for lifelong vocational discernment is by teaching them how to engage in reflective practice. Reflective practice—the intentional processing of experiences and the learning that results from those experiences—is essential to continuous personal improvement and has been identified as a fundamental skill for health professionals. Reflection is also vital to lifelong learning and professional development.

As students gain clarity about their vocational choice(s), we must create a longitudinal path that provides opportunities for students to revisit vocational discernment throughout their college experience. We will conclude our first-year class by having students develop an action plan for achieving their chosen vocation. This action plan is based on the framework introduced by Jeff Oxendine in his book on vocational discernment for health professions students, You Don’t Have to be a Doctor: Discover, Achieve and Enjoy Your Authentic Health Career. This framework takes students through a step-by-step process that includes activities such as exploring career options, identifying core values, determining educational and training requirements, and setting next steps. Students will develop their action plan with short-term goals (six months to one year) that may include activities such as talking to individuals in their chosen field(s) and gathering more information about career options. Medium-term goals (one to two years) may include training and professional certification (e.g. medical or nursing assistant), gaining practical experience, or doing research with a faculty member. Students will be encouraged to think about pre-graduation goals (two to three years) such as networking, studying for and taking graduate school admissions exams, and exploring graduate programs. 

An important component of teaching vocational discernment is helping students select opportunities for experiential learning that are relevant to their profession of interest. Academic advising that parallels vocational discernment can assist students in identifying curricular opportunities for growth and development, such as classes with projects that allow students to apply their knowledge. Co-curricular experiences can complement the knowledge and skills that students are learning in their curriculum, such as working on a campus emergency medical squad (EMS) or as a peer health educator, and can enhance students’ applications for graduate programs or jobs. Extracurricular activities, while not directly related to the curriculum, often provide students with opportunities to learn new skills, engage in teamwork or competition, and demonstrate leadership.

As students approach the end of their undergraduate experience, we can offer capstone courses that require students to revisit and possibly further refine their vocational path. We can encourage them to extend their action plan to include post-graduate education, work, and professional development. We can also reinforce the importance of reflective practice as they move into their chosen vocation, knowing that this tool will promote longitudinal vocational discernment, particularly when the road of life takes an unexpected turn.

When people find their purpose in life and pursue it, their leadership is exemplary and authentic and others will be inspired to follow them.

Sanjiv Chopra, Leadership by Example: The Ten Key Principles of All Great Leaders

Sabrina M. Neeley is the associate dean for clinical, global, and experiential learning in the School of Education and Health Sciences at the University of Dayton. She is also an associate professor in the Department of Health and Sport Science, for which she developed and now oversees the community health concentration. Her work focuses on curriculum and program development in the health professions. For more posts by Sabrina, click here.

Author: Sabrina M. Neeley

Sabrina M. Neeley is the Associate Dean for Clinical, Global and Experiential Learning in the School of Education and Health Sciences at the University of Dayton. She is also an Associate Professor in the Department of Health and Sport Science where she developed and oversees the Community Health concentration.

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