I have always been intrigued by the question of how people end up being what and where they are now, in terms of everything, the work they do, the organizations they work for, the people they love, the way they think etc.
When it comes to the context of making career decisions, I got interested in how so many talented people from prestigious schools end up working in consulting or banking. This is not a new question and I’m certainty not the first person who’s interested in and decided to write about it (Marina Keegan, an extremely talented writer who graduated from Yale College in 2012, wrote a beautiful and insightful essay on this topic).
As a PhD student in the early research stage, I kind of want to know more about what could possibly be going on, to examine it more systematically, and to possibly frame this question more theoretically. As a result, I decided to do an exploratory study on it and wrote a report based on the study.
The report is not at all publishable, not even close. It is simply a record of something I have done and possibly will become something I want to further build on in the future. I started the study in January 2015 and wrote the report in April, and I have been thinking about the broader context in which this specific phenomenon resides and continuing to talk with more students who is currently in this process. In the meantime, instead of letting this report be buried somewhere in my laptop, I decided to put it in a place where some people who are interested in knowing more about it and have the patience and time to read it would be able to do so.
And that’s the reason I opened up a blog, for me to store something like this report, a little bit of my thoughts, and a little bit of my work.
As most work in academia, this report starts with an abstract.
This exploratory study aims to discern the contextual and psychological factors that constrain MBA students’ pursuit of occupations that they perceive as their callings. Through a qualitative study based on in-depth interviews with 20 current MBA students with a variety of occupational interests, I establish the following preliminary propositions: 1) Four contextual factors including early presence of and easy access to irrelevant opportunities, the herd effect, financial need, and institutional reputational pressure tend to make individuals less likely to pursue occupations which they perceive as their callings. 2) Four psychological factors including concern about missing opportunities, needs for security and superiority, overestimation of benefits and underestimation of drawbacks, as well as belief in the functional values of occupations not seen as callings tend to make individuals less likely to pursue occupations which they perceive as their callings. 3) Individuals who adopt focusing strategies, including consistent self-reminders of their calling and peer/family/mentor support are less likely to be influenced by contextual and psychological forces. These three propositions suggest important implications for the (dis)connection between perceiving and pursuing a calling and prompt future studies on the dynamics of occupational preferences and choice.
Contextual and Psychological Constraints on the Callings of MBA Students
The concept of calling has gained considerable attention from scholars of organizations and the psychology of work in recent decades. Traditionally used in the religious context to denote an individual’s obligation as advised by God (see Weber, 1956, 1963; Davidson & Caddell, 1994), the term calling has been increasingly adopted in the work context to examine the meaning of work and individuals’ relationships to their work (e.g., Wrzesniewski, McCauley, Rozin, & Schwartz, 1997; Rosso, Dekas, & Wrzesniewski, 2010). Although researchers of calling have not developed a consistent definition for this construct in the work context, calling generally refers to a type of work that can provide individuals with a deep sense of fulfillment and is perceived as highly personally and socially meaningful (see Wrzesniewski et al., 1997; Duffy & Dik, 2013).
Scholars have identified several positive effects of having a calling in the work domain for both individuals and their employers. For example, Duffy and Dik (2013) in their review of research on calling described evidence that perceiving work as calling relates positively to individual well-being, job satisfaction, and life satisfaction and to the organizational performance of the individuals’ employers. However, recent research has suggested that a significant distinction exists between merely perceiving a calling and pursuing a calling. While working in one’s calling appears to confer a range of benefits, for those who perceive a calling, but fail to enter it are likely to experience negative outcomes, including regret and stress (Berg, Grant, & Johnson, 2010). While individuals who perceive a calling sense that they will obtain psychological and social fulfillment from a certain type of work, individuals who pursue a calling actually actively engage in the pursuit and realization of that type of work.
Individuals fail to pursue their perceived callings for multiple reasons. Few studies, however, have systematically examined the factors that limit individuals’ ability to realize or pursue their perceived callings. The present study aims to fill this gap by developing propositions on inhibiting factors associated with failure to pursue a calling based on the context of career decision making among current MBA students. Specifically, I explore the contextual and psychological constraints that potentially keep MBA students from entering occupations that they perceive as their callings. Furthermore, I draw on the study findings to propose strategies that can potentially help individuals overcome these constraints.
Constraints on Pursuing a Perceived Calling
Frequent observations of unhappy employees suggest that a significant number of workers are not working at a job that they are satisfied with. The sources of such high dissatisfaction are many, including poor work environment (e.g., McHugh et al., 2011), long working hours (e.g., Caruso, 2014), and work-family imbalance (e.g., Hughes & Bozionelos, 2007). A more basic reason for this dissatisfaction, however, may stem from the fact that many individuals are not working at occupations which they perceive as their callings (Wrzesniewski et al., 1997). In this paper, I use “calling occupations” to refer to occupations which individuals perceive as their callings and “non-calling occupations” to refer to those which individuals do not perceive as their callings. It should be noted that not every individual sees their work as calling or knows which occupation they will see as calling. In fact, Wrzesniewski and colleagues (1997) show that only about one thirds of working adults perceive their work as calling. For the purpose of this study, I focus on the individuals who perceive a sense of calling from their work and know their calling occupations. Why individuals who are aware of where their callings lie pursue non-calling occupations and not their calling occupations is a complicated question. The highly individualized and complex nature of the answers to this question makes it difficult for researchers to investigate this issue. Consequently, very few studies in the current literature examine the factors that prevent individuals from pursuing their perceived callings.
Nevertheless, several studies shed light upon the factors that keep individuals from pursuing their perceived callings. For example, Iyengar, Wells, and Schwartz (2006) suggested that many job seekers, in a quest to land the “best job” they can, pay more attention to the objective aspects of a job such as salary and prestige and less attention to the subjective aspects such as the content and quality of the work. In addition, individuals may lack the skills and qualifications needed for their calling occupations (Twenge, 2006). These findings imply that both psychological factors (e.g., bias towards objective features of a job) and contextual factors (e.g., requirements of calling occupations) can play a role in inhibiting individuals from pursuing their calling occupations. Because so little research has systematically explored the contextual and psychological constraints on pursuing perceived callings, the goal of the present study is to fill this gap.
MBA Students’ Career Choices
Individuals who perceive a calling may fail to pursue their calling occupations for a variety of reasons. To bring more clarity to this question, I base this study on a specific context – career decision making among current MBA students. In particular, an interesting pattern of career choices among MBA students makes it a unique and ideal context for the current study.
Although sharing a similar objective of improving their job prospects and upward mobility, individuals enter MBA programs with different primary goals. Some would like to acquire more relevant skills to become experts in their fields; some focus on building high-quality social network; still a significant number of people use it as an opportunity to make transition into an industry or occupation that they have been passionate about. Incoming students who wish to make a career transition post-MBA hold a wide array of career interests across individuals when they enter the program. They aim to start their new career life in, for example, consulting, social enterprise, education, and high tech, or become a human resources manager, a banker, or an entrepreneur after they graduate. Despite this variety of occupational and industry interests, statistics of job placement in recent years reveal that finance and consulting have absorbed more than half of all the new MBA graduates from top business schools. According to the employment statistics of a Top 10 business school in the northeast, a total of 52% of their new graduates in 2014 went into consulting and finance with an almost equal distribution between these two industries. The third most popular field is technology, which hired 10% of new graduates. The rest of the industries such as consumer products/retail, energy, nonprofit, and healthcare each acquired only a single-digit percentage of new graduates. The even representation of diverse career interests among the incoming students and the dominance of finance and consulting in the graduates’ employment placement suggest that some number of these students choose to enter finance or consulting and give up their plans to enter their calling occupations. This brings up a number of questions. What makes these students decide to forgo their calling occupations in favor of a non-calling occupation in finance or consulting? What are the contextual and psychological factors involved when they make this career decision? What are some differences between students who stick with their calling occupations and those who pursue non-calling occupations instead? This pattern of change in career pursuit provides an ideal context to investigate the contextual and psychological constraints on pursuing perceived callings. While the propositions developed from this context may not be generalizable to other populations, they do offer implications and directions to future research examining the disconnection between perceiving and pursuing a calling that are likely relevant to student populations especially.
In the next section, I described the method I used to build the preliminary propositions on the contextual and psychological factors that constrain current MBA students’ ability to pursue a perceived calling occupation.
The goal of this study is to develop propositions on the contextual and psychological constraints on current MBA students’ ability to pursue their calling occupations. As a result of the complex and multifaceted nature of the question in hand, I used qualitative methods to obtain and analyze the data. I first sent out a questionnaire to all the current MBA students in a Top 10 business school located in the northeastern United States. Participants indicated at most three industries in which they are mostly interested in working; they also listed the full-time or summer internship positions to which they had applied. Participants who had already received or accepted job or internship offers were asked to list all the offers received, indicating which one was accepted. In total, 27 students decided to participate and 25 completed the questionnaire. I conducted follow-up interviews with 20 of them. I describe how I selected the participants for interviews in the next section.
The current MBA students can be divided into three groups: first, those whose calling occupations are in finance or consulting and pursued their careers in one of these two fields; second, those whose calling occupations are not in finance or consulting but pursued their careers in one of these two fields; third, those whose calling occupations are not in finance or consulting and pursued careers of their own callings. For the purpose of the present study, I focused primarily on the second and third type of students. Results from the questionnaires showed that three participants indicated they were mostly interested in working in finance or consulting only, and had applied for jobs only in these areas. Since it was obvious that their calling occupations resided in finance or consulting and they were pursuing these careers, I excluded them for subsequent interviews. Two participants did not apply for any job or internship so they were excluded as well. Seven participants indicated no interest in finance or consulting; four of them did not apply for jobs or internships in either of these two industries but three of them did. I included the seven participants for subsequent interviews. The remaining 13 participants indicated career interest in finance or consulting as well as other industries. They also applied for jobs or internships in a range of fields. Because it was hard to assess their calling occupations through the questionnaires, I included all of them in the interview sample as well. Consequently, I conducted interviews with 20 participants, a group that held a variety of occupational interests.
Data Collection and Analysis
Data were collected through in-depth semi-structured interviews (see Appendix for the interview protocol). Each interview was audio recorded and transcribed. The interviews lasted from 30 to 90 minutes with an average of approximately 52 minutes.
I started the data analysis by first identifying each interviewee’s calling occupation or industry, the occupations or industries to which they had applied, as well as the occupations or industries from which they had received and accepted offers (see Table 1). Then I carefully read each transcript and identified common themes. Analysis of the data revealed four types of contextual constraints, four psychological constraints, and two focusing strategies. I discussed each of the findings in details in the following section.
Contextual Factors on Pursuing Occupational Callings
I identified four contextual factors which potentially constrained participants’ ability to focus on pursuing their calling occupations. These four contextual factors are 1) early presence of and easy access to non-calling occupations; 2) the herd effect; 3) financial need; and 4) institutional reputational pressure. I categorized them as contextual factors because they represented forces coming from the external environment. I discuss each of these four factors below.
Early Presence of and Easy Access to Non-calling Occupations
Non-calling occupations refer to occupations that are not perceived as callings by individuals. In my sample, some participants had worked in their non-calling occupations before, did not like their experience, and decided not to pursue them in the current employment transition; others had not experienced their non-calling occupations but were aware they were not their callings, and therefore did not intend to pursue them in the current employment transition. Regardless of how they decided these occupations were not their callings, many participants expressed that the early presence of and easy access to these occupations in the recruiting cycle of the MBA program made it difficult not to pay attention to them and to stay focused on pursuing their own calling occupations. This was especially true if their calling occupations recruited on later timelines and required extra effort to find. Anna, a first-year student who intended to work in social enterprise, described how she started to pursue consulting instead as a result of the early recruiting presentations and the minimal initiative required of students.
[I] get on this train of [consulting because] it’s the first recruiting thing that happened, so it feels like the easiest train to get on. It’s like, it’s happening right away. It has a really set curriculum; it has a very set rules and procedures, so it doesn’t take any extra… I mean it’s lots of work, but it’s not extra initiative. You don’t have to go search for anything on your own; you join the club; they tell you anything you need to know; you drop your resume; they come here to interview you; they come here to build relationships with you.
Sometimes access to these non-calling occupations was made even easier if recruiters individually approached potential candidates. This seemingly “free” opportunity was even harder to reject, especially for students who did not have a job and needed one, despite their awareness that these jobs did not interest them. In addition, this affirmation from recruiters may increase confidence in obtaining a job in similar areas, therefore encouraging pursuit of related jobs in the same industry. Betty, a first-year student passionate about a non-profit career, illustrated the process of switching recruiting tracks to pursue consulting after receiving an email from a recruiter of a consulting firm.
What ended up happening is sometime in November, ExcellentConsulting emailed me. It was like, hey we saw your resume, we would love to chat if you want to talk. So I was gonna write back and say no, but then like I said, I am a person that takes opportunities, I was like, I would just talk to them, whatever, so I had a great conversation with them, so I ended up dropping my resume for them and at the same time dropping my resume for BetterConsulting.
Early presence and easy access would make the non-calling occupations even more attractive if these occupations or their associated companies are perceived as selective and prestigious. Mark, a second-year student with a calling in education, admitted that it would be very difficult for him to keep his focus on education if a prestigious non-education company approached him and invited him to apply to it.
If they reach out to you and say that we think you are cool, even if you are not interested in the opportunity, you are like, “Wow, I would’ve never thought…” that’s like, you would feel flattered. … That makes it hard to turn down the initial conversation, like well maybe I don’t want to do it, but they were nice enough to reach out to me, let me have a phone call or meet them for coffee. If I was in that situation I would probably say yes. I would check it out, but then it sort of goes into this snowball effect, ok you meet them, and then you have to prepare for the applications and interviews. Maybe you don’t put so much pressure on yourself, so that maybe you come out as even more attractive, and then you get the job, and then you have a whole other story.
These examples suggest that even for participants who have a sense of what their calling occupations are, the early presence of and easy access to some non-calling occupations, especially if they are from prestigious firms, make it very challenging to focus on pursuing a career that they perceive as calling.
The Herd Effect
The term “the herd effect” is commonly used to describe the tendency to follow the crowd and do what everyone else seems to be doing. Every participant mentioned the herd effect as an important factor in shifting their intention from pursuing their calling occupations to pursuit of non-calling occupations. Tom, a second-year student who would like to work in environmental protection, described the herd mentality as something that was evident from the start of the MBA program and sustained in its influence on students’ career choices.
This is like the herd mentality, where everyone goes to do everything together, even from the beginning of the school. …Everybody goes to every event; everyone is taking the same classes; when there are a couple of companies who come to campus, then everybody is competing to go to the company presentation, and competing to get time with recruiters for coffee.
Catherine, a first-year student interested in internal human resources management for international corporations, described her feeling of pressure to go into consulting from seeing so many fellow students doing it. What she said represents a common feeling expressed by every participant.
It’s just that so many people are doing it… It’s the herd mentality; since a lot of people are doing it you wonder if you are missing out on something.
Furthermore, when the herd effect combined with easy access to non-calling occupations, students face an even harder situation to resist. Betty emphasized both of these factors when she explained why she would choose an internship with a consulting firm rather than a non-profit organization which she had long been passionate about.
I think, for me personally, it’s more that they approached me, and it just seems to have happened. The fact that all of my friends and people around me are doing it and seem to want it so badly made it seem like a more desirable thing in my mind. If this had happened, if they approached me, and no one else around me was applying to them, I wouldn’t think of them so highly. I will be like okay, whatever, it’s some corporation, why do I care. But because there are so many people around me that want it, well I should try.
These examples illustrate that the herd effect can be a strong force that draws students to pursue occupations that they do not perceive as their callings, and consequently constrains their intention and ability to pursue those occupations which they perceive as their callings, even occupations that they have been passionate about for a very long time.
If a non-calling occupation provides a higher salary than a calling occupation, it may make it more attractive, especially to a student with loans to pay back. However, although it is intuitive that financial need would be an important factor shaping students’ ability to pursue a lower-paid calling occupation, it was not a prevalent theme. Only half of the participants mentioned higher salary was one of the reasons they chose to pursue a higher-paid non-calling occupation over a lower-paid calling occupation. For example, Donna’s response represents a typical expression of financial need as a constraint.
I do think there’s a financial aspect to it. Like, wow, they are going to pay me a lot of money. I don’t have to worry about my second-year tuition and my loans.
Betty addressed the attraction from the financial benefit of a non-calling job similarly.
I think the other thing is it pays really well. We have a ton of loans. I don’t know how that factors in differently for each person, but having a 130,000 dollars starting salary versus not is a big difference when you have a 160,000 dollars of loans.
Nevertheless, the other half of participants indicated that higher salary was not one of the major reasons why they redirected their search to pursue a non-calling occupation. For them, some psychological factors including need for security and superiority as well as the belief in the functional values of the occupations are more essential. These themes are developed in a later section. One limitation I would like to point out here is that all participants in this study are from the business school of an Ivy-League university. These individuals are likely to be in a better financial position than the general population. Therefore, with only the participants in this study, it is difficult to infer whether financial need is a more important or a less important factor when a different group of individuals choose between pursuing an occupation which they perceive as their calling and one that they do not perceive as their calling.
Institutional Reputational Pressure
The final contextual factor I identified is institutional reputational pressure, or the need to improve the reputation of the MBA program. Students described pressure to pursue careers that are prestigious and offer higher financial rewards, even though the students have limited interests and passions in those careers, so that the ranking of their MBA program would not suffer. The reasoning their described is that external agencies rank MBA programs based in part on their graduates’ job placements and starting salaries. More prestigious job placements and higher starting salaries boost a program’s ranking, which subsequently improves the quality of the students’ degree and their future job prospects. A significant number of participants in my sample reported perceiving this type of pressure from the career development staff, who actively encouraged students to pursue occupations in consulting and banking, industries perceived to be prestigious and highly paid. Catherine’s description provides an example.
The CDO (Career Development Office) pushes it really really hard… You know you do get the hard sell. The way the CDO prepares you for interviews is very consulting and banking heavy and it makes sense because that’s what drives up the salary numbers and the salary numbers are important for recruitment. It’s all kind of the system that works together.
In addition to the pressure from the CDO, a few second-year students also mentioned they perceived this pressure from first-year students who expected them to be active and enthusiastic about the opportunities from the prestigious industries such as consulting and banking so that in the next year, companies from these industries would continue to be interested in students from the program. These examples suggest that the reputational pressure – from representatives of the school as well as fellow students – did play a role in shifting students’ intentions from pursuing a calling occupation to a non-calling occupation that offers better prestige and higher pay.
Taking the four contextual factors together, I developed the first proposition.
Proposition 1: Four contextual forces including early presence of and easy access to irrelevant opportunities, the herd effect, financial need, and institutional reputational pressure tend to make individuals less likely to pursue occupations which they perceive as their callings.
Psychological Factors on Pursuing Occupational Callings
Contextual factors are important. However, they are hardly effective if individuals do not experience and interpret them in ways that affect their behavior. Thus, understanding the psychological experience of the context provides clues to the types of interpretations individuals adopt to navigate their environments. I identified four psychological factors that often emerged in conjunction with the contextual factors to inhibit individuals from focusing on pursuing their own calling occupations. These psychological factors are 1) concern about missing opportunities; 2) needs for security and superiority; 3) overestimation of benefits and underestimation of drawbacks; and 4) belief in the functional values of non-calling occupations. I described each of these four factors below.
Concern about Missing Opportunities
Almost every participant expressed that at some point or another they had concerns about missing good opportunities if they only focused on pursuing their calling occupations. This concern drove them to want to pursue opportunities in non-calling occupations as well. Kelly provided a good example of this concern in our interview.
At least for me personally, I’ve always been someone that wants to take advantage of opportunities, so even if it’s not something that I think I want to do, I think it’s very important that if you have an opportunity you should take it. So in that way if I have this idea that I want to in the long term do nonprofit or do something good, like well this is a really good opportunity for now, and like when else am I gonna have this opportunity? I might as well use this chance, to try and recruit for that and see if I can get it.
The concern about missing opportunities can be so powerful that it could even make a person who had decided to accept an offer from his calling occupation to question his decision. Mark’s experience reflects this situation.
I got it (the offer of his calling job) last summer. This year I was pretty sure I was going to take it, but there were some details that hadn’t worked out, and in the fall once people started to do interviews with other companies, started to get offers, I started to question myself a little bit. I wonder, I was like, am I actually making the right choice? It looks like there are all these great opportunities and all these other companies.
Some participants indicated that they disapproved of this type of concern and felt it could mislead students while at the same time admitting to having suffered from this concern at some point during their recruiting process. Jeff, a first-year student with a passion for endowment management, illustrated the difficulty of staying immune to this concern while being aware of the ways it might lead him in unintended directions. He discussed how he thought the approach of keeping as many opportunities open as possible was wrong.
I think a lot of my friends do it, that there’s always this feeling that you want to make the best possible choice, whatever it is, you want to make the best decision. I don’t really like that approach, because I think that there’s not some objective best out there, that if you keep delaying what you want to do because you are trying to keep as many options as possible, I mean, you will die eventually; nobody is gonna live forever; you will end up nowhere.
However, in another part of our interview, he described how he started to worry about having missed some good opportunities despite all the support and affirmation from his peers and mentors. He suggested that his concern originated from the herd effect, implying that the contextual and psychological factors often function together to influence an individual’s decision.
I think part of that was a little bit crisis of confidence. You know, again, everyone else, they are getting interviews, doing all the stuff, and there are so many activities. I was afraid I missed out on something or I wasn’t on the right track, even though the mentors are saying I was, the second-years were saying I was. Yet there’s always a question.
These examples show that the concern about missing opportunities was prevalent, hard to avoid, and played a significant role in pushing a number of participants into pursue a non-calling occupation.
Needs for Security and Superiority
When searching for a job, it can be comforting to have a job – any job – in hand just to feel safe. Even though the available jobs may not represent a calling, having just a single offer can help students feel safe and secure in the knowledge that there is at least someplace to go. This need for security can drive students to search for jobs in occupations in which they have no interest. Kevin, a second-year student with a calling of working for a media company, emphasized this point.
I did go to some presentations of companies that I wasn’t too interested in, because I was scared of not getting something.
However, what ended up happening was that Kevin received an offer from a company that he was not too interested in originally. He accepted that offer without even applying to any media companies because the due date for the offer came before when the media companies started recruiting.
An even more powerful psychological factor is the need for superiority. People are drawn to jobs and companies which are perceived as prestigious and selective because these jobs and companies give them the sense of superiority that makes them proud. Elizabeth, a first-year student interested in social enterprise, expressed that her desire to be perceived as smart and elite pushed her to pursue an internship in consulting.
I think it’s the prestige. I mean, those companies are very well known, and that I think just within school, there’s sort of this value placed on consulting. And it’s that well the people that I most like and respect at school are going into this. These are the people I would like to be my colleagues, so you know if business school is a selective group of people who are smart and ambitious and share the same interests of you, which is great and it’s so nice to be surrounded by them. It seems to me that consulting is an even narrower group of people who are like me, smart, and engage in the same things that I’m engaged in, so it’s sort of appealing to go into that for that reason.
It is perhaps noteworthy that earlier in the interview, Elizabeth stressed how much she hated dealing with cases and working with clients she did not like; two elements that could occur quite frequently in consulting. Despite these elements, Elizabeth decided to join a consulting firm and gave up an offer from a social enterprise organization which she had wanted for a long time.
The need for superiority can also be triggered by interactions with other people. Kevin illustrated this point in our interview.
I do feel there’s a little bit of social pressure like whenever you meet somebody, they will ask you what kind of work are you going to do, and it’s not that they react in a way, but like you want to have an answer that you are proud of.
These examples suggest that individuals’ needs for security and superiority play an important role in driving them to pursue a prestigious non-calling occupation.
Overestimation of Benefits and Underestimation of Drawbacks
Throughout the interviews, I observed a tendency from the majority of the participants to overestimate the happiness they would get from what they perceived as the benefits of a job and underestimate the unhappiness they would get from some unsatisfying elements of a job. For example, many participants described to me how the higher salary would help them significantly with paying back their loans and the prestige of the jobs would make them appear smart and competent. But when I asked for some downsides of the jobs and whether they thought about these downsides when they decided to accept the offers, they admitted they did not consider them to be too troublesome. Anna’s response provided a typical example.
I did think about them [the downsides], but I don’t know that I thought about them enough to really influence me. Like it was like oh I know that these exist; I’m aware of them but I never sat down and thought ok this is what it actually going to be like; no I didn’t. I think I was caught up in the prestige, and just wanting. Once you enter the race, you want it.
However, this psychological factor is based solely on conjecture. Whether the individuals indeed overestimate or underestimate effects of certain job characteristics requires further study with the participants after they start working at their jobs. Future research can also explore this psychological bias using lab experiments.
Belief in the Functional Values of Non-calling Occupations
Each of the participants who decided to work at a non-calling occupation before moving to their calling occupation justified their action by espousing a belief that there were significant functional values associated with these non-calling occupations. Nearly every participant emphasized they would learn better skills which were applicable to what they were actually interested in doing. Betty’s opinion about the value of working in management consulting before going into the social sector was echoed by most other participants.
When I look at people who are in jobs that I want to do, who are in the social sector doing really good work, a lot of them have had this two-year management consulting experience. So I thought that can’t be a bad thing to have on your resume if you just try out. So I went through it… I think because it gives you such a wide perspective of business issues … and it really gives you tangible skills. So that’s why I thought it will be valuable because from what I have heard from people, it’s hard, it’s not that fun, but they come out of it knowing so much more than they would have otherwise, which is applicable to what I want to do.
Some participants believed that working in a prestigious non-calling occupation would open up more job opportunities later when they were to move. They were eager to have as many opportunities available as possible but at the same time seemed to have forgotten what they said they were passionate about at the beginning of our interview. For example, Anna was so impressed by how many opportunities her friend could receive when leaving ExcellentConsulting that she seemed to have forgotten social enterprise was her own calling.
One of my best friends has been at ExcellentConsulting now for almost 3 years, and she started looking for other jobs, and what’s interesting is people reach out to her all the time about jobs, like every week. She’s got someone new calling her and just be like would you be interested in this, and that’s another reason it’s interesting to me to do because it’s such a good jumping off point for other things. So that’s one incentive so I can do this thing for two years and then I can take all these interesting options. It’s a big name and people know you know how to work hard; they know that you have all these kinds of skills; you have lots of experiences. I think that’s what’s appealing as well is you do 2 or 3 years and suddenly you become a much more marketable person.
On the other hand, a significant number of participants who stayed focused on their calling occupations expressed doubts about this strong belief in the functional value of pursuing non-calling occupations. Some of these participants had prior work experience in a variety of for-profit and non-profit sectors and they thought working for non-calling occupations before moving to calling occupations was not necessary. Owen and Randy stressed this point from two different perspectives. Speaking of working in consulting before moving to the social sector, Owen suggested that going directly to the social sector could actually be an advantage.
I think the social sector needs more really highly qualified people who aren’t all coming from the same professional background. I think that while it is good to have some consultants coming back into the social sector, it would be even better if that person never had that training because they can offer different perspectives, and would be thinking about how to solve problems differently… So I think it’s a nice thing to have the sort of consulting background and training, but it’s not necessary.
Randy maintained that it was not necessary to detour if you could take a direct route.
I wouldn’t deny that you would get helpful skills from other jobs; like I understand doing something to set yourself up for the future, but if you can get to Step 2 without going through Step 1, save yourself five years and 20 pounds of weight from all the stress and grey hair and the deteriorate of family life. It’s no sense to make things harder on yourself that it has to be.
The belief in the functional values of non-calling occupations is a strong psychological force to shift people’s attention away from their calling occupations. However, whether the belief is valid or not requires future empirical studies.
The four psychological forces together provide the second proposition.
Proposition 2: Four psychological forces including concern about missing opportunities, needs for security and superiority, overestimation of benefits and underestimation of drawbacks, as well as belief in the functional values of non-calling occupations tend to make individuals less likely to pursue occupations which they perceive as their callings.
What helps those students who pursued their calling occupations stay focused throughout this process is also a question of interest in this study. When asked how they were able to stick to their initial passion, all of these students mentioned one or both of the two focusing strategies – consistent self-reminders of calling and peer/family/mentor support. I explained each of these strategies below.
Consistent Self-Reminders of Callings
Several participants who were not distracted by the non-calling occupations and were on track of pursuing their calling occupations reported that doing this was tough and the strategy they had to use was to keep reminding themselves that they had a calling to fulfill. Mark, who decided to pursue a career in education, which was what he had always been passionate about, stressed that in order to stay focused, he had to continuously remind himself that he came to business school for a reason.
I think for me, the thing that I had to do is really just [to] remind myself that I came here to do something specific. I wrote on my application and I spent a lot of time reflecting about it before school and really wanted to stay in and follow that path. It was the coming to school and deciding to go into education is like a big risk, but I’ve never taken a risk like that before, so I want to at least see it through, see it all the way through, even if I didn’t get the opportunity that I was hoping to get. So for me I think it was just continually reminding myself that this is what I came here to do
Catherine, who was determined enough to go into human resources management for a global corporation, also indicated that she used this reminding strategy to stay focused.
For me, it’s more about reminding myself every time that I thought maybe I should look into this, that there were reasons that I didn’t apply for those the first time they are around, and I knew I wasn’t gonna be happy. It’s not worth it to me to make this extra money and to spend this extra time away just because everyone else is doing it; like that’s not what I want to do.
In addition to the self-reminders of their callings, some participants described they reminded themselves by staying away from all the non-calling occupations. They did not apply for any job that was not their calling so that they could be devoted to pursuing their calling occupations and did not have to face difficult choices. Owen gave such an example.
I promise myself that I wouldn’t apply to a company that I didn’t want to work for just because it’s easy to get, so I didn’t apply. Also I don’t trust myself, because I guess like in a way I like the easy solution, and so getting that offer I wouldn’t trust myself to continue recruiting hard for something else, and I would probably just take it, but I knew I would be unhappy, so it’s almost like I know I have a self-control problem so I take an action to prevent my future self from making a bad decision.
These examples show that consistent self-reminders, either through self-talk or preventive action, can be an effective way to help individuals stay focused on pursuing their calling occupations. However, since this strategy requires strong self-control, more people would rely on support from peers, families, and mentors to maintain their determination and confidence.
Peer, Family, and Mentor Support
For students who are going through a job seeking process full of possibilities and uncertainties, receiving support and affirmation from peers, family members, and mentors who insist that they are right in pursuing their calling occupations can be extremely encouraging and assuring. Most of the participants who were able to pursue their calling occupations mentioned the support from external sources was very helpful. Jeff, who successfully obtained a position in endowment management, described the important role played by the second-year students who were also interested in the same area.
I talked to a lot of the second-years who have been in the world and on this path, and they said, you know, it is a solo hike; there are so few people, but it takes so much commitment, and it’s so, kind of, different. There’s not a ton of resources for it, so it’s all gonna have to be self-driven. Having second-years that were really involved and that have been in this process, that they knew this, they have gotten jobs at these places; that was most helpful.
Bill, a first-year student interested in consumer product and had accepted an offer from a consumer product company, indicated that his mentors had been very helpful.
What I kind of just have to focus on was, I knew I was talking to the right people; I’m talking to the top people in the industry; you know I have a couple people involved in this industry who are my mentors, who are saying Bill you are on the right track; you are doing the right things; you are talking to the right people; you are getting things set up; you have to have faith in your process.
Family is another important source of support. The same participants who emphasized the importance of support from peers and mentors also mentioned they received support from their spouses and siblings. These examples suggest that when individuals themselves are not strong enough to get over the series of contextual and psychological constraints, receiving support and assurance from peers, family members, or mentors can help individuals stay focused on pursuing their calling occupations.
Taking the two focusing strategies together, I developed the third proposition.
Proposition 3: Individuals who adopt focusing strategies, including consistent self-reminders of their calling and peer/family/mentor support are less likely to be influenced by external contextual and psychological forces.
Discussion and Conclusion
Aiming to explore the contextual and psychological factors that constrain current MBA students’ ability to pursue an occupation that they perceive as their calling, I conducted a qualitative study based on in-depth interviews with 20 current MBA students who have a variety of occupational interests. Analysis of the interviews provides three preliminary propositions: 1) Four contextual forces including early presence of and easy access to irrelevant opportunities, herd effects, financial need, and reputational pressure tend to make individuals less likely to pursue occupations which they perceive as their callings. 2) Four psychological forces including concern about missing opportunities, needs for security and superiority, overestimation of benefits and underestimation of drawbacks, as well as belief in the functional values of non-calling occupations tend to make individuals less likely to pursue occupations which they perceive as their callings. Finally, 3) individuals who adopt focusing strategies, including consistent self-reminders of their calling and peer/family/mentor support are less likely to be influenced by external contextual and psychological forces.
The present study contributes to the extant literature on the distinction between perceiving a calling and pursuing a calling in the work domain. The propositions developed in this study provide direction for future research on the disconnection between perceiving and pursuing a calling as well as the career and calling studies in general. Furthermore, the unique context of career decision making among current MBA students allowed me to uncover a dynamic process that has not been examined before.
However, this study has a few limitations. First, focusing only on the specific context of career decision making among the current MBA students makes it difficult to generalize the findings and propositions to a different context. Future research can investigate whether the framework proposed in this study can also be applied to a different population including, for example, college seniors who are looking for jobs or unemployed adults who are seeking for new opportunities. Second, this study assessed the participants’ calling occupations in a retrospective way, which bears the risk of not capturing the true calling occupations the participants held before their MBA life started. Future research can send out questionnaires at several different time points, measuring students’ calling occupations right before they enter the MBA program, the occupations they apply to in the middle of the program, and the occupations they decide to take by the time they graduate. Finally, this study is based on interviews with only 20 current MBA students and selection bias may exist for these students. In other words, there may be some important distinctions between the students who decided to participate in the study and those who did not want to participate. Future research should try to obtain a larger and a more representative sample.
In conclusion, certain factors can potentially inhibit individuals from pursuing an occupation that they perceive as their calling. These factors can be both contextual and psychological. They often function collectively to increase the pressure for individuals to pursue their non-calling occupations and lower their confidence and determination to pursue their calling occupations. Consistent self-reminders of their callings and support from external sources can help individuals maintain their faith. Nevertheless, future studies are needed to assess the validity of these factors and to explore more effective strategies that will facilitate the pursuit and actualization of individuals’ callings.
 The statistics reported here are retrieved from the employment data report of the Class of 2014 of a top business school in the U.S.
 All participant names are pseudonyms.
 All firm names are pseudonyms.
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