Tips for Parents: Helping Gifted Teens and Post-High School Students Aim for the Right Career Domain
Jacobsen, M.
Davidson Institute for Talent Development

This Tips for Parents article is from a seminar hosted by Mary-Elaine Jacobsen, who gives parents tips on helping their gifted teens find the right career path.

For GYAs (Gifted Young Adults), being a strong introvert or extravert, or being a balanced ambivert, can have an important influence on one's work, particularly if an individual strives for, or is placed in, leadership positions. The research is very clear that high-IQ people have an advantage in nearly every area of career performance, except when there is a big mismatch between the IQ of the leader and the followers (e.g., there should not be an enormous gap between the levels of intelligence if success is the goal). Also, the research on leadership effectiveness promotes the following characteristics as advantageous: intelligence/openness to experience, extraversion, and conscientiousness---these are all scientific terms per the Big Five theory of personality. However, this does not mean that introverts can't be successful leaders. Many successful leaders are introverts who simply need to learn how to apply extraverted behaviors. The upshot is that to make this work they need to balance out their introverted tendencies with alone time, time for reflection, and other similar ways to "recharge the battery". It is also important to note that people who are introverted or shy may be misinterpreted by others as insensitive, asocial, or aloof loners. To prevent this, it is necessary to allow people to make contact and learn to be "effectively friendly" (which does not mean simply sending out emails). Of course, the job and job context make a difference. For instance, it might be much easier for introverts to do well in lab research, while it would be more challenging to be a political candidate. Nonetheless, the resiliency, adaptability, and multiple talents of the gifted go a long way toward making the introversion/extraversion issue less problematic.

  • Preparing for college may become a push-resist problem. If that seems to be the case, it is important for parents to help students find value in the college experience, or hire a consultant who can help with this. Many high school students have skewed ideas about college, are worried about fitting in or simply continuing what they don't like about high school, or think one simply "signs up" for college at the last minute. Sometimes it is helpful to make appointments at colleges to give them a sense of what it looks like, have them sit in on moderately advanced classes, and/or arrange for meetings with faculty and other students who can relate to prospective students. Parents don't need to hover around for all this. If this doesn't work, it may be necessary to "assign" the investigation of the college application process. Ideally, students have this information, with deadlines, etc., by the end of their sophomore year. I always recommend making a list of requirements and deadline from the last date back to the first, including SAT/ACT, financial aid and scholarship application deadlines, etc. and making a deadline sheet for each prospective college. Sometimes schools have opportunities for help with all of this. The main thing is to get your student excited about possibilities and future learning opportunities, like study-abroad programs, internships, etc. However, when they drag their feet, parents need to step in to get the job done, just like you would if your GYA didn't want to go to the dentist---some things just have to be done.

  • If your GYA is looking forward to college with excitement, great! I wouldn't mess with that. What I hear over and over again from GYAs is, "I wish everyone would let me set the height of my goal bar by myself". Oftentimes, what looks like a plan that is too ambitious and stressful to parents may be just the thing for GYAs who have felt held back or yearn to really get going on their career development. If they take on too much, that is a learning experience.

  • When considering multiple interests and career options, I recommend having your GYA investigate O*net online ( This website is a terrific resource for investigating a wide range of careers by job, job attributes, skills required, training required, whether or not it is a high- or low-demand job, personality traits that fit certain jobs, and to find out what actually (not like on TV!) goes on in these jobs. I also suggest you help your GYA arrange for informational interviews and/or shadowing experiences with real people in real jobs. This will help avoid mistaken ideas about what careers are like". If they do this, they should always ask the interviewee questions such as: “Would you do it over again?” “What are the best and most problematic features of your work?” Are there other jobs related to this you would suggest I investigate?” “How has this job changed over the years, and what trends do you see developing on your field?” “What are the opportunities for advancement and/or combining this area of work with other areas?” Most of all, I strongly recommend that GYAs start with a broad net of interests and abilities and think up novel ways to combine as many of these as they can (dismissing opinions from others about needed to “focus” one just one thing), and consider inventing careers that combine many things at once, or develop multiple interests and build many areas of expertise sequentially.

  • I think that community college experiences can be helpful for some students. Perhaps during this difficult economy it may be the only option for some. If you and your GYA are considering a community college, I strongly recommend that you go there in person, and talk about opportunities to sit in on some classes and to check out options for testing out of classes when the material has already been mastered. In addition, check out colleges and universities for later on if your GYA may want to transfer---be sure their credits will be maintained so they don't have to re-take courses when they transfer. Don't forget about all the new hybrid classes and distance-learning opportunities, even from colleges like Harvard. Also, look into college programs that are specifically designed for gifted students (e.g., at the Univ. of Iowa)...Check those options out as well, and you may find that you can create a degree program that combines a variety of learning opportunities and keeps costs and the need for travel down. Some of the most prestigious schools offer deep discounts and significant financial aid---don’t overlook them. On the other hand, many of the best-fit and high quality programs and professors exist I colleges and universities that many people have never heard about. And, in most cases, I recommend a live-away learning experience for nearly every student.

  • I wouldn't get too exercised about a GYA in early adolescence or even later who appears to be investing in things that don't come easily to her/him--- that look like a misfit because they are not areas of obvious strength. He/she still has a good amount of time to figure out what she wants to do with college and career. Sometimes gifted students need to explore areas for many reasons. When the timing is right, it might be helpful to explore why she is doing this. If you find out that he/she is doing this in an effort to make himself/herself more "normal", or because he/she is afraid of his/her own strengths and abilities, I recommend professional consultation or counseling with an expert in gifted development across the lifespan.

  • Many, if not all, gifted young people have ideas about careers that turn out to be different from reality. It is also common for the gifted to feel fairly confident that they will have a good deal of influence over their work situations, when in fact that may not turn out to be the case. "Coping efficacy" is essential, and if not developed in advance, becomes a necessity after awhile. Working with a few like-minded people can be very helpful. If that turns out to be impossible, many gifted individuals need to find that support outside of work. However, feeling like a minority of one all the time can be very stressful. Coping efficacy is a sophisticated set of tools for dealing with a variety of stressors, including the numerical reality that the most common social condition for the highly gifted is to be different. Like it or not, in any large group of people we are still the ones who will probably have to do most of the compromising (waiting, explaining, adjusting our attitudes, understanding that others simply cannot understand, etc.). Rather than be passive, or passive-aggressive, victims of this, it is smarter to learn all you can learn about being gifted across the lifespan, put yourself on a course of study about emotional intelligence, persuasive skills, leadership excellence, etc. Don't wait to learn everything by experience, because it may never happen. For a few lucky individuals, especially if they have high affiliation needs, they find themselves in a work team with people who get it and move at their pace and with a visionary yet grounded approach. For some, this is not going to happen. In that situation many gifted people look to the professions or to entrepreneurial work. At the very least they find ways to make themselves indispensable to their organizations and work toward being effective in an atmosphere that is sometimes hostile, and oftentimes annoying. Many gifted adults learn to thrive in organizations when they have some latitude, can associate with other gifted people, and move forward if they are aligned with the goals of their organizations and its values.

  • Many more opportunities exist today for multi-disciplinary majors and jobs, and also for sequenced career paths. Students who lean toward this inclusive and creative approach would do well to check out colleges and graduate schools that are not only open to this sort of plan, but already have programs in place to support this. As I noted in a previous post, thinking way outside the lines about an imaginary career mix, or sequence, where one might develop most of one's abilities and interests is a great place to start. The salient question to ask oneself is "why not?" vs. the other way round. Many careers of the future will look like this amalgam, and many new career paths have not yet been invented. With technology and societies changing in many ways, right now there shouldn't be anything that is ruled out as impossible. I suggest starting with the top 3 interest areas and applying divergent thinking to see if there is some way to blend them or seam them together over time. Maybe there are already people out there who are doing just that. We tend to think about careers in very traditional, boxed-in view because we have been taught that you must "pick" or "settle on" a career path. This may have fit a generation ago, but no longer. In my view, the options are more open than ever. I would rather see a gifted individual try their heart out to make the career they would love to have vs. not daring to try and then regretting it forever.

  • The interested-in-everything problem is nearly always present in the gifted. Yes, there are some gifted individuals who seem to have a primary set of talents and interests, e.g., math or music. However, most are multi-talented with multiple competing interests. To this day, every time I attend a Broadway musical I enjoy myself thoroughly while at the same time feeling pangs of sadness and regret. But that happens every time I do about 40 other things, and I have had at least 6 careers thus far. The reality of this situation is the realization that in order to invest our time and energy and money in certain areas, we must regrettably and sorrowfully let some other things go. We can't do it all, though I think we should try very hard to incorporate as many of our talents and interests as possible. When expertise in one area is in place we can often add onto it from other areas, or blend 2-3 areas together. Nonetheless, in order to develop a career and expertise we cannot do all at once. Sometimes it is important to explore many, many domains of endeavor, but stick with things long enough to get to where it might start to be a fit (too many gifted people are prone to dabbling as one extreme and never develop an area of expertise, or at the other extreme, stay too long with one thing when the excitement and growth has long since died away. Many GYA do well to gain the insights and wisdom and mentoring from an expert in career choice and challenges vs. relying on parents and family members to help them figure it all out. It is very important for parents to recognize their own biases and fears regarding their children's future careers. Whenever gifted parents have not worked through their own issues about being gifted with a professional, they are very likely to make mistakes in their recommendations to their gifted kids. This sort of projection is very unfortunate. Learning from those who have lived longer and experienced the world can be great for GYA, but not when there is a lack of objectivity. For the student interested in everything, I recommend having her/him do a lot of investigating of several career paths linked to areas of primary interest. Go all the way down the road with it. For instance, there are more than 300 different career paths that can be taken by someone with a law degree. If one is going to have a general center to their career path and explore/expand from that center, it is good to see what set of jobs and tasks and responsibilities might occur at the beginning, middle, later, etc., stages of career development. This investigation often helps GYA see a bigger picture, and also make wise decisions about the current projections of certain careers.

  • I have worked with a number of high-functioning students with Asperser’s syndrome. In my experience there are two things that parents need to address directly---(1) development of self-directedness and self-responsibility, and (2) increasing awareness of self, of social cues, and specific social skills. It is hard to do, but it is important to find a way to help these teens reframe social interactions and interpersonal skills as being in their best interest---not to be popular or to value social interactions just for the sake of socializing, but as tools in a tool kit that will help them get where they want to go. I have worked with some of these students in the past 3 years who made more progress than any of us expected, parents and me included. It may be necessary to give these GYA nearly scripted dos and don'ts for interpersonal settings, with detailed feedback (think of it as something like the intensive training many people must undergo if they hope to succeed in the diplomatic core). As for the narrow interests, it is very difficult to convince these individuals that broadening is a good idea. See if you can find someone whose career actually involves some of the things he is interested in, and consult a bit about how he might be able to keep his focus somewhat narrowed and yet make a living in a viable career. Regarding your collegiate GYA, it would be best for her/him to interview a large number of people in higher education and in the field who are in different areas of computer work. Oftentimes one can pick up the enthusiasm of someone who loves his/her work, and then the student has a picture of fitting with that career, or alternatively finds out that they can cross that choice of the list. Other situations can provide the GYA with ideas about training and career they never would have thought of on their own. A favorite professor can also be very good at offering suggestions, including feedback to students about what they are seeing as stand-out characteristics of the GYA that might make one area of endeavor much more successful and fulfilling than another.

  • I like the idea about using the college level as an exploratory opportunity, not just for career interests, but also confirmation of what really matters to him. It is great to know in advance of a career what your "must have" and "deal-breaker" components are with regard to work. It is also a great time to try out things that are not obviously about career, but may end up as part of one's career (e.g., many bright individuals are turned off by what they perceive as "sell-out" and manipulations in the political arena, or in finance, or other areas. Yet, perhaps what is needed in those domains is someone new who brings high ethical standards and socially-altruistic values to the table. So, maybe adventuring into some campus- or community- or internationally-based temporary work might bring together interests and long-term goals that might be very meaningful and really make a difference in a constructive way. Experiences that are often available over the summer break can be great---e.g., undergraduate research opportunities, international charitable work, environmental awareness programs, internships in government, study abroad. These kinds of things can contribute to a lot of self-understanding, broader views of the world, shaping of interests, and also look great graduate school applications and resumes.

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