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Stories of Transition (2007-2008)

The transition from high school into educational and occupational pathways is a bewildering process for many young people and their parents. From the time they start kindergarten to the day they graduate from high school, most youth travel down a relatively straightforward path. They proceed systematically from one grade to another. Everyone their age is doing pretty much what they are doing school-wise, and career decisions are something for the distant future.

Then comes high school graduation and the roadmap ends. Some young people move smoothly into post-secondary training and satisfying work while others flounder. They change their education programs multiple times or drop out altogether. Many graduate from college or university with no idea what they want to do and spend years careening from one job to another and back to school in an attempt to establish themselves in a fulfilling career. This research seeks to gain a deeper understanding of the educational and occupational pathways that high school graduates take after graduation with a particular emphasis on the supports, roadblocks, and detours they have encountered along the way.

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Stories of Transition is a research project that has been fully funded by the Canadian Education and Research Institute for Counselling (CERIC) through Dalhousie University.

The purpose of this study was to gain a deeper understanding of the educational and occupational pathways that high school graduates take after graduation with a particular emphasis on the supports, roadblocks, and detours they have encountered along the way. The results of this study have helped young people and the adults who help guide them, both their parents and career development professionals, to understand the challenges facing high school graduates and the many possible pathways they can follow when continuing their education and finding employment.

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The goal of this project was to help young people and those who guide them, whether parents or career professionals, to understand the challenges facing high school graduates, the multiplicity of possible pathways they may follow when continuing their education and finding employment, as well as how to help the graduates to make a successful transition after completing high school.

Specifically we set out to:

  • Gain a deeper understanding of the educational and occupational pathways that high school graduates take with a particular emphasis on the stories they tell about the detours and dead ends that they encounter.
  • Examine how access, or the lack of access, to financial resources impacts on the pathways young people take.
  • Identify the messages young people hear from parents, friends, teachers, counsellors, and others in their lives that help or hinder their transitioning from high school to postsecondary education and/or into the workforce.
  • Examine the impact that low- and high-opportunity structures have on the narratives young people construct about the pathways available to them.
  • Help parents, teachers, guidance counsellors and career counsellors understand more fully young people’s experiences of career transitions following high school completion in a globalized world.
  • Convey results of the study to parents, teachers, guidance counsellors and career counsellors in order to help them understand more fully the resources and messages young people need to transition successfully from high school into suitable educational and occupational roles.

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From 2007 to 2008 we interviewed approximately 120 young people in four different Canadian sites: Montague, PEI, Halifax, NS, Guelph, ON, and Calgary, AB. Our sample included youth between the ages of 23 and 30 who had taken a variety of educational and occupational pathways after graduating from high school and who are either unemployed, underemployed, well-employed, and/or are students at the time the study is being done.

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The young adults selected for inclusion in the study participated in a one-on-one interview lasting 60 to 90 minutes, which focused on what they had been doing since graduating from high school. Specifically, they were asked to reflect on what influenced the pathways they took and what supports and constraints they encountered as they made their way into post-secondary education and/or directly into the workforce. As well, they were asked to share any advice they might have for how parents and professionals could best help young people. The interviews were audio taped, transcribed, and analyzed for both common and unique themes. Follow-up interviews were conducted with those who were willing to be contacted again.

Initially, the study focused on three clusters of questions:

  1. What youth want: We seek to understand the career and life aspirations of young people in the context of the social and personal challenges we mention above.
  2. What youth have: We seek to understand the resources, individual, family, social and environmental, that influence the paths open to them.
  3. What youth hear: We seek to understand what young people hear about their aspirations. We will document the messages they hear from the internalized discourses they carry within them, as well as the messages they hear through conversations they engage in with family and significant others, and the broader, culturally embedded messages to which they are subjected.
The answers to these questions was analyzed using qualitative research methods associated with what is termed “grounded theory.” This approach emphasizes that explanations about what people are doing should emerge from the data. Using these methods, we proceeded from the case-by-case study of individuals to a theory that explained commonalities and differences among the study’s participants.

The second part of the project was the dissemination of the results. Two handbooks based on the findings that emerge from the study were developed. The first of these targets parents as studies of young people have shown that parents are the primary influencers of high school graduates in terms of their choices of educational and occupational pathways. The second handbook targeted at guidance counselors and career counsellors, identifying helpful and unhelpful interactions and interventions relevant to practice with young adults in order to inform effective helping.

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There are a number of themes that emerged from the study:

  • There are a multitude of factor influencing the pathways taken by young people Young people’s educational and occupational pathways are being influenced by a host of complex factors that reside both within them and in their environment. Those internal factors include personality, gender, interests, locus of control, and abilities. External factors include family, geographic location, socioeconomic circumstances, and the employment market.
  • Young people face a great deal of uncertainty and ambiguity as they move from high school into postsecondary education and into the work force. Many are uncertain about their career paths when they leave high school and those that do have plans often find they don’t work out as they had hoped.
  • They need more information about the way education connects to career.
  • They want to know about options to take time out, particularly after graduating from high school. Some of the benefits of a time out they have identified include: taking time to decide on a future career path, getting to know themselves better, gaining life experience gaining confidence and new skills, taking a break, and earning money to pay for university or college.

What made in difficult for you to figure out what you wanted to do?

“It’s tough because starting from high school there wasn’t a lot of information about what you could do. There was information was there for the typical positions, like being a teacher, being a doctor, being a lawyer, you know those kinds of things you kind of grow up knowing that are available. I honestly don’t really remember being in high school and having that much assistance with finding out about all the things you can do. So I remember feeling pretty frustrated and pretty stressed out because I knew what my interests were but wasn’t sure exactly how to go about finding out what I could do with them.” (27-year-old female)

What support did you receive from your guidance counselor?

“The whole guidance counselor thing seemed to skip by me. I think guidance counselors only notice like the people at the top and the bottom. So if you’re somewhere in the middle, like you have your B average or whatever, they’re just kind of like, well he’s doing fine, they don’t really have to waste any time on him. Or not waste time but spend any time on him. The kids at the bottom are there all the time because they’re in trouble or whatever and the kids at the top are at the top so they’re there too but just different reasons. And the ones in the middle just kind of float through high school.” (25-year-old male)

What is the most important lesson you’ve learned since graduating from high school?

“That’s it’s okay to not fulfill every step you have planned out in your life in the timeframe that you have set out. That sometimes not getting what you want allows you to learn from that and realize what you really want out of life. Like not what seemed to be the perfect lifestyle on paper.” (24-year-old female)

What advice would you give to parents?

“Be supportive, like number one be supportive. If somebody comes to you with a dream, even if you think it’s ludicrous or they’ll never make a living, don’t just squash it. Hear them out and then maybe talk about the practicalities because I don’t think most parents do want they children to take up something that’s going to equal like living in a cardboard box. So you know, talk about the practicalities of it, ask them, do you have a plan of how to achieve it. If they’ve thought it out well enough and thought about how they could make a living off of it I think it deserves to be heard and ultimately it’s their choice” (24-year-old female)

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Research Sites:

  • Monatgue, PEI
  • Halifax, NS
  • Guelph, ON
  • Calgary, AB

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Each site includes a small advisory committee of two to three local individuals who can help to identify appropriate ways to access youth, help to define the construct of resilience, and oversee the ethical application of the research in their community.  These individuals are also influential in their community of service providers and act as aids for dissemination of results to practitioners and policy makers.


  • Dr. Michael Ungar - School of Social Work, Dalhousie University, Halifax, NS, Canada
  • Cathy Campbell - School of Social Work, Dalhousie University, Halifax, NS, Canada

Advisory Board

  • Dr. Sandy MacDonald - PEI Eastern School District, Charlottetown, PE, Canada
  • Laurie Edwards - Learner Workforce Services, Nova Scotia Community College, West End Mall Campus, Halifax, NS, Canada
  • Dr. Kris Magnusson - The University of Lethbridge, Lethbridge, AB, Canada

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Two guidebooks have been written based on the findings that emerged from the study. One for parents and the other for professionals. The guidebook for professionals is aimed at those who interact with young people at key decision points. They include guidance counselors, career counselors, high school teachers, college instructors, and university professors.

Both guidebooks outline the variety of pathways young people take after high school, who and what influence their choices, and the strategies they use to negotiate their transition from school to the workforce. In addition, the parent’s guidebook summarizes the advice that young people have for parents about how they can best guide and support their children. The guidebook for professionals will include both the helpful and unhelpful interactions and interventions that research participants have identified.

Campbell, C., Ungar, M. & Dutton, P. (2008). The decade after high school: A parent’s guide. Toronto, ON: The Canadian Education and Research Institute for Counselling.

Campbell, C. & Ungar, M. (2008). The decade after high school: A professional’s guide. Toronto, ON: The Canadian Education and Research Institute for Counselling.

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Contact Us:

For further information on the study, This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or call (902) 494-3050.

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