Posted on: January 22, 2021
Written by Lori Kogan, PhD, Co-Editor of Career Paths in Human-Animal Interaction for Social and Behavioral Scientists
What do you want to be when you grow up? The age-old question asked by cheek-pinching relatives when astronaut, Olympic athlete, firefighter, doctor, movie star and superhero all seem equally viable options. Fast forward to high school and this question begins to take on a different meaning. This is often the time that we seriously begin asking ourselves ‘what do I want to be?’ For some, the answer may be fairly straight forward. Perhaps they want to be a veterinarian. They talk to a school counselor who lays out the path for them. After high school, they enroll in college and begin working their way through the prerequisite basic science courses, volunteer at veterinary clinics and begin setting their sights on veterinary school.
There might be a bit of a mountain ahead, but the road is pretty straight, perhaps looking a bit like this:
Photo by Diego Rezende
Or, suppose they want to be a psychologist or social worker? Great, they talk to their advisor and together they develop their college plans and again, their path looks a bit like this – straightforward with a bright sunny future.
Photo by Johannes Plenio
But what if you have a student who knows they want to do something that involves animals, but they don’t want to be a veterinarian? They want to work with people, perhaps drawn to the social sciences that you teach (e.g., psychology, social work, human development and family studies, etc.) but also want to work with animals?
Then their path often resembles (to quote the Beatles) a long and winding road - with the final destination not quite visible.
Photo by Liam Gant
As a fellow college professor, I have advised hundreds of students over the years who have sought career advice. Many of these students feel quite passionate about wanting to integrate their animal-related interests into a satisfying lucrative career. They are looking for that straightforward path. Well, in terms of a path, there is some good news and some not-so-good news. The good news is that there are infinite paths that can lead to a satisfying career that incorporates animals. The field is wide open and growing all the time. The bad news is that the path is not straightforward, but typically circuitous and not well trodden. So, what advice can we offer them?
Perhaps the best place to start is by defining for them the field of Human Animal Interaction (HAI). HAI can be defined as an interdisciplinary field that examines relationships between humans and non-human animals. Great, they might say, but what does that mean? Well, you might explain, it means the field of HAI is open to all disciplines and offers the opportunity to create your own niche. Perhaps you want to counsel or teach and have animals present. Or you want to practice medicine and have animals in the waiting room. Or, you envision conducting research on the human animal bond. You can show them that the possibilities are limitless. Then they ask, ‘but how/where do I start?’ You can respond by saying that many people begin by pursuing a desired traditional career and then finding creative ways to incorporate animals. Yet, with the development of specific HAI degrees, concentrations, courses and certificates, this is no longer the only route. These programs are only growing in number and popularity, and worth investigating as viable options.
Regardless of whether they begin with a specific HAI program, or major, or a more traditional one, as they begin to explore HAI careers, it can be helpful to get them thinking about several questions. For example, do they want to work with just animals, or people and animals (see infographic below)? How do they want to spend their days and what areas/topics do they enjoy? The latter is a great question for all students to consider!
The great part about HAI work is that regardless of what field a student wants to go into, there is a way to incorporate animals. There are animals now in courtrooms, hospitals, schools as well as HAI related content in nearly all areas of study (e.g., history, law, media, etc.).
Other factors you might want to encourage them to consider are the features of different types of jobs. What are the specific benefits and challenges? For example, perhaps they would find spending their days directly involved with people or animals who are suffering (mentally or physically) depleting and exhausting. Or, alternatively, perhaps working with these populations and being able to make a difference in these lives excites and motivates them. Similarly, what aspects of a job’s structure do they feel would make for a good fit? Do they enjoy working in an office setting or do they prefer to work from home or in the field (acknowledging current Covid restrictions)? Do they enjoy traveling or does it stress them out? There are several career assessments that you can share to help them identify some of their strengths and interests. The Clifton Strengths test, for example, can be accessed online or via the book StrengthsFinders 2.0. Another popular career assessment is the Strong Interest Inventory.
The next step might involve thinking about what type and how much education they’re interested in completing. Have them consider whether they are interested in a certificate program to augment their job or perhaps they are seeking a more traditional path in the shape of a bachelors or graduate degree. These can be challenging decisions. To gain clarity, it might be useful to help them explore related questions such as:
- How does a graduate program, for example, fit with your current and future personal and family life/plans?
- How flexible can you be in terms of geographical location?
- How will you finance your advanced education?
- Do you want to take on a student loan or do you have other resources available for education?
Helping guide students through these types of questions can help them plan their next steps. While in these initial planning stages, it is critically important that they get some real-life perspective. Advise them to reach out to those who are already doing what they’re interested in; spend some time shadowing others in the field, interview professionals and begin networking – perhaps with your connections this is something you could facilitate? Sometimes (as we all know) the glorified vision of a job shares little with the actual reality of the job’s day to day tasks. Finding this out before they expend a great deal of time and energy can save much hardship and disappointment later. Oftentimes we find that our destination looks quite different from what we originally pictured - but that it is equally satisfying and fulfilling. Here you can reflect and share with them your own career path, and the twists and turns that led you to where you are now. Remind them to remain flexible, enjoy the ride and trust the process.