Organizational Structure

A Problem-Solving Approach to Career Exploration: Using the Lens of Challenge

November 1, 2020 | By Melanie Buford and Heather Nester

Organizational Structure
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TAGS: journal, program development,

NACE Journal, November 2020

The recent impacts of COVID-19 have only emphasized the extent to which uncertainty has emerged as an immutable fact of career. Career stability is ever more elusive, and our social, economic, and environmental challenges loom larger each day. Career educators have been called upon, more than ever, to connect students with opportunities to grow their talents and to solve pressing social and technical problems.

Yet we know that the variety of jobs available in the global market often overwhelms first-year undergraduate students. Even those who are able to choose an academic major (or several), may struggle to identify and commit to a single best-fit career after graduation.1 Career courses and programs have been found to support career decision-making at the college level,2 yet there is evidence that sharing more information with students about possible titles and industries can create a kind of career paralysis, reducing their ability to take tangible steps forward in career decision-making and planning.3

One approach that has been put forth as a solution to this problem is what Jean-Phillipe Michel has called the Challenge Method.4 He proposes that career educators consider a paradigm shift from presenting students with a list of job titles to encouraging them to choose a pressing challenge to engage with, such as redesigning the healthcare system or collecting and using big data. This shift may better support students in practically engaging with real-world problems and encouraging them to plug into the professional world in a way that reflects their personal commitments. According to Michel, “The Challenge Mindset flips the traditional approach and frees students to find a career path based on real-world challenges, not job titles.”5

In order to explore the impact of this approach on current students, we presented a group of students in the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Cincinnati with assignments designed to reflect the Challenge Mindset and collected their responses in the spring of 2020.

A few key insights emerged from this work about the impact of framing career exploration around challenges and what career educators should consider as they share this approach with students.

Method and Results

A total of 61 first-year and mid-collegiate undergraduate students, with diverse majors throughout the College of Arts and Sciences, completed a series of reflective assignments designed to incorporate the Challenge Method. Each of the students was enrolled in a mandatory credit-bearing career preparation course to support their career development. Their responses to each assignment were collected and analyzed for themes.

To begin the process of exploration using the lens of challenges, students were first prompted with the question, “If you could change anything about the world, what would it be?” Many of the responses, samples of which are included in Table 1, highlight that not every challenge students described related directly back to their declared major.

After discussing their challenges as a group, students engaged more formally with the Challenge Method through SparkPath’s Career Challenge Cards. This tool includes 30 cards representing current and future professional challenges related to health, technology, society, the environment, and the economy. For example, there are challenge cards that read “engineer better medicine,” “improve mental health,” and “prepare future leaders.” On the back of each card is a description of the challenge, why it matters, and a few examples of careers that could impact that challenge.

Students chose challenge cards that best captured their interests. (See Table 2.) We coded student responses to determine how often there was a discernible link between major and the challenge they identified.

For 27 students (or 44%), their chosen challenge had an obvious connection to their chosen major, such as a biological sciences student who chose “promote healthy living.” Twenty-five students (or 41%) had a potential connection between their major and identified challenge, such as a journalism major who chose “distribute the wealth” and an interdisciplinary major who chose “protect society from crime.” Finally, nine students (15%) had no obvious link between their major and their selected challenge. One student in this group—a mathematics major—selected “improve mental health” as the challenge they most wanted to tackle. This last group of students was perhaps the most interesting, since it seems likely that their major alone had not entirely captured their career interests. It is also possible, of course, that the lens of challenges exposed them to new problems they had not yet considered.

To further support their reflection, we shared more specific possibilities for connecting their major with the challenges they identified. (See Table 3 for a few examples of these strategies.) With these examples in mind, students began to brainstorm how their majors could impact the challenge they identified.

After students had a chance to reflect on their chosen challenges, they answered the following questions about the careers listed on the back of their challenge cards:

  • Out of the careers listed, what are at least two you would be interested in learning more about? Why?
  • How can your current major/career focus begin to address this challenge? How can you begin to address this challenge?
  • Respond to at least one peer who has listed a different challenge than you. How could you address their challenge, collaborating with them, with your major/field?

In looking at students’ responses, we coded them into two themes: students who expressed interest in learning about new opportunities related to their challenge and students who connected their chosen challenge to their current majors. Their responses show in-depth reflection on their own personal goals as well as some tangible steps they might take as undergraduates to achieve their long-term aspirations. (See Table 4 for sample responses from students who expressed interest in learning about new opportunities. Table 5 provides responses from students who connected their chosen challenge to their current major.)


Use the lens of challenge to close the gap between career exploration and action: After undergraduate students tackle the first challenge of selecting a major, they are then called upon to identify a career path of interest. This is a sticking point for many, who may not know where to start or who feel overwhelmed by the breadth of their interests. In a previous study, we found that students who had declared a major, when compared with undecided students, “expressed a preference for exploration when they could tie tangible outcomes to the information. They did not want to explore aimlessly; instead, they wanted to know how they could move forward.”6

The data we collected using the Challenge approach suggest that, if students can identify challenges they want to solve, this process may help to close the gap between open career exploration and concrete career preparation. The process of reflecting on challenges of interest and connecting these to potential careers may encourage students to find meaning in their work and increase their personal investment. They may then be more motivated to take tangible steps toward launching their post-baccalaureate careers.

Career professionals, therefore, can provide that “missing link” to career selection by working with students to identify challenges they are personally invested in addressing.

Encourage students to explore how their future work may positively impact the world: One of the most powerful aspects of the Challenge Method may be its focus on social and societal impact. Though much of the evidence about generational differences in work motivation is mixed, there is some evidence that younger generations may be driven as much as or more than previous generations by the potential for social impact in their careers. Researchers Kelly Weeks and Caitlin Schaffert found that Millennials, whom they defined as those individuals born between 1984 and 2002, identified “serving others” and “seeing lives improved” as central components of meaningful work.7

The Challenge approach may support students in focusing on social and societal impact, thereby providing critical motivation to move through the career development process. Compared with the potentially dry nature of selecting an industry or job title, identifying a real-world challenge or social problem might demonstrate to students the urgency of the career selection process, motivating them to persist through indecision and setbacks.

Support students to build community around challenges: As career educators know, an academic major rarely captures the entirety of a student’s professional interests. Though most of the students in our sample chose challenges that connected in some way to their chosen major, these links were often indirect. The most popular challenges, such as “improve mental health” and “foster understanding and respect,” were selected by students from a variety of different majors. Our biggest global challenges need to be solved by teams with diverse skills and backgrounds. Connecting with peers in other majors who are interested in solving the same problems may prove to be a powerful tool for overcoming career indecision. In this assessment, we asked students to respond to their peers, exploring ways that they might use their unique skills to collaborate. This discussion-based exercise generated a variety of new possibilities for students to consider.

Career educators can facilitate these connections and provide a structure for students to connect around their challenges of interest. We know that structures of community have been found effective for supporting new employees entering into organizations.8 Forming communities around career challenges of interest at the undergraduate level may prove to be a useful tool for engaging arts and sciences students in career preparation.


Though limited, the Challenge approach has the potential to serve as an important link in the career decision-making process. Undergraduate students may find this approach beneficial to their career development, especially if they lack urgency or clarity about their career goals. Career educators have the opportunity to leverage what we know about this generation of students to inspire undergraduates to move through indecision and build meaningful and impactful careers.


1 Buford, M., Tang, M., and Coaston, S. (2018). Examining Effectiveness of Curricular Intervention on Career Decision Making. Experience Magazine. Fall 2018. Retrieved on August 18, 2020 from

2 Folsom, B., and Reardon, R. (2003). College career courses: Design and accountability. Journal of Career Assessment, 11, 421-450. doi: 10.1177/1069072703255875

3 Buford, et. al. (2018).

4 Michel, J. (2017, August 01). Rethinking Career Development for Youth: Focus on Challenges and Opportunities. Career Convergence. Retrieved August 18, 2020, from

5 Michel, J. (2018). Challenge Cards. Retrieved August 17, 2020, from

6 Nester, H., and Buford, M. (2020, February 01). NACE Journal, 80(3)Undecided or Declared: Engaging Distinct Student Populations in Career Education. Retrieved August 17, 2020, from

7 Weeks, K., and Schaffert, C. (2017). Generational Differences in Definitions of Meaningful Work: A Mixed Methods Study. Journal of Business Ethics, 156:1045-1061. doi: 10.1007/s10551-017-3621-4.

8 Good, D., and Cavanagh, K. (2017). It Takes a (Virtual) Village: Exploring the Role of a Career Community to Support Sensemaking As a Proactive Socialization Practice. Frontiers in Psychology. 8:97. Doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2017.00097.

Melanie Buford Melanie Buford is an instructor in the leadership minor program at the University of Minnesota. She works with students across majors to promote self-discovery and the pursuit of authentic and meaningful social change work. Prior to her role at the university, Buford taught in the Division of Experience-Based Learning and Career Education at the University of Cincinnati, and prior to that, served as a career adviser for liberal arts students at Wesleyan University. Buford is the 2019 recipient of the Ralph W. Tyler Award for outstanding research and publication in the field of experiential learning and was named a YWCA Rising Star for social equity leadership in 2016. She is an AmeriCorps alumna of Public Allies San Francisco. Buford has a B.A. in psychology from Wesleyan University and a Master of Education in human development and psychology from the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

Heather Nester Heather Nester is an assistant professor of career education with a focus on multidisciplinary initiatives at the University of Cincinnati. She teaches and coaches students across industries and disciplines to promote self-reflection, discovery, and the pursuit of finding a job worth having as they individually define it. Prior to this role, she was a career coach for students in social sciences, interdisciplinary studies, and humanities and for undecided students. Alongside those responsibilities, she ran the peer career coach program that served more than 46,000 students and alumni. As an academic in the higher education community, she is an author and speaker in areas such as assessment, experiential learning, professionalism, and social media. She holds an M.A. in human resources from the University of Cincinnati, where she also earned and a B.A. in psychology, communication, and organizational leadership.

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