How social media and pop culture influence student career choices

Darina Lubenov, Editor-in-Chief

High school students have moved on from getting career role models from actual workplaces. Instead, they have visual media to give them inspiration for occupational life after high school.

Due to an increase in media consumption and the COVID-19 pandemic that struck in March 2020, high school students have leaned on social media to gain knowledge on careers and interests. 

Medical television shows like “Grey’s Anatomy” and “The Good Doctor” are popular among students interested in medicine. “Criminal Minds” is loved by students interested in psychology. Media and pop culture have provided an entryway for students who may not have had the ability to experience what it is like to work in a desired field.

University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana head psychology academic adviser Gary Wszalek attends to students’ interests in careers during their time at U of I.

“Popular TV shows have long influenced students even before social media, and we’ve seen admissions numbers fluctuate as a result,” Wszalek said in an email. “I remember hearing from our pre-law advisors talking about how the ‘L.A. Law’ show of the late ‘80s, and early ‘90s had a huge impact on law school applications. More recently, ‘ER’ and ‘Grey’s Anatomy’ have been a reason for students interested in medical school.”

For many, the discovery of a certain genre of pop culture fueled a desire to work towards a career goal. Senior Elk Grove medical students Aileen Saucedo and Damaris Carbajal both consume medical television programs that, in their words, inspired them to pursue a career in medicine. 

Both seniors are involved in the CNA medicine path at EGHS. Carbajal said that “Grey’s Anatomy” prepared her for what clinicals would be like after months at home due to online learning.

“In the show, before they walk in the room they would knock on the door and introduce themselves,” Carbajal said. “When we went to clinicals, they made sure to tell us when you walk in their room to make sure you knock on the door and introduce yourself.”

Current TV shows like “Grey’s Anatomy,” for example, combat real-world scenarios like the COVID-19 Pandemic. Carbajal and Saucedo both agreed that “Grey’s” properly showed how doctors and surgeons prepare for surgery during Covid. PPE was worn on-screen, as characters are seen wearing masks and gloves, and there is a constant use of sanitizer and consistent hand-washing. 

Alongside watching “Grey’s Anatomy,” Saucedo utilized social media to further extend her passion for medicine.

“There are doctors on YouTube that demonstrate their day-to-day life,” Saucedo said. “Seeing doctors and dieticians record their whole day and show how they do this or that they’ll be at this hospital, things like that give you such a good insight.”

YouTube channels like Doctor Mike and The Nurse Nook allow for students like Saucedo to find what kind of profession they can envision themselves in and how to work toward it. The Nurse Nook, for example, posts videos of Q&A sessions on what it is like to be a night nurse. This type of channel provides students a different perspective other than that of a staged show.

Psychology is also popular at Elk Grove, where just like Carbajal and Saucedo, seniors Pati Bielecka and Bridgit Stricker are influenced by CBS’ “Criminal Minds” for their interests in psychology. 

Set in Washington, D.C., “Criminal Minds” tells the story of the behavior analysis unit of the FBI. At 15 seasons long, “Criminal Minds” is the “Grey’s Anatomy” for psychology enthusiasts.

“Criminal Minds” first began to gain a lot of attention on Tik Tok. The hashtag #criminalminds has over 3.9 billion videos filed under it. Hashtag “criminalminds” is where Stricker first interacted with the show to build on her interest for psychology.

“The majority of the media that I choose to consume is relevant to psych in some way,” Stricker said. “I adore ‘Criminal Minds’ and the way the show is able to relatively accurately represent the psychological aspect of catching criminals.”

Stricker also invested her time in studying for AP Psychology and listening to podcasts that cover the science of psychology. 

TV shows like “Criminal Minds” once again allowed students to envision themselves in their field by providing that representation. For psychology fans and students, “Criminal Minds” is, in a way, a study tool for viewing how the field operates.

“It [Criminal Minds] gives you an inside point of view of their work and how they work,” Bielecka said. “It definitely made me see what it’s like working with a team and how these professional psychologists think.”

Alongside “Criminal Minds,” Bielecka said that “Gilmore Girls” also influenced her to pursue a four-year education in psychology after watching the students at Chilton study and prepare for their futures. 

Media representation is important for students who may have missed hands-on experience due to COVID-19 or even lack of resources. 

The problem with some media on Netflix and Hulu is the lack of showing the tough parts of career growth.

Elk Grove’s college and career guidance counselor Anthony Miocic backed the media consumption claim when it comes to kids exploring careers, but he also agreed that media sometimes fails to show trial and effort.

“I do think the media plays a decent role in students’ understanding and aspirations of careers,” Miocic said. “Some shows do an OK job of giving students some day-to-day tasks that a job might involve, but really what’s tough is that it doesn’t show kids the path to achieving that career.”

To be the head of general surgery like Meredith Grey from “Grey’s Anatomy,” one needs to attend a four-year undergraduate school, graduate from medical school and then spend five years in residency. Meredith’s story on “Grey’s” remains controversial according to fans who question how Meredith appeared in her role. 

Still, the show has a solid fan base for many who want to pursue medicine. 

“Criminal Minds” is popular among undergraduate students at Urbana-Champaign who are interested in clinical psychology, according to Wszalek. 

“Many students ask about forensic psychology not really knowing what it is but base it on the show,” Wszalek said. “Students don’t realize that forensic psychologists have to earn a PhD or a PsyD degree and then go through the rigorous FBI training.”

To have the role that Aaron Hotchner has in “Criminal Minds,” one needs to attend a four-year undergraduate school, apply for multiple internships, have years of work experience, apply to the BAU and go through extensive FBI training. Before entering the BAU, one must work as a general special agent for three years. 

Fans noticed that many members of the BAU were promoted straight after FBI training which is entirely impossible for the role itself, but yet again, the fanbase is loyal.

The variety of pop culture and social media has continued to grow in terms of representation of people and careers. Miocic promoted using media alongside school resources to gain perspective on how a career might be, especially if it is underrepresented.

“No matter how a student is introduced to a career, we encourage them to continue exploring their options through our pathway programs and other resources like district career nights or summer internships,” Miocic said.