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John Harvard's Journal

Powerful Conversations

November-December 2008

The Bureau of Study Counsel (BSC) has long offered students safe space for thoughtful career consideration, through weekly discussion groups such as “What Are You Doing With Your Life?” and “Roots: Where Are You Coming From and Where Are You Going?” and single-session discussions on the topic “Insanely Busy: What Would Happen If I Slowed Down?” The bureau also aims to sensitize teaching staff (with a seminar titled “Grades and Beyond: Perfectionism, Risk-taking, and Learning from Failure”) and parents (with annual panel discussions during Freshman Parents’ Weekend) to these issues.

These disparate efforts come together under the umbrella of the Success-Failure Project (, headed by BSC director Abigail Lipson and BSC counselor Ariel Phillips, Ed.D. ’89. The driving principle is not to get students to consider one specific career or another, but to envision their career choice broadly and consider it carefully—even if that means setting aside a career chosen before college in favor of pursuing a new passion. “We’re not really advocating that people take up a particular definition” of what it means to succeed, Phillips adds. “It’s the power of having the conversation.”

Dean of Harvard College Evelynn M. Hammonds says these goals line up with her own for undergraduates. Even though Harvard must acknowledge the realities of the world—for instance, that certain fields strongly prefer graduates who have already completed three internships—Hammonds says that college, as much as possible, “should be the time when students feel the least amount of constraints around exploring what they want to do next.”

Lipson and Phillips are delighted that their program’s themes are getting such widespread attention—organizations such as the Office of Career Services and the student Career Diversity Awareness Group have come knocking, hoping to collaborate, with increasing frequency. It is, says Phillips, “a moment in time when a lot of forces are crossing.”