Exploring Career Options
There are few decisions in a person’s life as important as the choice of a career. Of course you’ll have opportunities to change your career trajectory, or straight-up change your career, throughout your working life. But they come with a cost: the expense of further education, possibly when you already have financial responsibilities; the lost seniority and advancement; the months or years of dissatisfaction leading up to the decision to strike out on a new path. It makes sense to invest as much time and effort as possible in making the best decision you can, this time round – whether it’s your first time or a new beginning.
Some careers go hand in hand with specific education or apprenticeship. The trades (plumbing, for example) and professions (medicine, law, etc.) are the most obvious examples.
Others are more open-ended in terms of the education or training they demand. You could graduate, and then begin to look around, and there are strategies for looking around as effectively as possible, as well.
But it’s far better to begin the process of deciding long before you’re faced with the need to support yourself.
Find Your Best Career
Your best career is the one that suits your own needs. These needs might be financial; they may involve how you work with people, or the people you will work with; they may involve prestige and status; they may involve the intellectual or emotional fulfillment a job provides or the challenges it presents.
Whatever you want from a career, it’s a good idea to view the effort you put into finding your best career in terms of an investment. The time and effort you put into making your best choices, at every part of the process, will bring you huge returns in life satisfaction, or in dissatisfaction avoided. You’re essentially planning a journey, a journey that nearly everyone takes, whether they plan it or not. The planning will help you set off in the right direction, with the best possible maps, and the most thorough knowledge of the people and things you’ll encounter along the way.
Where to Begin
There are three basic steps to exploring what could be a successful and fulfilling career. This is true whether you’re still in school and deciding on your educational options, looking for your first full-time job, already working and looking for something new and better, or laid off in mid-career and ready to start again somewhere else. These can be seen as questions that need answering.
The first step involves learning about yourself to determine what you want from your working life. The question is, obviously, “What do I want from a job, and from a career?” Nothing else is as important; this is the one question whose answer(s) will play the greatest role in determining whether your work life gives you real personal fulfillment.
Understanding yourself might seem like a strange first step; you’re looking at jobs and careers after all, not seeking enlightenment. But it’s only by getting to know yourself that you’ll be able to understand what you want to do with a third of your adult life. What are your values, what do you enjoy, what motivates you to get stuck into a project, or keeps you engaged or interested as a pastime? Find answers to these questions and it will be easier to identify the careers that suit you.
Everyone has their own set of motivations, needs and interests. Some people absolutely need variety, while others find comfort in routine; some people want to travel while others want to stay close to home; some people thrive in a collaborative setting and love teamwork, while other would rather work independently. Some people thrive on challenges, while others run from them. Think about what you want out of life.
Remember – your values, interests and personality type are a lot harder to change than your skill set. And why would you want to change them? They’re who you are. If your desire is finding the best career for you, then ignoring the realities that those qualities define is definitely the wrong first step, because these qualities are defining you.
Experience can also help you achieve greater knowledge of yourself and your needs. The more job-related avenues you explore, the better idea you’ll have of what interests you, inspires you, challenges you, satisfies you, meets your needs for comfort and security. Only you can decide what prospects best suit you.
Explore the huge field of resources available for assessing your personality, interests, skills and talents, and values – as discussed elsewhere on this website. The assessments and reflection these entail will help you travel the path to choosing a career with a better sense of who you are, what you want, and which types of work are most likely to give you want you want.
There are many resources that can help you frame your search in terms of the results of the reflection and assessments you’ve undergone, looking for a better idea of what career would suit you. Different job paths and different industries offer different experiences and rewards, and it’s s good idea to spend some time imagining what you might get – for example in terms of job satisfaction, status, pay and ancillary benefits – from jobs you hadn’t considered in the past.
The assessment tools are not meant to supersede your own judgment and feelings; they’re best used, first, to focus your judgment and feelings, and second, to help you navigate the vast range of available career paths as effectively as possible – missing fewer promising options and spending less time in dead ends.
The second step is doing the research necessary to identify possible careers that will help achieve what you want. The question is “What sort of work will give me what I want from a career.” Figuring out where you’re going to find the greatest personal fulfillment deserves to be given plenty of time for reflection, because many careers are a life-long commitment.
Exploring Careers. You almost certainly have some ideas about what you want to do with your working life. Your best strategy is to put those ideas aside – for a while. Look further afield. Browse through job descriptions. Let your imagination and curiosity guide you. When you find a field of work that interests you, there are resources out there that can tell you about very nearly every sort of job that’s ever been invented and that still exists: the activities involved; the requirements for employment; the personal skills and resources it calls on; the salary or wages it can command; the prospects for the field and for the vocation itself, nationally or state by state.
Once you’ve looked at these, and have some ideas about what interests you, you can engage in a more intensive exploration of a few areas. Ask people, read memoirs or watch movies, find ways (part-time/summer jobs, job shadowing, internships, etc.) for getting up close to the sort of work you can imagine yourself doing. The more thoroughly you explore possibilities before you set off on a career, the more likely you are to find yourself in a career you want, with the career trajectory you want.
Research, Research, Research
Why not put aside, at least for a time, whatever ideas you already have about your career plans and goals; cast your net wider. After all, if you absolutely had your heart set on a specific career path (and some people absolutely do), you wouldn’t be exploring your options at all, and you wouldn’t be reading this!
It’s also a good idea to approach this research with a clear sense of just what the education and experience you’ve accumulated to date makes possible, and with an idea of how much education, and what sort of education, you might consider undertaking to upgrade your qualifications and credentials. This could involve anything from a short practical course to years of post-secondary education. Be clear what you’re prepared to commit to.
Look at any sort of work that your imagination, or your assessments and reflection, or your conversations with friends and family, teachers or workmates, have suggested might interest you. Some of the best sources of job information are state and federal government websites. These offer valuable information about the qualifications different jobs require, about standard salary ranges and about the opportunities for advancement that a given field can offer.
Talk to people
This is typically the second stage of exploration, once you’ve narrowed your search down to a few career paths or fields. The most useful insight into a career will always come from someone who’s living it, or who lived it; and the best sort of information for your purposes is informed and considered answers to the specific questions you’ll have. You might be able to find people within your extended family, or among friends’ families. Perhaps a neighbour works in the field you’re interested in. If you’re interested in medicine or nursing, ask your family doctor, or drop in at a local clinic. If you’re interested in operating heavy machinery, drop by a construction site at lunchtime. If you’re considering teaching, you know where to find teachers. Always arrive prepared: know what questions you want to ask. It will be more useful for you and easier for the people you interview.
If no-one in your broad circle of family, friends, neighbours, local service providers or businesses has the experience or answers you need, then think about finding someone who will, or a business or institution where someone will; find their number on the internet and phone them up. This can seem daunting, but if you’re looking at careers well outside the box in terms of the social milieu or the geography or climate you’ve grown up in, it may be the only way to get a wide range of useful advice and insight. Many people are happy to help – they’re proud of their profession and want to encourage others to enter – and those who aren’t can always just say no.
Audit Courses, or quietly drop in
Whether you’re finishing high school and planning your future, changing career fields, or upgrading your credentials for better prospects within your chosen field, you’ll find that many career choices will involve additional education. The best way to assess whether the required education (and by extension the work it leads to) interests you is to sit in on classes. Most college and university instructors will have no problem with this; they’re passionate about the subjects they teach, and they’re only to happy to help potential students decide whether they might be as well. And many institutions are open enough, and introductory classes large enough, that it’s possible to just drop in and quietly observe lectures; this is a good approach if you really aren’t certain about what field interests you, and want to get a taste of as many as possible. But if the subject does interest you, don’t deny yourself the opportunity to introduce yourself to the instructor; they can be valuable sources of information about a career path, so have your questions ready.
This is an excellent way of getting in the door and looking around at areas of employment that interest you. Volunteer in a sector and you can meet people, see their daily routines, get a sense of the rewards and challenges and the range of jobs available. It’s also an opportunity to ask questions. Above all, like all the methods of exploration discussed here, it’s a way of getting a gut sense of whether a field is what you want. Volunteering can also serve to expand your network, help you gain experience that will serve you well whatever your career path, and earn you credit that will serve you well when you come to look for your first jobs: it reflects well on you.
Wherever you are, there will be organizations, government or non-profit, that will help potential volunteers find placements that suit them. Remember: volunteering is never an imposition. And you aren’t just exploring your own possible future; you’re helping people as well.
Internships and co-ops
For those who’ve already started, or already completed their education, and are relatively sure about the career path they want to take, internships and co-op placements are both excellent ways of getting close up, hands-on experience in a sector. If they’re available in your chosen field, and if your circumstances allow you to take advantage of them, they’re highly recommended. Internships are available in many fields, including media and publishing, IT, banking and finance, various engineering and manufacturing fields, and commercial creative fields like fashion. It’s easy to find out, via the internet, whether employers are offering internships in the area that interests you. If none are, you can always contact a local employer and propose that they create one for you.
Internships are not always paid, so if your circumstances don’t allow you to take on unpaid work for a few months, this might not be an option for you. Co-op programs at the post secondary level, on the other hand, are almost always paid – typically at the same rate as entry-level workers in the industry at which the co-op placement is served. Like internships, they’re available in a wide range of fields, which will vary depending where in the country you study – though since they’re based on arrangements between educational institutions and employers, taking advantage of co-op programs involves choosing institutions and programs that offer them. And like internships, they don’t just give you experience; they also help you begin to forge connections within a field.
Part time or summer jobs
A part-time or summer job in a field that interests you can serve much the same purpose as an internship; it can let you see an employer and a sector from the inside, and get a sense not just of the work involved, but also the culture and the social norms that you might expect to participate in, within a given sector or employer. And it has the advantage of always being paid. It also involves a wider and more flexible market of opportunities than internships or co-op programs; there are jobs everywhere.
Whether it offers more opportunity for a real assessment of a field than an internship does, or less, depends on the individual circumstances. A part-time or summer job may offer less exposure to the higher echelons of an employer’s workforce – which is an issue if that’s where to expect your career to lead you – while an internship might sometimes involve a degree of disengagement with the real work an employer is involved in. This is especially likely if it’s an unpaid internship, or if the employer sees internships as a form of largess or social service rather than as an opportunity: there might not be much incentive (depending on how efficiently the employer’s workforce is organized) to assign interns any real work.
Career Events, Career Camps and Summer Career Programs
These specially designed experiences can last a few hours or a few months, and are useful especially when you have an idea that you want to get into a career area, but want to be more certain, or get a head start on opportunities and education. Some popular examples are health care and the sciences.
After you’ve asked lots of questions of lots of people, and have narrowed your search down to a few career paths, you can look into job shadowing as a way of learning about the day-to-day realities of a sector or a profession. It’s simply the opportunity to follow an individual or a team in the course of their normal working day – observing everything you can about the work, the responsibilities, the culture, the rewards, and asking questions when you can. Unlike internships, co-op placements or part-time/summer jobs, job shadowing in this context typically only involves a few hours to a week in any particular work environment. Your only responsibility is to take everything in.
Arranging a job shadow is something you can do on your own. Remember: you’re only asking for a short time with the person or team that you’re accompanying. And like educators, most people who are serious about the work they do will likely be pleased to see someone interested in pursuing it as well. In fact, the better example they offer of what the work could involve, the more likely they are to welcome your own interest. Of course, in many cases, the employer will also have to approve – be sure your presence is expected! Some schools, colleges and universities also offer programs that connect interested students with willing workplace participants and employers.
It’s always possible to change your mind – to change careers. Millions of people do it, at every part of their working life.
The third step involves determining the best way for you to establish yourself in that career, and to start taking action. That will include the education or apprenticeship that best suits your talents and objectives, research and networking, etc.
The questions are “How do I get there? How do I best get that sort of work?” The resources that can help you with this question are vast.
For most people, this is the most straightforward of the three steps, and the hardest. Once you’ve decided on a career path, or have a few choices down to a handful of well-considered options, you’ll have defined a set of paths for getting there. If these involve education, you might be choosing between a larger or smaller investment in that education – with the larger investment offering a wider range of possibilities. You’ll likely be choosing between schools as well, and the quality of education that schools provide in the fields that interest you (there are ample resources concerning this) can be weighed against the various costs of each choice – financial, personal, etc..
It may be straightforward, but there are still hard choices to be made. You might be faced with balancing the prospects of earning an income sooner against earning a better income 10 or 20 years down the line. You might be faced with making up an educational deficit if a given career path demands it, versus being able to leverage the skills and experience you already possess for another. In the end, you will have to return to the first step in your journey, and the question: “What do I want from a career?”
The more effectively and insightfully you explore your career options, the more likely your career will contribute to the quality of your life.