Career Exploration Resources & Links
CareerExploration.com - The Career Exploration Website for High School and College Students, Recent Graduates, Adults, and Career Changers.
Browse hundreds of jobs and careers, each with resource links to help you learn more about them. To get started, click the "Explore Careers" button above.
What is Career Exploration?
Career Exploration is actually a process (a set of activities), rather than a single thing. Exploring your career options helps you to answer questions like – Who am I? What do I want to do in my working life? What are my options? Where do I start? What do I need to do to get where I want to be?
Career exploration activities include -
- Learning more about your individual interests, abilities, personality, and other traits through tests, assessments and worksheets.
- Understanding your personal values and criteria - and how they help with career planning.
- Identifying the work fields, jobs, college majors, and graduate school programs that you to want to know more about.
- Understanding how societal and technological trends could influence opportunities or requirements for a particular career in the future.
- Determining the type and amount of education you need, and how it will help you in your career.
- Becoming skilled at locating, evaluating, and using the career resources available to you.
- Connecting and networking with real people who currently work in your field of interest, and want to tell you more about what it's like to do what they do, and help you prepare to start.
- Trying out possible careers through volunteering, internships, apprenticeships, job shadowing, Summer Programs, attending career events, entry level jobs, and taking courses.
- Building your self-confidence by making a short-term and long-term plan, figuring out where to start, and taking action!
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.
Whatever methods you choose to help you explore the realities of different potential career paths, it makes sense to get as much as you possibly can from your experience. Do research; know what to expect; ask questions; take notes; meet as many people as possible, and make an impression on them; get their phone numbers or email addresses. And above all, think hard about what you see around you in the light of what you want from a job and a career; the process might end up changing what you want, as well as shedding light on the paths you’ve explored.
Ten Basic Principles and Strategies of Career Exploration
1. Don't limit your thinking
You probably already have some idea of the job you want, in the field you want. Put that notion aside for a time and let your thoughts range a bit wider. Start out by recognizing that no choice is stupid or wrong, and seek out every possible source of information about jobs, the credentials and skills they require, and the actual work they entail.Forget about whatever training and skills you've already acquired, your existing habits of mind, the expectations of parents or friends. Even set aside (for a while) your current goals. Look at all the possibilities the world offers you. One basic truth to bear in mind throughout the process of finding your career path is that you only have one life, and that the career you choose will play a central role in how that life turns out – in terms of happiness, satisfaction, fulfillment. At this stage, t's worth casting your net as wide as you can, however hard it is to pull in.
So start off without any boundaries; put aside issues of training, time, money. Remember: your values, interests and personality are harder to change than your skill-set. And are they things you want to change? If your goal is the best career for you, the best career you can hope to have, then these things should direct you.
2. Career tests are your friends
Don't hesitate to take all the personality and assessment tests you can find. These probably aren't going to provide any shocking new revelations, but they can open up other possibilities, or just confirm and clarify what you already know. And they'll help you look at your personality and abilities in ways that can guide you in choosing a career, and the training it requires. They let you plug your self-understanding into a huge network of existing knowledge about the relationship between individual traits and careers; a clearer understanding of yourself makes for a more knowledgeable choice of career.
3. Aim high
Of course it's important to know your limits – But don't rule out anything that nature hasn't definitively ruled our for you. Above all, don't let a lack of confidence prevent you thinking big and aiming high. Getting to where we want to go, career-wise, is a long, hard process for all of us; once you've decided where you want to go, based on a clear assessment of your goals and strengths, you can get there with enough motivation and perseverance.
4. Don't close doors behind you during the process of exploration
Look at all the alternative ways of getting to the jobs you might want - different schools, different on the job education paths. Look at each one of them objectively, and define their advantages and disadvantages from the perspective of your own needs and demands: in terms of time, of how they're organized (fast and concentrated, extended enough to let you keep a part-time job?), where on the career trajectory they'll land you. Education is expensive and takes time, it lets you land further along on most career paths than work and promotion do.
Select and prioritize your education desires in order of preference. Identify several options, ranging from the most ambitious to the easiest. Keep those options open as long as you need to.
5. Don't limit yourself to thinking about specific jobs
That is: think about the fields / sectors you want to work in as well. A career and a job are not the same thing, and it's very hard, especially if you're still in school or heading back to school, to know exactly which job(s) you'll end up in. Entering into a career, you're defining a range of possibilities for yourself rather than a particular job. So it makes sense to start with broad ideas of the sort of field your interested in.
Think about the sorts of activities you most like – creative, caring, social, adventurous, academic, hands on, techy, etc.. And think about sectors of the economy that interest you: health, transport, industry, film and television..... You'll have plenty of opportunity to narrow your scope to a particular job or set of jobs as you learn more. And chances are you won't stay in that job for the whole of your career.
6. What you hate is as important as what you love
There are two ways of looking at the important question of what you hate. The first involves recognizing what it is you hate. Numbers? Selling? Being stuck indoors? Being stuck outdoors? Team work or working alone? Responsibility or a lack of responsibility? New things and uncertainty? The same old thing every day?
The second involves having a clear idea of everything that the field you're interested in involves. Some of this will be obvious (being a lifeguard involves water, being a doctor involves seeing blood....) but some of it might not. You might find yourself with limited options going forward in a field (see section 5) if you set your sights on a particular job without realizing that an open career path will be difficult if you're going to have to rule out jobs that involve numbers, or selling, or being stuck indoors, etc..
7. Think about how you learn, and how much education you want to get
How many years are you prepared to spend in education? And what sort of education do you want? Will you be more comfortable in a tightly-organized technical course at a college, or autonomous and self-directed at a university? How quickly do you want to get into the job market full time?
Generally, the longer you study within a particular field, the broader the choice of jobs you'll have within that field and the faster you can get ahead. If all the self-reflection you can muster doesn't reveal your ideal career, you can still start off on a more general course of study that will stand you in good stead – helping you clarify your goals and racking up credits that can eventually be useful. As you study, you can specialize and choose a field within your course of studies that interests you.
8. Search out opinions and advice
As you reflect on your future, no amount of outside information and advice is too much. Get it everywhere you can, and have questions for anyone you think might have something to offer: go to websites, visit schools, talk to guidance counselors, alumni, teachers, parents, professionals, relatives, people on the bus, people in the field you want to enter.... Ask how they got to where they are, tell them your story and your decisions so far.
The responses you get, and the information you have to take on board, will be rich and deep and probably a bit contradictory. Everyone who's arrived somewhere (we all do) will have arrived there on the basis of their own plan, or lack of a plan – but always on the basis of their own decisions. Listen to everyone, and encourage them to talk; read everything, and take it on board; look around you, and see how people have ended up where they are. It will all be useful. In the end, though, the decision is yours alone.
9. Take a close look at the job market
The job market is changing, faster and faster. Jobs that millions of people did a generation ago are disappearing. Do you want to spend years training for a job that might not exist in a decade, or in a sector where you'll be competing for a shrinking number of opportunities, against people with more experience? Perhaps you do – if you love the field enough. But be aware of the realities before you launch yourself into a shrinking sector. Searching for economists' analyses can help you here, as can reading about the nature of labor market change in general.
So find out which sectors are growing, and – more important – hiring. "Jobless growth" is very much a reality in some sectors of the economy. You can search on job websites to see the range of jobs and salaries in a given field, and the experience and education expected, but remember: this might be encouraging, but it will only be relevant to your future if the market holds steady – if that sector's balance of supply and demand remains on an even keel. It's great to see the high salary offered for a job you expect to be doing in ten years, but ask yourself: will that job be there in ten years? Will shrinking opportunities in that sector mean that even people with a decade's experience will be after it as well?
That sounds discouraging, but remember: this project of reflection and discovery is about you, and about the full range of your prospects. There will be other sectors and other careers that can offer much the same rewards as the one you initially set your heart on, however you define those rewards.
10. Form a clear plan of action
The end result of all this reflection should be a clear plan of action, formed in the light of a clear understanding of who you are, what you want to do with your life, the corner of the job market that you're committing yourself to entering, and the education or training involved in entering it. If your project stalls part-way through (because you need to leave education to work, because of family reasons, because you've changed your mind, etc.) it isn't the end of the world.
These roadblocks are a part of everyone's life and career, and a clear sense of where your going can only help you navigate them. The one thing that will serve you best – whether your plans move forward in fits and starts and with shifts of direction, or whether they sail straight to their best possible result – is making sure that your understanding of what's ahead of you and how to get there is as clear and objective as possible.