Choosing the right career can be a difficult and anxiety-provoking process. Will I enjoy it? Will I be good at it? Will it provide an adequate parnassa? This is also an exciting opportunity to actively explore and discover more about yourself and the world. Of course, since everyone has different skills, interests, experiences and goals, there is no one career that is best for everyone. So how do you choose the career that is best for you? Here are four steps to guide you through this process:
Put it in context.
While it is an important decision with long-term implications, many people spend too much time gathering information, asking for advice and worrying about their choices—all of which make this process painful and ineffective. Research suggests that people are terrible at choosing jobs. According to economist Neil Howe, only 5 percent of people pick the “right” job on the first try and those who do tend to make less creative and innovative choices.
In addition, job instability and career volatility steadily increased over the past few decades. In 2016, the average number of years on the job was 4.2, and 33 percent of people reported that they had been at their current job for 12 months or less (National Bureau of Labor Statistics). So you can expect to switch jobs and careers several times throughout your life, particularly at the start of your career. Of course, if you are committing a large amount of time and money pursuing a professional degree, you need to be more careful. There are several ways you can test out your interest in these fields before fully committing, such as by taking prerequisite courses, accruing observation hours, lower-level work experience and volunteering in a setting that employs these professionals. While it is important to spend time thinking things through and taking your best guess, don’t overdo it!
Think about your interests.
You probably want a job that you will enjoy. Besides being happier, you will be more motivated, dedicated and likely more successful. How can you tell if you will like a job? Consider your dream job, think about your hobbies, volunteer or summer work, part-time experience and even academic classes. Which did you enjoy and what are the themes that characterize these different situations? Do you prefer tasks that involve working with people and creativity (e.g., school play or arts and craft counselor at camp)? Do you like organizing things and paying attention to details? Do you like working with your hands but also enjoy science? It is important to note that individuals often have two or three different interests and many careers will involve various tasks. You want to find something that includes your unique combination of interests.
Psychological testing when conducted by a qualified career counselor can also help determine what careers you might like. However, sometimes you just need to take your best guess and try something. You may not be able to try out being a nurse without committing to a few years of school, but you can take a single anatomy class and find a part-time job as a nursing assistant. Any job, class, volunteer opportunity, book, home project etc. can be an opportunity to learn more about which career you might enjoy. Finally, it is important to remember that people are not the best prognosticators of what makes them happy. Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert studies this extensively and found that people generally misjudge the impact of all sorts of decisions and events. For example, a lottery winner might be very happy for a couple of month or weeks but will soon return to his or her baseline. Surprisingly, quadraplegics (those paralyzed completely from neck down) are on average just as happy as everyone else. So take you best guess and try something.
Think about your skills and abilities.
You don’t necessarily need to be the best at your job, but you don’t want to choose a career that isn’t a match for your skills. Think about what you excelled in at school. Many of the ideas discussed above about assessing your interests are useful here too. Think about hobbies, jobs and projects. Are you good at computers? Fixing things? Math? Choosing colors? All of these can be translated into different careers. Besides technical skills, it is also important to consider your “soft” skills, which are personal attributes that enhance an individual’s interactions and job performance and are shared among many jobs. For example, are you timely and hard-working or like to do things at your own pace? Do you work better when you are following or giving orders? Do you like specific instructions or are you comfortable defining your own goals and methods?
Think about your communication skills, your ability to quickly establish positive relationships and your ability to make others comfortable around you. Can you be aggressive and decisive? Can you motivate and direct others? Different careers require different sets of soft skills and these are often more important than technical ability. For example, a business manager needs to be more aggressive, decisive and good at directing others, while a social worker needs to be more patient, understanding and good at understanding others. Sometimes it’s hard for us to see where we excel. Ask your parents, other family members, friends or teachers what they think. Their ideas might surprise you! Finally, there are some circumstances in which accurately and precisely assessing ability are very important. If you have struggled significantly in past jobs/classes and are unsure what your strengths and weakness are, or if you have significant cognitive, sensory, attentional or mental health needs, find a competent career professional that can help you maximize your chance of succeeding.
Don’t neglect the practical.
After all this work, you may have finally found the perfect career. You are interested, excited and confident that you have the skills and will succeed. One problem, the career is in camel husbandry and the only jobs available are in Sudan. Practical considerations are very important and often require compromise. Every career has downsides and upsides. If you focus only on the downsides, you can cross everything off your list for a legitimate reason. Nothing is perfect or even close to perfect. You need to balance the pluses and minus and consider the practical implications of your choice. Talk to several people in the field with various levels of experience and find out:
- What is the training or schooling like?
- How easy is it to find a job?
- What do people get paid at entry level?
- What are typical hours and work conditions?
- What kind of advancement is possible?
- What do you wish you had known before you started?
Also, think about personal practical details. Can you afford to spend that much time in school? Will your family be willing to sacrifice for it? Are you willing to commute? Will you be happy with that kind of pay? Do you have connections in the field? Addressing these practical concerns can make or break your career choice. But remember, as you will most likely be switching jobs at some point, the most important factor in the beginning is personal growth. If a job provides great training or experience, it will set you up for a more productive and enjoyable career in the long-term.
Discover your strengths and interests.
Career seeking can be stressful, but is also an opportunity for self-discovery and growth. While it is an important decision, do not spend years figuring this out. Career choice is not a one-time event, but rather a lengthy and unfolding process. You can and will adjust things as you go along, so the most important thing is to get started. You need to assess your interests, your skills and the practical considerations. Look at your past experiences, consult with others, consider professional testing or counseling, but most importantly gather more data by trying things.Teach yourself a new skill, take an interesting course, shadow someone at work, volunteer and look for a part-time or entry-level job in the field. Finally, keep in mind that your interests and skills are dynamic characteristics that largely reflect your past experience. Just like other areas of life, the fastest way to develop career interests and skills is by deliberately committing to a career and working hard to develop them. Good luck!
By Tzvi Pirutinsky, PhD
Tzvi Pirutinsky, PhD, professor at Touro College Graduate School of Social Work, is an experienced career counselor, assessment professional and psychotherapist. He frequently publishes in professional journals such as the Journal of Career Assessment and Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology.