How to Choose a Career
Making the transition from school to the working world can feel overwhelming at times. You’ve spent the last 20 years of your life developing a unique set of interests and abilities, but how do they translate to a career? Unless you’re earning a vocational degree or have a specific skill that is highly marketable, there is rarely an easy answer. As graduation day approaches, it’s easy to feel lost and confused if you don’t have a clear idea of where you are or where you want to go.
One of the best ways to gain a sense of direction is to set some specific and actionable career goals for yourself. To help you with that process, we asked five college career counselors to share their advice.
Today, we’re joined by Christian Garcia (University of Miami), Christy Walker (University of North Carolina), Diane Ciarletta (Northeastern University), Nicole Van Den Heuvel, (Rice University), and Mary Schilling (College of William and Mary).
We asked each career counselor the following question:
There are a lot of college seniors out there who have no idea what they want to do after graduation. In your experience, what is the single best way for those students to evaluate their options and develop some career goals they can work towards?
Their answers are below. As always, we hope that you find their perspectives helpful, actionable, and inspiring.
– Executive Director, Toppel Career Center, University of Miami
One of the best things these students can do is to reach out to professionals (preferably alumni) in the fields they may be interested in pursuing in order to request an informational interview. I always tell students that an informational interview is one of the most underutilized resources at their disposal. Although many students are apprehensive about reaching out, it has been my experience that individuals are more than happy to take a few minutes out of their schedule to chat with students.
By meeting one-on-one with successful individuals, students have an excellent opportunity to ask important questions and seek advice/tips. In addition, I recommend taking the initial meeting one step further by shadowing the individual, which will provide more in depth insight into a particular company and/or industry. Oftentimes, students do not know where to start, so my suggestion is that they begin with their career center, which can provide assistance and direction. Students should also leverage the power of LinkedIn. It is very easy to search for professionals in specific fields and companies on LinkedIn who are alumni of the student’s institution; having this connection in common makes the initial contact much easier.
One final thought: college seniors who are struggling with what to do after college could benefit from taking a career assessment. Most career centers offer these at no cost and even if a student took one early on in college, it can’t hurt to try it again. The assessment results could provide much-needed direction.
– Assistant Director, University Career Services, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
I find that many seniors that visit my office are in this exact situation. They may have enjoyed their majors while in college, but they may not know how to transition that major into a career once they graduate.
Many students are a bit intimidated by the process of having to step into the “real world” after college. Some students feel pressure from their parents or family to work in a particular field once they graduate. If you fall into one of these categories, there is no need to worry. A career counselor at your university can help you sort through these issues. The most important thing that you should do is conduct a self-evaluation of what you are looking for in a career.
Picture an ideal work situation – the work situation in which you would feel the most fulfilled. What would that look like? Would it involve working with people or working with data? Would it involve giving back to the community in some way? How about being in a leadership position, or having a job where you are allowed to be creative? These are the types of questions you should ask yourself as you figure out what careers are a good fit.
Once you have figured out these work values (and I would strongly suggest writing them down), talk with a career counselor to see where your work values and careers match. There are several assessments that students can take to figure out careers that match their work values such as the Strong Interest Inventory.
By assessing your work values, along with considering your interests, personality and skills, it is possible to come with a list of short-term goals for your career search. Don’t get intimidated by trying to make goals for 10 years from now – the SMART approach always works. SMART stands for Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, and Timely. Here’s an example of a goal for a student interested in working in the sciences:
Goal: My goal is to get a job offer as an entry-level chemist by graduation in May.
Specific – A general goal would be to “find a job by May.” However, this student specifically names the type of job and level in which they would like to work. Specific goals have a much greater chance of being accomplished than general goals.
Measurable – The time has been established – graduation day – a concrete day can help you stay on track.
Attainable – Ask yourself – is this attainable? Yes, with a Bachelor’s degree in the sciences, as well as work values, interests, and skills that are geared toward a science career.
Realistic– You should pick a goal that is realistic to achieve. A Ph.D. level Research and Development chemist position is unrealistic with just a Bachelor’s Degree.
Timely – Goals should have a time frame to establish a sense of urgency. You don’t want to set your goal time for next week or 10 years from now.
One final thing to consider is to not think of your career search from the view of your parents and older family members. The workforce has drastically changed over the past generation, and new graduates will change their careers several times throughout the course of their working life. Keeping an open mind and realizing that you don’t have to be stuck in the same career for 30 years can help alleviate some of the anxiety that goes along with decision making.
Nicole Van Den Heuvel
– Director, Center for Career Development, Rice University
1. Self Assessment: I would suggest the student take a self assessment test to determine interests and careers that may line up with his skill set, values, and goals. College career centers administer these tests or it can be done on-line.
2. Research: Next the student should research different industries and functions that align with the results, using resources such as Vault, Hoovers, and LinkedIn. Make a company list and go to each website to learn more about the company and job opportunities. Take advantage of and attend company information sessions on campus.
3. Do Informational Interviews: Set up informational interviews using contacts through alumni, faculty, and friends to gather more information. Don’t set it up as a job interview which will turn people off. It’s helpful to keep track of your progress on a spreadsheet by listing every one of your contacts, date contacted, date seen, follow-up, etc. Set up a professional LinkedIn account and mine the information.
4. Make it a part of your daily schedule: Remember this is a on-going process and not an equation and it takes time. The sooner you start, the better. Get in the habit of doing something about it every day, whether you spend 10 minutes on it or an hour – it’s like exercise; it’s easier to do when it’s part of your routine, and after all – this is the reason you go to college – to figure out that next career step.
– Executive Director of Career Development, College of William & Mary
Admittedly, it’s challenging to know where to start with seniors who are virtually undecided about their future. It’s even harder to determine the single best way for them to evaluate their options and to develop career goals.
Perhaps the initial discussion we need to have with undecided or “clueless” seniors is about their values. This is absolutely foundational, since unidentified values can very easily lead toward career directions that are not aligned with or are in tension with basic and deeply held values – and will not eventuate in career satisfaction. Sometimes a guided conversation can help the student identify and articulate these values in ways that may even suggest career directions. Values clarification exercises or surveys can also be helpful, if the student is interested in using a more structured process.
Beyond that preliminary values discussion, however, the single best way to help undecided students to move forward in the process is to think about the array of skills they have to offer. That is, what skills do they have, even at the nascent stage, that employers would value? What skills do they have that would help employers move toward or even to achieve their goals? What skills match the job descriptions that students find attractive or enticing?
Often students haven’t learned to identify their skills, so they “sell themselves short.” Some skills are easy for them to name: writing skills, speaking skills, research skills, quantitative reasoning, computer literacy, teamwork, leadership, language fluency, critical thinking and problem solving, for example. But what about: independent learning skills, cultural sensitivity, flexibility, time management, project management, event planning, teaching/mentoring/tutoring, initiative, quick study, adaptive thinking, global awareness, ability to work under pressure and to meet deadlines, among others. A comprehensive skill set of these competencies is of real interest to many employers in a broad range of employment sectors. These skills are, in fact, the hall mark of a well-educated and prepared young professional.
Once these skills are identified, the burden then is on students to be able to substantiate their skills with interesting, thoughtful and convincing descriptions of situations and environments in which they have successfully applied these skills. That leads to preparation and readiness for behavioral interviews – but that’s another interesting topic!
– Senior Associate Director, Career Services, Northeastern University
In today’s competitive job market, it is more important than ever for job seekers to have a clear target. When you know the job function and industry you are interested in you can be much more proactive in your search. First, it allows you to create a strategy for identifying companies that fit your interests and skills. Second and more importantly, employers want to hire people who can articulate why they want to work for them and how they can add value.
If you are unclear about what you want to do, informational interviewing is one of the best strategies for both exploring careers and creating a network of connections for your job search. An informational interview with a professional can teach you how to :
- Prepare for a specific career
- Identify relevant industries
- Target a specific company
- Make a career change and learn how to enter a new field
All of this information can help you make appropriate career decisions, find information about specific opportunities, and market yourself more effectively when kicking off a job search. In addition to gathering information, you are building a professional network, consisting of contacts with whom you have developed relationships over time. Many jobs are filled by word-of-mouth and networking rather than formal advertising, so the larger your network, the greater your opportunities.