What do you want to be when you grow up?
Many people can’t answer this question—even if they’re already grown up. It isn’t easy to choose a career path, and many people go years before they find the career they love.
If you’re having trouble figuring out what career path is right for you, here’s how to get started.
To choose a career, you first have to figure out who you are. Your ideal career path will be informed by your goals, values, and personality. To understand these aspects of yourself, you will have to do some introspection.
One way of going about this is to look for online skills and personality quizzes. There are lots of self assessment tools available online, such as the Holland Code Job Aptitude Test, the O*NET Interest Profiler, the 123test Career Test, Skills Matcher,and Job Bank Career Quizzes. Any of these could help you figure out what careers match your profile.
You shouldn’t just rely on quizzes, however. You should also ask yourself these questions:
To begin with, come up with a list of things you enjoy.
Do you like decorating, drawing, or reading? Do you like children?
Are you interested in technology? Medicine? Sustainability?
There’s no need to overthink it. Just come up with a list of things you like and see where it takes you. What were you doing the last time you felt focused or energized? When do you feel engaged? Can you think of any tasks or projects that you enjoyed in the past?
Once you have a list, you can begin narrowing it down to the things you could imagine spending your day doing. This will give you an idea of what types of careers to look out for.
If you don’t have much work experience, think of what subjects you enjoyed in school, or what you do for fun. Do you like physical activities? Creating things with your hands? Any interest or hobby could lead to a career.
It’s also important to consider your skills and abilities. There’s more to choosing a career path than just liking something. Ideally, you will like your job and be good at it, too—or be willing to become good at it.
Think deeply about your skill set. You should have a selection of skills that you have developed over the years, either from previous jobs, school, volunteering, or other experiences. These might be technical skills, like welding, coding, or accounting, or soft skills, like communication or time-management. Your skills could inform your future career path.
If you aren’t sure what your best skills are, try to think of compliments that others have given you. Have you received praise for the way you handled something? Have you received any awards or accolades? Has a previous manager or professor given you a pat on the back for something? Any of these show that you are skilled at something.
And remember, just because you don’t have the skills to do something now doesn’t mean you never can. If you want to improve your skill set, come up with a list of skills you wish you had. You can always get training to learn new skills, or look for a career that lets you learn on the job.
There are other preferences to consider beyond interests and skill set. A suitable work environment is an important part of a great career.
Do you prefer working alone, or in a team? Do you want to be your own boss? Do you like variety throughout your workday? Do you want consistency and stability throughout the year? What kind of company culture will bring out your best work? Do you want to work outside, or in an office, or from home?
Figure out which environment facilitates your best work. A career path that lets you spend time in an environment you enjoy could be all it takes to make your work life happy.
Finally, think about what you can’t tolerate a career without. A selection of must-haves will help you narrow down your possible careers.
Do you need a particular salary, or certain benefits? Do you need a short commute? Do you prefer to work particular hours? Do you need a job where you aren’t sitting at a desk all day?
What you’re really investigating is your values. Is money the most important thing to you, or do you want to spend more time with your family? Do you need lots of leisure time? Do you want a job that is fulfilling, and makes you feel like you are making a difference? Unearthing your values will show you what your career needs for you to feel fulfilled.
Further, consider your goals. Try to think both long term and short term. Do you want to be managing people in the future? Working freelance? Do you want to move to a different city, or take time off to travel? Your career path should accommodate your goals, both professional and personal.
Now that you have a better understanding of your skills, interests, and values, you can begin to consider what jobs will suit the life you want to create.
To get started choosing a career path, make a list of jobs that might fit into your life. Don’t be too discerning—just let the list grow until you have plenty of options to consider. Jobs that require your skills, jobs that let you explore your interests, and jobs that let you work in your ideal environment are all worth looking at.
Once you have a long list, you can begin narrowing it down. Get rid of the jobs that won’t fit into your life, that you might tolerate but not love, or that are too unrealistic (sorry, aspiring rock stars). Eventually you’ll have a shortlist of possibilities to seriously explore.
At the end of the day, you might not have found your dream job, but a selection of a few jobs you can imagine yourself doing. That’s a good place to start.
Once you have your shortlist, research what each career involves. Before you commit to any one career, you should have an idea of what that job really entails.
Figure out what education or credentials are required for people entering that field. Some careers have specific requirements, while others will allow you to be self taught. You should also look up what the day-to-day of each career is. This is how you will know if the actual experience of doing the job is what you want, and if it suits your work style.
Beyond looking these details up online, a great way to learn more about a job is to talk to people already doing it. Join forums, attend seminars, and reach out to people in your network. See if you can schedule informational interviews with someone in the know to see if you can pick their brain. There’s no substitute for a good mentor.
Remember, you can always change your mind about a job, or alter your chosen career path. If you can afford it and have the time, taking an internship, volunteer position, short-term contract, or just a few evening classes at the local college could give you some insight into what a career is really like.
By just dipping your toes in the industry, you can get a sense of what a day in the life in your chosen career is like without committing to years of training or a specific career path. Once you’re sure that this is what you want, you can make a more long-term decision.
The career path you choose now doesn’t need to be permanent. Your values and interests can change over time, and you should always be willing to adjust. Choose your career, then choose it again when the time comes.
Changing careers in the middle of your working life is common in today’s job market. There is no single career path, and few people spend their entire career doing one thing at one company. You might be offered a role that isn’t what you were planning, find that you excel at something that you weren’t expecting, or simply get bored. Taking stock of your needs and goals is important at all steps of your career, not just the beginning.
Ben is a writer and customer support specialist with 5 years of experience helping job-seekers create their careers. He believes in the importance of a great resume and the power of coffee.
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