A reader writes:
How do you choose a career path?
I’m a recent grad as of last May, and I currently have a pretty decent job (in terms of pay and benefits) as an admin at a university library. I like my job most days, but a lot of times I feel like it’s not challenging enough for me or like I get all the work for the week done by 8:30 a.m. on Monday. When my fiancé graduates later this year from the same university, we’ll be moving across the country for his work and I’ll have another opportunity to change jobs. I’m excited about this prospect, but I’m also terrified because I have no idea what I’d like to do.
I do have a bachelor’s degree in a subject I’m passionate about, but I fell into an undergrad trap of choosing a major that doesn’t translate to a career very well. While I’m passionate about the subject and its theory, I’m not so crazy about its application. However, it’s given me extensive writing and critical thinking skills so I really don’t regret it.
Basically, I’m looking for some advice on how to decide what to do with your career. I feel aimless currently, and I don’t want to just choose a job randomly. What do you suggest is the best way to find “your field” when you have no idea what field you want to be in? Should I just try a bunch of different things until I find the right fit? I’ve read your posts about not aiming for your “dream job,” but what if you have no idea what something like “a job I would like” would be?
Well, first, know that this is very common. There’s not something wrong with you for not having this figured out, or for not knowing how you’re going to figure it out. It’s basically the normal state for tons of people in their 20s — especially liberal arts grads.
It was certainly the case for me. (Although, looking back, I wasn’t even on top of things enough to realize that I should be angsty about it.) Personally, I just took jobs I could get using skills I felt reasonably confident I had (for me, at the start, those were writing and being compulsively organized), and then over the course of doing those jobs, gathered and refined information about what I liked doing and what I was good at and what other people thought I was good at and were willing to let me do more of.
I also wasn’t shy at work about seeing things that needed to be done and saying, “hey, can I do this?” which also helped me move out of the original positions a bit and further refine what I might want to spend my time doing. (It’s easier to do that at small and medium sized organizations than at large ones, so that’s worth keeping in mind if it appeals to you.)
Also, this won’t apply to everyone, but I was helped by the fact that I figured out early on that I was unmotivated by the idea of getting up every morning to work for a business to make money for someone else, and that I really wanted to work for an organization focused on doing good in the world. That narrowed down the range of possible employers quite a bit (to advocacy and service-oriented nonprofits), and then I was able to narrow it down a lot from there by looking at what jobs I might be qualified for with those organizations.
So, questions for you: What are you good at? What do you enjoy doing? What jobs could you not stomach getting out of bed for? Are there certain fields or topics that speak to you more than others?
If that still doesn’t point you in a clearer direction (and it might not, which is totally okay), then: What jobs does it seem like people would be willing to hire you for? And of those, which are more interesting to you than others?
You don’t have to have a whole career mapped out at this point. In fact, even if you do map it out, chances are high that it will change over time anyway, as you get more information about that career and other possible paths. Make the goal be to find work that you’re reasonably good at and feel reasonably good about doing, and then give yourself some time to let the rest unfold. It will unfold.
By the way, on the “dream job” thing, it’s not that you shouldn’t aim for a dream career path if you happen to have one — it’s just about being realistic that you can’t know if any one particular job (at a particular company) is your dream job from the outside. But if you have a particular type of work that makes you think “I’d love to do that, and I’m basing it on a reasonable knowledge of what it actually entails,” then by all means, start figuring out what a plan to get there would look like!
Readers: What’s your advice? How did you figure out what career you wanted if you graduated with a degree that didn’t set out a clear and obvious path for you?