how do I choose a career path?

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?

Start there.

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?

Read an update to this letter here.

{ 260 comments… read them below }

  1. ZSD*

    “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.”
    And also as the economy itself changes, and career paths that exist today are phased out over the next 15 years, while new career paths are invented.

    Separate note: OP, if you like working in the university environment, it might be a good idea to get an entry-level job at a university in your new home. Once you have *a* job (no matter how crappy) at a university, it’s usually pretty easy to move into a job that you *want* there, and a nice thing about universities is that there are people doing all kinds of things – marketing, development, writing, analyzing, financial stuff, student services, helping students from underprivileged backgrounds, helping faculty run their labs…Basically, if there’s a field you like, there’s a way to use it at a university. So one option is to just start with *any* job at a uni and then figure out your next step from there.
    (But there are lots of other good options, too!)

    1. O*

      This is great advice. Working at universities sometimes also allows you to pursue continuing education opportunities at a steep discount, which can also be helpful in figuring out what you want to do.

      1. Honeybee*

        I would advise against using graduate degree programs to figure out what you want to do…of course, you save some money if the university is paying for you to take classes, but your time is valuable too. It’s far better to figure out a basic idea first and *then* go get the graduate degree.

        1. O*

          Oh yeah, I wasn’t advising embarking on a graduate degree. I meant like, learn a skill, or attend a seminar series on something you’re not familiar with.

          1. anncakes*

            Right. At many (most?) schools, you’re able to take most undergraduate classes as a non-matriculated student. The tricky part is making sure you end up at a school that has night classes if your work schedule is going to be 9-5.

    2. Elizabeth the Ginger*

      Yes, I was going to make that first point, too! Case in point: I have many friends working in tech who did not do tech-related things in college 10-15 years ago, because “working in tech” has come to include more and more skill sets.

      1. Honeybee*

        *raises hand* My BA us in psychology. My PhD is in public health. I work in tech.

        “Tech” has come to be almost as meaningless as “business” because there are so many roles that make a tech company work.

    3. 20-something or other*

      I’m the OP. Thanks for the great advice!!

      I have briefly considered doing something similar once we move. The pay and benefits of working at a public university are usually great and they definitely are here. Problem here is I work at a heavily engineering focused university (my partner is an engineering student) and I think that might be why I hadn’t thought too far into finding another admin position at a new university when we move.

      Your comment made me realize that at if we end up somewhere close to a university that isn’t so STEM focused (disclaimer: nothing wrong with STEM at all, just not my cup of tea), it could mean branching out into a different area. I never really thought about all the options like you’ve laid out there.

      1. Mallory Janis Ian*

        The differents colleges at the university will all have their own work cultures within the university, as well. I started out as a temp in the industrial engineering department, and it was not my cup of tea, either. Most colleges tend to value admins who think at least somewhat the way that they do, and I definitely do not think like an engineer. I moved into the design school, and the way that those professors thought merged with the way I thought like a Vulcan mind meld. In engineering, I always felt a little off my game because I felt like my natural instinct to anticipate what they would want was off. In the design school, I felt like I knew what they wanted before they knew it themselves, because the way of thinking was as familiar to me as my own. I’m in the business school now, and it’s better than engineering, but still not nearly as good a fit as the design school was. The way of thinking is very logical and task-oriented, kind of like it was in engineering but not quite as rigid, but I’m a person who apparently is more comfortable with a little chaos and uncertainty than I am with “there’s only one right way to do things”. Not to stereotype any college or career cluster, and you can have good and bad experiences in any college, but I’ve had more success with people who “get” the way I think and vice versa.

      2. Jane*

        I was a liberal arts-ist, and the dilettante in me really enjoys the variety of university work. Universities (especially the bigger ones) are a lot like little cities. In working for one university, I’ve gotten experience in working with HR, benefits, accounting, IT, telecommunications, continuing Ed, utilities, police, sports (well, “athletics”) and environmental safety. I think I could’ve easily ended up as a job hopper in a different environment, but there’s always something new to learn at a university, even outside academic departments and libraries.

    4. V Dubs*

      It might be helpful as well to explore another type of work setting. For example, when I graduated college in ’08, I looked for jobs solely in non-profits or universities, because those were the workplaces I was familiar with from college and therefore (in my mind) where I was comfortable/willing to work. Jobs in those fields didn’t pan out, and I found myself in the world of for-profit business. And I love it! It’s been important for me when I’ve moved jobs in this work to work for a company’s whose product and values align with mine. I worked for Starbucks for a bunch of years, and I believed in the good the company was doing, and I also believed in my role of bringing joy to my customers daily through a smile and a cup of coffee.

  2. Anna No Mouse*

    OP, please believe Alison when she tells you that you are not alone in this. I am mid-career, having graduated with my BA over ten years ago, and I still struggle with figuring out exactly what I want to do with myself. Like Alison, I want to do work that makes a difference in the world, and not just by filling someone else’s pockets. I have worked in government, but have yet to find a path into the nonprofit sector, which is my ultimate aim. So even ten years out, I’m still trying to suss out where is the best place for me. The thing is, I use each new job as an opportunity to enhance my skills, make new connections, and see if there’s a path that I had perhaps missed before.

    Start where you are. List out all your skills, including technical and soft skills. Take different assessments online. Rutgers University has a pretty decent one: . And try not to worry too much about where your career path will take you. Like so many things in life, sometimes it’s about the journey.

    1. 20-something or other*

      Thank you thank you. It’s really hard not to feel like you’re the only one who doesn’t have their act together. “Fake it until you make it” comes to mind. I get fatalistic sometimes about what I choose now affecting my entire life, but in reality there are lots of choices left to be made!

      Thanks for the assessment too! I’ve been trying to find some that are legitimate and won’t make you fork over money at the end of it. We did “Career Cruising” way back in high school but I can’t remember any of my results.

      1. Jaydee*

        One thing to remember is that your choices will all affect your life, but very few have the power to define it. Did my choice to attend a state school instead of an Ivy League school affect my entire future? Did my choice to switch majors affect my entire future? Did my choice of where to work affect my entire future? Of course. In an alternate universe I might have been a panda hugger or President Obama’s nominee for the Supreme Court. But in this universe I have a great job, a family I love, good friends, a house, etc. By any measure I’m winning at life. So if your choice is between “accept job as admin in engineering department, which will pay the bills, but I’m not sure that’s what I want to do for the rest of my life” and “manufacture and distribute high quality methamphetamine” then yes, one of those is clearly a bad choice in the long-term consequences department. But if the choice is more like “accept job as admin in the engineering department that will pay the bills but I don’t love” or “accept job running campaign for local politician, which will barely pay the bills but might translate into a sweet staff position if she gets elected” then there probably isn’t a wrong answer unless the risks/rewards don’t balance out for you, personally, in this moment. Sure they will each potentially lead you to a very different place ten years from now, but neither of those places is necessarily better or worse than the other.

        1. Small town reporter*

          “Sure they will each potentially lead you to a very different place ten years from now, but neither of those places is necessarily better or worse than the other.”
          This is such good advice! I think people (including me) spend so much time worrying about getting the right or wrong answer when everything is actually kind of on a spectrum and you go down a path knowing new doors will open later. I mean, yeah, the meth-making option is always the wrong one, but otherwise, one choice usually leads to different opportunities later.

          1. TootsNYC*

            Also–something needs to shape your life. It might as well be the job choice.

            And…it doesn’t shape your life in a vacuum. It might steer it, but it doesn’t define it. Sure, I ended up in NYC, but I could have left if I’d wanted to. And if I’d gone to Chicago, I would probably have enjoyed Chicago.

            My kids have gone through the “choosing a college” stage (or are in it now), and I know that is influencing their future a lot. My daughter has a strong friend circle from this college that will probably influence the shape of her life forever. If she’d gone to the other college, it would be a different circle of friends–but there would be A circle of friends.

            At nearly 56, I look back at what shaped my life, and it was all fine.

            1. Lacey*

              Even though I’m happy with my job and life so far, I needed to read this. Thank you.

        2. 20-something or other*

          Thank you, I really appreciate this insight! I sometimes struggle too hard to do the “right” thing, that I forget there isn’t a “right” or “wrong” thing to begin with. Now the real question is…how do I become a professional panda hugger??? :)

          1. AnotherHRPro*

            No single decision will define your career. You will make lots and lots of “right” and “wrong” decisions. That is OK. And remember, not making a decision is also a decision. I see so many younger folks right out of school who are afraid of making a mistake and delaying making any type of decision.

            And if Panda Hugger is a real job, I want in!!!

      2. KR*

        “Every path is the right path. Everything could’ve been anything else. And it would have just as much meaning.” Whenever I feel overwhelmed about my life I try to remember this quote from Mr. Nobody (2009 movie featuring Jared Leto). Ahead of the weekend open thread, that is my movie recommendation for this week.

      3. Kate H*

        Wow I remember Career Cruising! The only results I can remember were “Beekeeper” and “Chimney Sweep” (no). The second time I manipulated my answers so I could get “Horse Trainer.” About ten years later and working with horses is exactly what I’m thinking about doing.

    2. Hlyssande*

      Same here! I’m 34 and I honestly have no idea what I want to do with myself. It’s not just 20somethings.

        1. Windchime*

          I’m in my 50’s and still not sure what I should do next.

          Life is full of crossroads. Every choice you make leads you down a path, but I’m finding as I get older that the path isn’t a one-way path; I can always turn around or make another choice. I never thought I would end up in my current career; it didn’t even exist when I was the OP’s age. I started out doing medical billing and data entry, and now I work in Business Intelligence and am working on breaking into data science. So I say just find something and dive in; you will eventually find something that fits.

    1. ZSD*

      Is the thing that you enjoy doing something you can gain skill at without hurting people in the meantime?
      For example, say you enjoy carpentry but aren’t too great at it yet. I think you could practice your carpentry and ultimately increase your skill at it, and in the meantime, creating C minus – level coffee tables doesn’t really hurt people. If you’re interested in something like that, then I think the thing to do is just spend time getting better at what you enjoy.
      On the other hand, if what you really enjoy is teaching middle schoolers, but you’re currently a terrible teacher, then spending time getting better at it by taking a teaching job you’re not really qualified for hurts people – the students you’re teaching poorly. In that case, I’d say you have an ethical obligation to pursue a different career and allow those students to have decent-quality teachers.
      (That’s assuming you’re a truly terrible teacher right now. All teachers will get better with experience, so I’m not saying you have to go into the career with the skills of a 20-year veteran.)

      1. TootsNYC*

        Or, find a way to build your skills where the risks aren’t so high–like, volunteer somewhere that’s teaching-like.

    2. fposte*

      It’s also wort asking what can you stand to do for most of your week that will allow you resources to do the things you enjoy?

        1. LQ*

          You might have to develop a tolerance for some of those things. Figure out what is the least bad, but every job is going to have something that will be less palatable. (Unless you love doing time cards, or reports, or whatever the things that have to be done in your job are.) But if you have a very low tolerance, then you might want to look at a job that is the least offensive rather than the most good.

          I’d do a few horrible things to get to do a lot of awesome things. You might not be able to tolerate the horrible, so you stick with lots of ok, not good, but not great things.

        2. spotcheck*

          Me too, but I also have a really low tolerance for not having cable TV or a home to live in. I’ve been in the spot of being miserable working at a job I didn’t enjoy just because it paid the bills. In those situations, it becomes: Identify what I can do to find a better job or improve my situation and do those things OR be miserable all the time and deal with the fallout my misery has on those around me.

        3. hbc*

          I think you need to find a way to frame it. Very few people want to pack themselves into an airplane for the fun of it, but many, many do so voluntarily because it gets them to an awesome vacation spot. You don’t have to love filing to want to file this set of papers so you can go home and work on your novel. Though maybe it would help to be in a job with a lot of variety–it’s easier to do 40 different tasks you hate for an hour each than the same hated task for 40 hours.

          Or, are you really *terrible* at the things you like or just mediocre? Plenty of people make a meager but passable living doing what they love. I’ve heard some ear-splitting buskers in my day who still seem to get donations, and there are plenty of small business owners who seem to be okay with terrible, broken websites as long as they don’t have to pay the designer much.

          1. Not Karen*

            But people don’t have to pack themselves into an airplane for 40+ hours a week, week after week!

            I definitely would prefer a job with a lot of variety. If you know of any, I’d love to hear them.

            1. Mander*

              I think you need a broad industry first before anyone can tell you that. I’ve worked in museums, restaurants, and call centers — they all had lots of variety.

              Maybe you should focus on improving your skills in things you *do* like to do?

            2. AnotherHRPro*

              I think you are missing hbc’s point. All jobs have somethings that are less enjoyable. I love my job and my work. I am fortunate in that I find it on the whole very rewarding. That said, there are parts of my job that I absolutely hate. The enjoyable work makes the rest bearable. I don’t think there is really anyone who loves every single aspect of their job. After all, it is work. You are being paid to do it for a reason. If it were totally awesome all the time, people would do it for free!

            3. hbc*

              The smaller the business, the better. It’ll probably be a generic assistant in most offices, and there just won’t be that much of any one type of job to do. You could also do temping as a way to do short stints and involve a lot of variety, though more on a weekly or monthly scale versus daily.

              A lot of it depends on what you hate and what you’re good at and what motivates you in the moment. For example, maybe a busy restaurant doesn’t sound like a dream job, but if there are actual people waiting for food, that might drive you more to keep moving than a bunch of envelopes to be stuffed. Or a job where you get paid by the item rather than by the hour. Or something where it’s more your presence that’s required than a lot of tasks–manning the guard desk overnight at a gated community probably has a lot of downtime.

              None of these jobs is likely to pay very well, because most everyone would be clamoring for jobs that take little skill and don’t require you to do things you hate. But if you can’t or won’t do stuff you don’t like, that’s pretty much your best bet.

        4. fposte*

          That’s going to be a challenge when you want people to give you money and don’t think you’re good enough to be saleable at the things you do like.

          I’d say your choices are accept a very strictured income, broaden your horizons, or spend your life chafing.

        5. K.*

          Every job at every level comes with stuff you don’t like doing or don’t want to do. That’s just the nature of the beast. You’re going to have to find a way to improve your tolerance for doing stuff you don’t want to do because it’s impossible to go through life, and especially work, only doing what you want. Maybe frame it as, to paraphrase Denzel Washington in “The Great Debaters,” “I’m doing what I have to do so I can do what I want to do.”

        6. LBK*

          Any chance you’ve been tested for ADHD? Not to armchair diagnose but this is a very familiar sentiment to me. Before I got treated I would literally rather stare at a blank wall for hours instead of doing something I didn’t want to do – no joke, I’d have work all laid out in front of me that I knew had to get done and I just could not force my brain to do any of it for more than 30 seconds at a time before I went back to staring into space. Getting on medication was like realizing I’d been driving with the emergency brake on.

          Now I manage it without meds, but they were a life saver when I was first diagnosed and being buried under school work. Maybe something work checking out.

        7. themmases*

          I think most people do have a tolerance though if they feel that it’s worth it to them. Probably no one likes managing their inbox and filing (even if the filing is paperless), but people who mostly like their jobs accept it as the price and don’t get bent out of shape about it generally. When I was unhappy in a former job though, I had just-in-time filing down to an art form.

          You might also consider why you don’t tolerate things you don’t like to do. At my bad old job, I had a support-adjacent role and whenever I made a big contribution, people had to put me in my place and make it clear my substantive work was only support and they still planned to treat me as a secretary or an intern forever. I moved on but it took me a while to figure out why I would feel so sad, resentful, and drained if I had to, say, take meeting minutes or email out deadline reminders at my new job. You can respond to that by picking a career path that lets you shed as many of those tasks as possible (I have), but your perspective may need to be adjusted too. Realizing those tasks are appropriate to my current role and don’t reflect people’s respect for me here made them a lot more tolerable, even if they’re not necessarily fun.

        8. TootsNYC*

          I second the thought that you might need to develop a tolerance for things you don’t want to do.

          Or, frame them differently. Sure, you don’t want to file–but the people you’re working with want to be able to get their hands on the info they need without a lot of struggle. So you’re making their jobs easier (or even possible) by filing stuff.

          People pay you money because you are doing things that -they- want to have done.

    3. Preux*

      I am willing to bet that there are multiple things you enjoy doing. But I think it’s rare for all of us to have a job that we enjoy 100% of the time – if it was all fun, they probably wouldn’t have to pay people to do it, after all!

      But branch out your thinking a bit on what you enjoy vs what you are good at. Look at positions that support the one you’re not good at. One of those might need your skill set.

    4. TootsNYC*

      truly, you don’t enjoy the doing of tasks you’re good at? I’d think most people would find some enjoyment, if only in experiencing their own competence.

      Some of it is defining “enjoy doing”–it is that it’s fun and exciting, or simply somewhat enjoyable? (Kind of like, I say to my kids: “You don’t have to have every meal be something you absolutely love. It’s OK to eat foods that are just kind of mostly OK.”)

      1. spotcheck*

        I had this issue in school. I was really good at science and social studies, but I HATED the subject matter. I was really good at English, but I loved English. Science and social studies were just so boring, but I was good at doing the work associated with each subject.

    5. Laura*

      Honestly, this sounds like a problem that would be really great for some short-term therapy. I don’t mean that in a critical way, I mean I actually think that talking to a therapist (especially a cognitive-behavioral one) specifically about work might be something you could find really valuable. The mindset you describe here and below sounds like it would make life really challenging. It sounds like you’re stuck being both unhappy and with unhappy employers unless you find a unicorn of a job. I wonder if there are things that you could do that would both help you feel differently about the work you do, whatever that work ends up being, and that might also benefit the actual work that you’re doing.

      1. V Dubs*

        Do you enjoy getting a paycheck? Do you like your coworkers? Your workspace?

        If you need some motivation/ a mindset switch, check out Zig Ziglar’s How to Stay Motivated series, esp volume 1.

    6. Chinook*

      “What if there is no overlap between what I’m good at and what I enjoy doing?”

      Then figure out what you are good at but they couldn’t pay you enough to do and head in the opposite direction. This may sound strange but it sometimes help to start paring down your choices but saying “nope, not enough money in the world” or “only if I was desperate.”

      Ex: I am awesome in sales and had the opportunity to be trained by dealership owner I knew and respected to go that route (like being trained by GM in the US for sales in Canada). The idea just set me wrong and I turned down that offer and others that have come my way. The notable exception has been when I have been broke and jobless – at which point I go the low end of sales and work retail – or when y mother convinces me to work in her retail store because she is desperate for help (luckily my 5 y.o. niece seems to have caught the bug and can even manage helping out when they go on buyer’s trips to select children’s clothes. 10 more years and I won’t ever be asked to help again!!).

      Once you know what you won’t do, you may find ideas popping into your head about what you can do.

    7. INTP*

      In my experience, if you aren’t fairly good at something, it won’t be enjoyable for long in a job setting. You will constantly struggle to meet deadlines and quality requirements and the stress of being reprimanded and fearing for your job will make you hate it.

      I would suggest looking harder for overlap and ways to combine your interests with your personal strengths, with an open mind to the fact that you might have to develop a tolerance for something you don’t love but don’t hate either. For example, if you love programming but aren’t good at it, you might find a niche in technical writing or project management for software products, if you have a talent for writing or time and people management, respectively. Also look at which interests that you aren’t currently good at might be realistic to develop your skills in.

      1. Stephanie*

        Yes yes yes, this. My first two jobs were in something I wasn’t great at and they were horrible. I was convinced I was the worst employee ever.

        My current job, while far from ideal, I find way more tolerable. Like I don’t have the urge to get on Gchat or read blogs because my actual work is so unedifying.

  3. O*

    I am hardly a successful professional yet, but when slightly younger people ask me for advice, one thing I always say is consider how you feel about the most boring and difficult and unsatisfying parts of a job, not the best aspects. Lots of jobs and careers have *something* interesting and exciting about them; but how you handle different types of downsides may say more about what you’re best suited for than how excited you get about the upsides. For example, I’m not good at dealing with difficult, angry people, but I’m great at, say, finding mistakes by manually checking through thousands of data points. Neither of these things is something you enter a career to be able to do, but the former would make me hate my life if I had to do it regularly while the latter is perfectly tolerable.

  4. Dan*

    I found my career path after various attempts at “dream jobs” failed. I didn’t job hop, and was able to figure out some of that through internships.

    After I got some experience, I was able to figure out what I actually wanted to do, who offered those positions, and what it would take to get there.

    And I got there. It turns out that the best jobs weren’t even where I thought they would be.

  5. TMA*

    I really like Alison’s advice on this one.

    To continue with the “dream job” point, I would add that it’s important to realize that some days going to work really sucks, but that doesn’t mean the job is necessarily terrible and that you should leave. That is as long as the sucky days are out weighed and out numbered by the good days.

    1. Sunflower*

      So true. I used to dread getting out of bed and going to work. Now I have ‘man I really don’t feel like going to work today’ days. Most days I wake up and think ‘wow my bed feels amazing and it would really nice to lay in it all day but its 8am so now it’s time to go to work’

      And yes there are plenty of days where I say ‘i hate this so much’

      1. LQ*

        This is a great distinction there is a big difference between “my bed is warm and comfy and I could just lay here all day” and “I dread work I hate work work is the worst thing ever…” I have a lot of my bed is warm mornings. But very very few I dread work mornings.

      2. Honeybee*

        This. I absolutely love my job, but there are still days I don’t want to get up and I still love my weekends. It’s nice to sleep in and pet my dog for 3 hours a day.

  6. Lost in late 20s*

    I would also say figure out what kind of LIFE you want to live and determine a career path that is complementary to it. Do you want to make a lot of money, but be forced to work 100 hours a week? Do you want to work a more manageable schedule and maybe not have as much money, but have more time with your family and other interests?

    1. Turanga Leela*

      This is so important! Other considerations: do you want an exciting job, where you might get a 2 am phone call about a crisis that needs to be fixed, or would you rather have a stable schedule? Do you want to travel for work? Do you want to feel good about your impact on the world, or are you content doing a good job for your business or client?

      1. Honeybee*

        I’ve wanted to address this, but I just want to note that the last line is not mutually exclusive – it’s all about framing. I’ve seen several people here say something similar. Working at a non-profit or social services organization is wonderful – that’s what I originally wanted to do, too. I never saw myself working at a Corporate Behemoth, which is where I work now.

        But honestly? Yes, I do a good job for my business and help them make money, but I feel good about my impact on the world, too. I can’t say that I’m feeding starving children or educating low-income students for my full-time job, but I interact with our consumers and I know my work has a positive impact on them. Besides, my job not only gives me the opportunity to improve representation of women and people of color in tech ON the job (as in I use some of my work hours each week to work on projects in this area) but I also have the free time to volunteer in my community and effect change.

        SO I guess it all comes down to what the person means by positive impact – if it has to be social services and justice, then maybe a corporation won’t make them happy (unless they are working in the philanthropic arm of the company – lots of companies hire people to manage their giving portfolio and community service), but if “positive impact” is interpreted more broadly then consider lots of things.

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          I think about this a lot, because until I went into consulting, I had spent my whole career in nonprofits and thought I’d continue on that path. But I feel really good about the work that I’m doing now (which actually includes a lot of coaching of nonprofit managers, but isn’t the entirety of it). Even just with this blog, which is not a nonprofit enterprise, I feel like it’s work that makes the world a better place. So I do think the definition can be a lot broader than just nonprofit organizations.

          1. Windchime*

            Your work definitely makes the world a better place. Look at the wonderful community you have created! I come here every day to read and participate in thoughtful conversation, and I get advice for all kinds of topics, from life in a cube farm to persuading my cat to eat.

            And it’s all here because of you and the unique environment that you have created. That’s really something to be proud of.

        2. AVP*

          Oh, this is really true. I also work for for-profit company and have some very corporate, boring clients, but they allow us to do a lot of advocacy work at low margins which is really rewarding. Many companies have some kind of structure for this.

          Also, if you don’t mind the tech world or find the idea of a start-up interesting, there’s a whole emerging world of social benefit start-ups and B Corps that combine elements of both worlds.

        3. Lost in late 20s*

          I went from the nonprofit world to the corporate world and I feel like I am making a bigger difference in the world at the for-profit company I am working at now….

          I work for a company that truly embraces community engagement and volunteerism. I get to help plan company volunteer activities (all completely optional) and I do it just because I want to. When I worked in nonprofit sector, the volunteer piece of it became work and I didn’t feel like my contributions were as meaningful. I feel like I can have a greater impact by volunteering instead of working in a nonprofit.

        4. Turanga Leela*

          Honeybee—yes, that’s absolutely true! I know some people who do for-profit work and are really happy with the social impact they have (e.g. as personal trainers or tattoo artists). And I know other people whose for-profit work allows them to, as you say, do pro bono work, support diversity in their fields, and have time and money to contribute to causes they care about.

          I also don’t think there’s a right or wrong answer to the question I asked. One of my best friends works in advertising, and she doesn’t especially think her job makes the world a better place. But she finds it challenging and fun, she likes the people she works with, and she’s proud of the work she does for her clients. She doesn’t need to feel like she’s saving the world to be happy with her career. (I have other friends who do need to feel like they’re saving the world, and this wouldn’t be a good fit for them. To each her own.)

        5. Sarah*

          So true. My previous two jobs at for-profit companies that highlight this. The first was an engineering job where we were building a very cool product that served a meaningful purpose. The company was making a profit, sure, but that was very far removed from my work, which was designing and working with the customer. The second was a professional services firm, and we were essentially helping them save the corporation money by upgrading some specific thing in the IT department. The first job was very personally rewarding, the second on was pretty much soul sucking. For a variety of reasons, but having no big “meaning” that I really believed in behind what I was doing was harder for me than I anticipated.

    2. The Optimizer*

      To add to this, I would also try to figure out where you want to live. Not necessarily an exact location but assess whether you want to live in a big city or a smaller town. Some careers are going to mean you will always be tied to a larger city and even if you don’t live in it, you are going to have to commute which can add hours to your work day. Other careers will give you more choices as to where you want to eventually settle down.

      That’s not something I really thought about all that much at that stage in my life and it really made a difference many years later.

      1. Honeybee*

        YES. I didn’t think about that a whole lot but once I neared the end of graduate school I realized how important geography was to me.

    3. Dan*

      When you’re young “money money money” is the refrain. But you do get to a certain point where you realize that moving up in salary is going to require more time and headaches. In a lot of ways, I think you’ve truly “made it” when you’re allowed to be picky about what you do for extra cash, if you do it at all.

      While I certainly could use more money, I’m now at a point where I don’t have to make difficult choices about money. I’m not on track for an early retirement either — my org has a lot of long-tenured people, and this is a fairly good place to be as an individual contributor. If I’m doing this work when I’m 70, so be it.

    4. Chickaletta*

      THIS. My business advisor tells this to high school students all the time and I wish I had considered it when I was starting out. Figure out what kind of lifestyle you want, then chose a career that will help make that lifestyle happen. So many people do it the other way around and then wonder why they’re unhappy.

      My uncle did this. His goal was money and lots of it. He wanted to take his Jaguar to the airport, hop in his own plane, and fly to Aspen or Cancun for a weekend getaway kind of rich. He grew up on a poor farm and fathered a kid at the age of 16, so the deck was stacked against him. You know what he did? He became a trial lawyer. Even though he hates law. But he practiced it for forty years. He achieved his goals of owning nice cars, a plane, a custom built home, and dream vacations decades ago. Every time I see him he has a self-satisfied grin on his face and he seems to be pretty content and satisfied with his life. You know why? Because work is work. But he’s had the benefit his whole life of coming home to everything he ever wanted.

      1. Dan*

        True that.

        I was having a bit of a conversation about this with fposte yesterday in a round about way. I grew up with very little. Whether or not the things I listed were indicators of being poor, the reality was that I had very little of a material nature and paid (er, borrowed) my own way through college. I knew at a young age that I wanted to live a lifestyle better than my parents did while we were growing up.

        While I am not trial-lawyer rich and do not have a private jet, I get to do most of the things I want without really worrying if I can afford them.

    5. INTP*

      This is what worked for me. I was listening to “How to figure out what to do with your life” advice for people happy to lead more conventional lives (which there is nothing wrong with, it just isn’t what I wanted) and it wasn’t working. However interested in something I was, I realized deep down that if I devoted my life to it and gave up other things I wanted for the lifestyle it required (i.e. any job requiring me to live in one place and work for one employer for years at a time with a normal American amount of vacation), I would resent it and hate my life. I was told to grow up and deal with it because that’s part of working. (I wonder if those people would feel the same if they were told to grow up and deal with a job that precluded their ever having children or getting married?)

      So I looked at ways to combine what I wanted in life (travel, location independence, working for myself and ideally from home) with my personal skills (writing and research), found something, and went to school for it. I’m just starting out but I’m quite happy with my choice so far. The one downside is having to restrain myself from strangling the people who tell me how lucky I am to work remotely. It’s not called luck, it’s called knowing what you want, finding a way to get it, and putting in the work!

      1. katamia*

        LOL. I’m another INTP, and your goals/dream life sound exactly like mine. I have VERY conventional parents (one of whom maintains to this day that if I could just find the *right* office job, then everything would magically fall into place) who told me the exact same things you heard. My realization that I’m probably never going to be happy in a typical 9-5 office environment is still pretty recent, though, so I’m still working on getting to where I want to be.

    6. Jade*

      Yes! This is the dilemma I’m facing. I’ve found a career path that I enjoy doing and that I seem to be good at, but I’m starting to question the practical aspects of it.

      For sure things change over time. Several years ago I was fine with the idea of moving far away to find a job, but now I want to stay local to be closer to my family. Several years ago I was totally fine with the idea of going back for my master’s, but now I’m hesitant to spend so much money on continuing my education until I’ve got my life figured out better. Several years ago I was fine with the idea that I would make a low salary in this field, but now the kind of lifestyle I want has changed and I don’t know that my field’s salaries can support that.

      1. Overeducated and underemployed*

        Yes! In my early 20s, I was single, excited to travel a lot, and had very few wants and needs financially, so a job with low pay and a lot of moving around sounded perfect, and I made plans accordingly. Well, during grad school for this dream career, i met my partner, got married, had a kid, no longer could live with 4 roommates even if I wanted to (I don’t but again, kid), want to be in the same city as spouse, and have more financial obligations as a parent.

        I think I was a decently responsible 20 year old, but I couldn’t have predicted how much I’ve changed since I was in my first job. Imagining a future self with different values than your present self is hard at an age when you’re changing so fast.

        1. Jade*

          Which is why it’s ridiculous to expect 18 year old kids entering college to be able to map out the rest of their lives within 4 years. At the very least the advice we’re giving these kids needs to start being a lot more realistic. I thank my stars my college guidance counselor steered me away from an English degree (with no plans on how to use it) and pushed me to either find a more pragmatic degree or to wait a few years until I figured something out.

        2. Anxa*

          My biggest regret off all my career search regrets is not thinking about having a family.

          At 18, I’d never dated. Throughout college I never had a boyfriend. I just didn’t think it’d be an issue in my life. I mean, I didn’t think for sure it WOULDN’T be, but it felt awkwardly sad and overly optimistic to think I’d have a partner or a family to coordinate careers with.

          Now, I’m running into dead end after dead end, and any active choices I make about where to go next, means taking into consideration how flexible that job would be considering a partner.

    7. Honeybee*

      +1 million – in fact, this was really instrumental to me deciding what kind of career I wanted (and didn’t want).

  7. Kyrielle*

    For the advice side, Alison and O are spot on here.

    As far as anecdotes about how this can look:

    My original game plan was to find a way to work for a game company, programming for computer games. Because I loved to play them, so of course I’d want to make them.

    That was…a lot of people’s game plan. Turned out there weren’t very many options, and even fewer located somewhere I wanted to live. Oops.

    I took a job writing public safety software, because they were hiring and I figured I could deal with it. I stayed with that company for over a decade, until a competitor bought them. (I could have stayed there after, but I would have had to move somewhere I didn’t want to, and the product I knew well would eventually have end-of-lifed out from under me, with a big question mark as to what I’d do next.)

    If they hadn’t gotten bought, I suspect I’d still be there. I came to find I loved that job. I went into it expecting to give them 2-3 years to beef up my resume and move on to something a little closer to my dream. But finding out how much I loved making a difference to our customers made a difference to me. (And so did hearing about all the employment conditions and long hours at some game companies, in the meanwhile.)

    What we want changes as we grow older and change our lifestyle (not talking just about kids here, everyone changes lifestyle and wants over time, although for me kids were eventually part of it), and as we gather more data points. I still love computer games. Playing them is awesome fun. But when I finally went job searching, it wasn’t for jobs in that field.

    1. Dan*

      “But finding out how much I loved making a difference to our customers made a difference to me.”

      You know, it’s funny. I work for a non-profit, but it’s not an advocacy type of org where people have a passion for the cause. So many people here write, “I want to work for a non-profit, because I don’t want to make someone else rich.” I’ve always wondered about that, because non-profits stereotypically pay less than the corporate world. Would you actually take a job paying less money solely because you object to a bunch of shareholders making money from your labor?

      That rant aside, one can find meaningful work with for-profits. Me, I like building solutions that make a difference. I could care less if someone makes money off of that or not. (And unless I’m at a non-profit, if profits aren’t being made, the company won’t stick around long anyway.)

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        Early in my career, I definitely took less money in order to be able to work on causes that I cared about. It wasn’t “I want to do this because I don’t want to make someone else rich.” It was “I’m far more motivated to do this work than anything else I could be doing.” I think the former is usually a way of saying the latter.

        1. Dan*

          “I’m far more motivated to do this work than anything else I could be doing.”

          Well, that’s the holy grail of any job, right? To find work that you would rather be doing more than anything else?

          That gets back to the “industry industry” comment that someone made earlier, in that there’s a difference between the work that motivates you, and the business field in which that org/companies sells their wares or advertises their products.

          I’ve actually never worked for an advocacy org, so when someone says “I want to work on X issue” my question is always, “what, exactly do you want to do day-to-day?” You’ve got fun stories to tell about earlier jobs you’ve had, is that the kind of thing most people want to do when they say “I wan to work on X issue” or do they mean they want to lobby congress, or write white papers or whatever?

          (It’s no different than someone saying they want to work “in video gaming.” Doing what? Figure out what you want to do and are good at, and *now* we can talk about who has a demand for those skills.)

          1. Ask a Manager* Post author

            You might just not be a big advocacy organization person if that’s not resonating with you :)

            For me, a liberal arts person with a bunch of strong social change interests, at the start of my career with no clear direction, I just knew that I’d be thrilled to work on, say, animal rights or the death penalty or prison reform or racial justice or a bunch of others. I didn’t know enough yet to know exactly what kind of work I’d most want to do for those orgs — I just figured I’d try whatever they’d hire me for (which isn’t exactly a huge pool of jobs when you’re straight out of college) and take it from there. And that’s what I did. I applied for an assistant job with an animal charity because I figured “hey, I have the skills for that and I would love, love, love to work for this particular organization,” and they looked at my resume and saw I had a bunch of published clips and they said, “no, writer instead” and it went from there.

            That’s a pretty common approach for people who want to work on Issues.

            1. Dan*

              Huh, interesting. I will be completely honest, I work in a field that you either study for or have obvious transferable skills for. As in, if you want to be an engineer, you study engineering. If you haven’t studied engineering, you will not be an engineer. Data analytics is a little different, it doesn’t have a rigid “study that” requirement yet. You can study engineering and go be a data analyst, and nobody bats an eye ;) Hybrid fields get interesting, such as with what the OP did or may do with linguistics. There’s computational linguistics where some have stronger backgrounds in computer science/algorithm development, and others have stronger backgrounds in linguistics. (Sometimes a company will be specific with what they need, but by and large teams are made up of diverse backgrounds, and the real question is “do we have a need on our team for someone with your background?”)

              I suppose the big issue with lib arts is that it’s almost purely transferable skills work. As in, while you hire an accountant to do your accounting, and an IT guy to do your IT, you don’t really hire an English major to do “English” work.

      2. Ask a Manager* Post author

        Also, generally when people talk about wanting to work for a nonprofit, they’re talking about advocacy or service organizations; they’re not talking about trade organizations, credit unions, or some of the other less-recognized nonprofits. They’re talking about 501(c)3s and 4s.

    2. Tau*

      I sometimes daydream about working for my favourite games studios, but realistically I know it’s not an option for all the reasons you mention – too much competition, unpleasant conditions, long hours… there are some real horror stories online. :( And none of them anywhere I’d like to live to boot.

      I think it can help to separate out wants vs needs when it comes to what job we’d like. Working on video games would be a perk for me – a fun perk, but not worth the associated cost. Working on a problem I find moderately interesting and not morally objectionable, on the other hand, is far less negotiable, but that’s a much broader criterion. I’m currently programming tools for analysis of some seriously fascinating data, learning loads and really enjoying myself – so it’s not video games but fulfills the “interesting + not morally objectionable” criterion, and in the meantime I’m leaving the office at 4pm every day. Similarly, it turns out an environment with a decent amount of structure is a must for me while doing research is a want, ergo academia is out.

  8. Countess Boochie Flagrante*

    Hoo boy. I feel you, OP — I graduated with my degree in Professional Uselessness right as the economy was tumbling into the crapper, and “adrift” doesn’t even begin to describe how I felt. My degree laid the foundation for exactly one career path aside from “perpetual academia re: this subject” and my GPA prevented me from pursuing that career path — a Master’s was really needed for following the field, and my GPA was too low to get me anywhere on that score. So into the world with my “Liberal Arts & Crafts” degree, as my school likes to call it.

    What I’ve established as a habit when it comes to looking for jobs is to do this — with every major piece of work I do (job, special project, etc), I keep something of a journal of “things I really like about this” and “things I really don’t like about this.” This doesn’t tend to point me in a direction so far as industry goes, but insofar as roles within the working world go, it’s given me a lot of refinement. For example, I really like working on escalated issues, but dislike being a first line of contact, so I seek out jobs that include that distinction.

    And the truth is, there’s industry and then there’s industry. I’m in the financial sector right now, but my job is largely critical reading and interpretation (of rules, not language). There’s the industry of what you personally do, and the industry of what your company as a whole does, and the two don’t always overlap. Every company needs admins, tech people, management… so on. My former boss here in the bitter black heart of capitalism now works in the healthcare industry, but she’s still handling a specific area similar to the particular cog of the capitalist machine that I’m still grinding away at.

    You’ve got admin experience — and that’s a great start! Admin is a flexible job to have on your resume, and from what I see online, a lot of places seem to be looking for admins. When you get inside a company is when you really start to see whether the industry is interesting to you, and if you need continuing education to pursue an industry that strikes your fancy, a lot of places will offer tuition assistance or will train you to move within their organization.

    1. 20-something or other*

      OP here.

      “Liberal Arts & Crafts” just made my whole day. That’s generally the response I get when I tell people about my degree (plus a distinctive glazed eye look). Thanks for the advice! I particularly like the idea of keeping a journal.

    2. Adam*

      That’s so true about “There’s industry and then there’s industry”. Growing up I never in a million years would have pictured myself working in the “industry” I currently do and in my current job search I am most definitely not looking to continue in said industry either if I can help it (as one of those admin types). And yet here I am and if you want to be technical I’ve worked longer in this industry than any other. Careers are weird that way.

      If it taught me anything it’s to be open-minded about what types of organizations you’re willing to apply to. I find I’m the type of person who so long as the job is personally challenging (in a good way) and rewarding I’m not too concerned about what the organization on the whole does so long as I’m ok with it in general. I’m definitely a “works to live” type.

      1. 20-something or other*

        I guess I hear people talk about “their field” so much on this blog or in person… it started to (and still does sometimes) feel like some mythical creature that everyone else knew about and I had been kicked out of the club. “Field?! What’s a field? How do I find it??”

        1. hbc*

          I never even knew that the industry I’m in existed until I was midway through my interview for the job. There are so many little niches and support fields and whatnot that no one ever dreams about when picking majors, and most of those have little sub-specialties themselves

          My guess is that there are a lot of older people like me who look like they took a straight and deliberate path to where they are now, but who flopped and floundered and lucked and rationalized through a lot of those steps.

          1. Adam*

            My youthful innocence/ignorance contributed to my limited view on careers for a while. When you ask little kids what they want to be when they grow up they say things like doctor and teacher because those are jobs they actually see adults doing. They don’t say jobs like middle-manager or copywriter because they don’t even know those jobs exist; let alone all the multitudes of sub-categories and specialties in the medical and teaching fields!

        2. Sunflower*

          If you are in an administrative/support services role, your ‘industry/field’ might change a lot. I work in event planning but because of the type of jobs I want, I will probably always work to support the core services of the company. So I might work in law now, but could very easily switch to science/healthcare/finance/accounting in the future but still be doing the same type of work. Same can be said for the people who work in recruiting, marketing, communications here.

          I usually use field to describe the norms I currently work in. It’s not something that defines me!

        3. Jaydee*

          Some of us make a purposeful entrance into a particular field. Others of us finally stop screaming after the parachute opens and manage to drift away from some trees and toward that grassy area over there. To a large extent “your field” will be the field in which you find yourself at any given point.

    3. Washington*

      Yes to the industry/industry! Every time I changed jobs, I changed industries (from banking to hospitality to manufacturing to R&D to technology), however I continued my career in the same field of job, growing my career. However, there are people I work with that only have ever worked for technology companies, but in a number of different roles. They would say they like the industry, and that drives them as much as their interest in the role. I have to really like the role, then I look at if the role in a particular industry is attractive to me. (Never again in food manufacturing.)

    4. Dan*

      You realize that’s very true at the CEO level. Few CEO’s rose through the ranks of their company. Once they get their first CEO job, they hop around industry to industry. One CEO who I know of who cut his teeth in transportation is now CEO of a movie theater chain.

  9. Librarian-to-Be*

    I’m going to assume OP was an English major because the traits she(?) listed sound like most of the English majors I know in terms of skills and “Well, what do I do with this degree?” feelings. This includes myself to some extent. I was an English major, but I knew what I wanted to do for sure ever since I was sixteen. Which leads me to my advice, which is in two parts: 1. Consume lots of media. I had my epiphany (and, God, was it an epiphany with the Hallelujah chorus and all, it seemed) in a movie theater. While watching National Treasure 2: Book of Secrets, I saw a scene that took place in the Library of Congress. All at once it dawned on me that librarianship was what I should be doing. It sounds ridiculous, but hear me out — whether you’re watching a movie/tv or reading a book or listening to a radio show, you’re being exposed to people in different careers and getting a taste of the characters’ careers. These won’t always be the most accurate representations, but, let’s face it, you don’t have the time to go and job shadow every career out there. I wouldn’t say choose your whole career based on this concept, but it can give you some insight. There’s a saying (and forgive me for not knowing the source) about how readers of books live thousands of lives, even as they only live once. Take advantage of that. (And, because I suspect you were an English major, I imagine this will be easy for you. If I’m wrong, well, books/movies/tv/radio are fun!)

    2. Look back on your life, not just now, and try to find patterns. Once I realized I wanted to be a librarian, I started realizing little things about my memories that showed how I’d been nudged toward this path all along. In Kindergarten, when I had no idea what I wanted to be, my mom suggested I go as a librarian for career day because I loved to read (faulty logic for real librarians and my costume was a horrible stereotype, but I’ll take it). Later, a friend’s mom suggested I have a talk show called “MyName Wonders…” because I was always asking questions about things I wondered about. Turns out this is not uncommon for people in librarianship. And I excelled at and loved trivia games of all kinds — another mark of the librarian. A lot of these are generalizations about librarians, but they happen to be true in my case and common throughout my experience. So, things that sort of fit together like puzzle pieces in your life that otherwise may not seem connected can nudge you toward your path. You may not see it until after you figure things out, but I don’t think it’s impossible to start trying to piece things together now.

    Also, try volunteering. You can work at any job to pay the bills and volunteer at one or more places in the meantime to “try” different things/places without any big penalty. Plus, it’ll look nice on your resume.

    Finally, I’d suggest talking to previous supervisors, coworkers, mentors, and other people who know you well, particularly in a working environment. Ask them what skills they thought you had in spades. Ask them about what they thought you didn’t necessarily do well in. You may be surprised to hear these things from another perspective and it could give you a lead.

    Good luck!

    1. 20-something or other*

      Hi! OP here. I am a she, but not an English major (although I did heavily consider it for a long time). I majored in Linguistics and Anthropology. It was great. I loved every minute of it. Until I graduated and got slammed with the reality that finding a job was going to be difficult.

      I really like the advice here about talking to my supervisors/co-workers. I usually have a pretty hard time figuring myself out!

      Thank you!

      1. Librarian-to-Be*

        Fair enough. I know someone who’s getting a PhD in some aspect of Linguistics. Admittedly, if there’d been a Linguistics program at my school, I would’ve minored in it at least. It’s a fascinating topic! Antrho I tried in high school and quickly found it wasn’t for me. But, back to the topic at hand! I know you’ll find something that’s perfect for you and I’m wishing you all the best.

      2. fposte*

        I loved linguistics too. And while a field is like a job, in that different people like it for different reasons, I will say that in my experience linguistics people tend to appreciate logic and systems (they’d be good Bletchley candidates, were it the 1940s) without being rigid about them, and that those are characteristics that can apply to a lot of jobs. They’re often a good sign for project management, for a start, or the project management component that exists in a lot of jobs.

      3. Susan C*

        A linguist! Oh, the irony. I used to tell the freshies, “Do computational linguistics! It’s great, and you’ll actually get a job!”… aaand here I am, kind of swimming as well. If that makes you feel any better.

        1. 20-something or other*

          I did a lot of sociolinguistic stuff (especially language ideologies, which are so, so fascinating). I loved all the theory on both the anthro and linguistics sides, but I felt stuck at the end of it all because I didn’t want to end up jaded in academia. I had friends who did computational linguistics and that work is interesting to me too, but I have zero experience in the computational side of things.

          1. Dan*

            I wrote my comment before reading these, because I guess I assumed that most people come at it from the computational side.

            The code side is actually quite easy, I really wouldn’t let that scare you. I code at about the level of a senior in college (I have a BS in computer science) and don’t have to worry about mission critical fault tolerant types of things that have to deal with crap-tons of data and thousands of users logging in all the time.

            If you could write a program that could read yelp reviews from a text file and tell me if they were speaking positively or negatively about a product, I’d hire you if it were up to me. I’d pay someone else to write the part that goes to the web and actually does the data pulls — that’s what teams are for. Trust me when I tell you that the code parts are easy.

            To start, you can go to Udemy and get their course on using python and their NLTK (natural language tool kit). Get through that (I think it’s three hours) and you’re in a good position to start talking about entry level jobs.

            1. Dan*

              Side note: This is the sort of stuff I do at my day job. I have a coding background and industry background, and knew nothing about linguistics when I started this work. BTW, I get paid just short of six-figures for a 40 hour work week, and it’s rumoured that we are “underpaid”.

              Point being, if you motivate yourself to learn the code, *good* paying jobs are there.

              1. 20-something or other*

                I am totally down for learning new skills. I have next to no code experience but this actually interests me a lot! And not just for the money, but it seems like there is an actual impact for disaster relief (without having to put in the ground work that a lot of non-profit orgs do) or for an independent client. I had no idea that jobs like that existed. My interests are piqued…

      4. The Cosmic Avenger*

        My wife and I majored in behavioral studies, too, and we are both consultants now. It will probably be a very useful background no matter what jobs you wind up taking.

        – Someone who sidled his way into his current field at age 35

      5. librarygirl*

        Just a thought but librarianship is another way to participate in a field/subject you love that doesn’t have a lot of jobs. You could be the librarian who supports the subject at an academic library. If your library has a subject librarian for either of your subjects it might be worth it to talk with them abut the types of things they do. Even if you decide librarianship isn’t for you they might be able to make some suggestions on career trends and opportunities in those fields which you may not have thought of.

        One stereotype that generally holds true for librarians; we all love to help people find the information they need. Good luck OP in whatever you end up doing.

        1. LibrarianJ*

          Seconding this as a former student of dead languages who found her way into librarianship! And as someone who fell in love with the liberal arts philosophy during undergrad, one thing I really love about my job is that it’s kind of a career version of liberal arts. Because we’re small, while I do support students of those dead languages, I also work with a huge range of other subject areas when I’m helping students, teaching classes, etc. I learn something new every day and am constantly applying my research skills to new subject areas, and I’ve found that very personally fulfilling. If you’re already doing administrative work in a library, you probably have a good sense of what library work looks like and if it’s right for you, but it’s worth talking to your coworkers about the pros and cons of the field.

          Librarianship was not something I specifically planned on but it was one of those careers that people had been recommending to me pretty much all of my life, and it had come up in a few aptitude tests I’d taken through career services. When I graduated, I initially wanted to go for a PhD, but after seeing the job market I got cold feet. I was one of those students who was very ambitious about my schoolwork but indecisive about real life, and I kept waiting for job inspiration to magically appear. I had a brief stint with a tour company (I thought it would allow me to relive my study abroad experiences and maybe play around with some foreign languages, which is not exactly what happened…), and when that went poorly I fell back onto my old summer job from college for awhile while I figured things out. For me, part of figuring things out was a few months in therapy while I tried to move past that paralyzing post-college anxiety long enough to make a plan, but I wasn’t in a great place at the time.

          One thing I had always kind of known is that I liked being in school, and after college I realized that academia particularly was my ‘happy place.’ Since a PhD was out, I started looking for non-faculty roles that seemed like a good fit. It took me some time to come to terms with the fact that, for instance, while I’d loved volunteering with admissions in college, I was better suited for jobs on the academic affairs side of the house. When I started looking at HigherEdJobs, I noticed a lot of jobs in libraries that seemed interesting but required an MLS, and I figured it was about time to look into this librarian thing people kept pushing at me. I didn’t know exactly how it was all going to work out, and some of the specifics of what I do now have evolved differently than I expected or maybe wanted at first, but it’s worked out pretty well so far.

          All this is to say that it’s okay if you don’t know what you want to do right away, but as others have suggested, start with the little pieces you do know and work from there! Good luck!

        2. J*

          I’m a librarian also and I love it, but it’s also not a field swimming in entry level full-time jobs, so just beware of that anyone interested in the field. I’m a public librarian and have generally been able to find full-time work with relatively few applications but have moved across the state (several times actually) for it.

          1. Another Librarian*

            Cosign, J. I’m a librarian, and I love my work, but we get HUNDREDS of applications for entry-level librarian positions at my public library. I thank my lucky stars every day that I somehow landed a full-time professional job only 6 months after graduation.

            That’s not to say you shouldn’t look into the career if it sounds like something you’d like, but I’d get a job at a library first, and then think about getting an MLS/MLIS. Otherwise you have a very expensive degree and nothing to show for it. Of course this could be true of many professions, but this is the one I know.

            1. Bibliovore*

              and perhaps not surprising that I am a librarian. I, too am accidental. Came to it late in my mid-thirties.
              Don’t worry too much about having a plan. I planned a career as a public librarian. Ended up at a school library. Then as an academic librarian. Now as curator in a special archive.

              What helped me find my way was doing the exercises in What Color is Your Parachute. The workbook asks you to describe positive successful work/volunteer/hobby situations to reveal aptitudes and matches job situations and preferences with those. Worked for me.
              I like working in a non-profit environment. I like to work with women (no judgement, just my experience) a short commute is preferable but I would trade it off for high interest work. Books and literacy and teaching are my passions. I like to work independently and see projects through.

      6. Me Too*

        I am retired now, but I was also a linguistics major. I was a book lover, so I read a book called “What Happens in Book Publishing” and discovered a job I could do and would like (copy editing). I set about getting admin jobs (at a university) where I could work into such a job. Then I was something of a pioneer in editing books on computer and discovered I liked computers, so I went and got another admin job that would set me up for an IT job, and I worked in IT for the next 25 years.

      7. RR*

        Hello OP! I’m in non-profit management and just yesterday a colleague and I were discussing how some of the best project directors we’ve worked with over the years had degrees in Anthropology. I think their studies must have given them some valuable approaches on how to assess, say, organizational structures. Perhaps it would help to think more broadly about the kind of skills you developed in school. We may joke about Liberal Arts and Crafts, but many liberal arts programs train students in critical thinking, analyses, problem solving, communicating your thoughts clearly, etc. All good skills to have in the work place. I too was a little freaked when I got out of school and realized I didn’t actually want to get a PhD, so now what. I’m in my 40s and still not 100% certain what I want to be when I grow up. Similar to Alison’s experience, I took jobs that called for skills I knew I had (or could develop). The job I have now didn’t really exist in this form when I was getting out of school. I think admin type roles are great places to start, because you are often exposed to many different groups/departments across the organization. And you often get the chance to take on special assignments, which will give you more skills and a sense of what else you might like to do. I’d worry less about job titles at this point and more about what kinds of experiences you might get. And, as others have noted, who you supervisor and colleagues are can have a huge impact. Best of luck to you!

        1. Honeybee*

          This is my comment. Admittedly it irritates me when people talk about how “useless” the liberal arts & sciences are. They’re not useless; we just have to be a bit more creative about the jobs that we enter than professional majors, but if you look at the average job ad that is not for a software developer or engineer, then you’ll recognize a lot of skills that you develop in a humanities or social sciences major.

          Admittedly it also annoys me when people say “liberal arts” when they really mean “social sciences and humanities.” Biology, chemistry, physics and computer science are liberal arts majors, too.

      8. whyohwhyohwhy*

        I also majored in linguistics! One aspect I find frustrating is that few people actually understand what linguistics is – so people make suggestions/requests of me that actually have nothing to do with what I studied. Do you have the same experience?

        1. 20-something or other*

          Yes. All the time. I do speak 2 other languages, but people don’t seem to grasp that I don’t want to work in translating etc. Same thing happens with anthro, people automatically assume I’m Indiana Jones or somebody from CSI. All are totally legitimate career choices (save Indy, although who WOULDN’T want to put crystal skull finding on their resume) but people usually give me terrible suggestions when I ask for help.

      9. Danae*

        I have a degree in linguistics too, and what I did to parlay that degree into the career I currently have (I do Web production and project management, among other things) was state that my degree was a four-year course in looking at sets of data and extrapolating the rules that govern that data, as well as analyzing and problem-solving on the fly. Those are skills that transfer over to a lot of different careers. I ended up getting into tech, but analysis and problem-solving are skills that a -lot- of jobs require.

      10. Djuna*

        I double-majored in English and Linguistics, and loved it. I had the exact same “What now?!” feeling when I graduated, but it was softened by the offer of a full-time job in a place I’d worked at while in college. I took that, then moved to another company doing the same thing.

        I was in my late 20’s when I really started job-hunting, and wound up moving into tech support. I was lucky enough to land in a company that paid attention to the people they had hired and they offered me multiple paths for advancement once I’d cleared probation. My then-manager saw strengths in me that I would never have noticed, and those are still serving me well today, even though I work in a (mostly) different field now.

        So, absolutely check in with people who know you about where your strengths lie, and also where you may have potential you aren’t aware of (for me it was that they’d noticed I was really good at explaining highly-technical things to not-so-technical people in a way they understood without feeling talked down to – which may seem niche but is still useful to me every day).

        Today, I have my own personal unicorn job – but it is a job that didn’t even exist back when I graduated. Every job I’ve had (even the weird diversions along the way) has helped me land here. Don’t stress about finding your path right away, as long as you’re willing to put in time in places that are not completely intolerable, you’ll find out more and more about yourself, your skills, and what you really need out of a job along the way.

      11. Snazzy Hat*

        Applied Linguistics degree holder here! I took teaching assistant internships with professors in my department because I wanted to teach English as a second language or teach Linguistics classes at the university. Long story short, it’s now six years and five unrelated jobs later (four of which were temp). A few days ago I gave my mother an e-mail update on my job search, and she asked if I was still interested in teaching. I had to go into detail explaining that I had opportunities to “teach” at my previous jobs by helping people in a huge variety of ways, and that made me feel good, so I was not interested in having a teaching job.

      12. Dan*

        Something to look into if you can write a little code or aren’t afraid of learning a bit of it.

        There’s a field of linguistics called “computational linguistics” and also “natural language processing”. Some of the hot things to do with that these days are analyzing twitter data to find out where natural disasters are occurring, and the kind of help people experiencing them are needing. Other people are writing programs to analyze yelp or TripAdvior comments, and figuring out what people are saying about your product.

        You may also find this field called “human language technologies” at some companies.

        Like I said, if you’re a linguist and looking for paid work (this stuff is going to pay engineering salaries), this field has some great opportunities if you don’t mind learning some basic programming. (Don’t let that scare you, you’re not building huge back end systems, you’re building prototypes that are quite easy.)

    2. literateliz*

      This is kind of a silly riff on your “consume media” suggestion: When I was a teenager I read Serious Literary Fiction (and a very circumscribed version of it at that – this was 15 years before #weneeddiversebooks!) and the only thing people ever seemed to do for a living was be tortured artists.

      Once I was grown up and in a career (publishing, where I’m quite happy, although I kind of ended up here by accident because I didn’t know any better), I started reading chick lit novels for fun, and I realized that it might actually have been beneficial to me as a teenager when I was figuring this stuff out! Jobs I’ve now read about in chick lit: book and magazine publishing, owning a business, headhunting/recruiting, PR, nurse, park ranger…

  10. danr*

    Some people do have career paths that they follow and manage to be successful at them. Some start on one path and let the twists and turns of life suggest new paths and manage to be successful at each turn. I’d say that your skills in writing and critical thinking will serve you better than any strictly defined path. Let those skills help you travel whatever path you find yourself on.

    1. Revolver Rani*

      Yes, it is important to stress that you do not have to pick your One True Career Path now, and stick with it forever and ever. Career changes are a thing. I should know; I’ve done it twice now (I’m in my mid-40s).

      Rather, take your critical thinking skills and see if you can find some work that uses them. That will introduce you to a field, in which you will develop new skills and a better sense of what you like doing and what you don’t like doing. If you find the field interesting, you can stick with it and advance within it. And if you do not find it interesting, you can start to think about how to translate the skills you acquire at it into some other field. No decision that you make today commits you for the rest of your life.

  11. Lawnonymous*

    I was at a similar but slightly different point – I hated my job and wanted to try something new but didn’t know where to start – so I went through tons of job websites and looked at all the listings. Then I printed off the listings for the jobs that really appealed to me. It didn’t matter if I was qualified for them or they were in the wrong city or didn’t pay enough, the goal is to find ones that you are drawn towards. Then I analyzed the listings to find out what it was about them that appealed to me. (I also realized from the listings that I didn’t print off some of the things that I really don’t want from a job.) From that, I found some things out about myself that I didn’t know and it helped me move towards finding a job I like. It took a while but it was really helpful for me.

  12. Adam*

    I wrestle with this a lot too, and I’m 31! I graduated with a degree in Psychology, which is in a weird middle ground as it generally isn’t considered a “fluff” degree but in the USA a BA/BS on its own doesn’t usually open doors to too many interesting jobs, and the few it does go towards I DEFINITELY don’t want to do. It’s really a major that if you’re serious about it is step #1 on the road to a more advanced degree. That was what I originally thought I was going to do in school, but I got severely burned out in my last couple semesters of school and that effect has only now just begun to wear off.

    So now that I’m looking for new jobs I tend to focus on the hard skills I’ve gained in my years of working which is mostly in the customer service/admin arena and looking for roles that want those skills but aren’t necessarily those kind of jobs (my current goal is to find a job where the words “Customer Service” are not in my job title. Not having a direct phone number published on the internet would be goal #2).

    But this is mostly in line with finding better work and better pay. If it ends up being more personally satisfying to me that will be a happy bonus. As far as doing something I’d really LIKE to do, I could never pick something and seriously commit to it without the nagging feeling that I would eventually get sick of it.

    This is the main reason I don’t have any tattoos.

    1. Cat like that*

      >Not having a direct phone number published on the internet would be goal #2.

      As an event planner, I know that feeling all to well! People will call me all the time even if they’re trying to get in contact with sales or customer service or HR. They figure they’ll have better luck with me than the receptionist (and they are wrong).

      It took me 4 years to get “Customer Service” out of my title, but I learned a lot of things in those 4 years. I’m much better at dealing with people and problem solving on my feet.

      1. Adam*

        Boy do I hear that. I have a very specific set of job functions, but I get all sorts of calls with questions I am in no way qualified to answer, and I’m definitely not a receptionist/call-screener. It’s usually not a big deal, but it can lead to some awkward conversations here and there.

    2. Honeybee*

      Are you interested in marketing, market research, or advertising? My undergraduate degree is also in psychology, and that’s where a lot of the psych majors who didn’t want to do social services seem to go. Consulting is another option, and if you took basic statistics and have an interest in research, so is serving as a research assistant/associate at a think tank, nonprofit, or government agency. I have a graduate degree and I work in user experience research, but we also hire BAs in psychology to be our research assistants and project staff. Many tech companies (smaller ones, especially) are looking for BAs in psychology to do entry-level UX work.

      1. Adam*

        Interesting. I had not considered that. Thank you for the ideas! I’m looking around and feeling my options so I’ll see what’s out there, but I’m reaching the point where I really just can’t with entry level salaries anymore (especially with the cost of living in Seattle. Whew!). So a big part of where I end up next is going to be contingent on the pay. But I’ll definitely take your ideas into account!

    3. Jade*

      I hear you. I have a psych degree as well, fully intending on becoming a therapist. It’s not the clients that have burnt me out (I like working with mentally ill people and have a knack for it); it’s the job prospects. Not a lot of jobs out there, and at this stage in my life I’m no longer willing to move far from home to chase work. Also, the cost of getting an advanced degree in this field outweighs the salary increase it will earn you. Initially I was fine dropping that money on a master’s degree, but now I don’t feel it’s worth it. I’m taking the advice I’ve been seeing and evaluating what my strengths are and what I have to offer employers in other fields.

  13. grasshopper*

    So many of the great jobs aren’t easily found when you’re just entering the workforce and have had the thought that your job options were teacher or doctor because those are adult jobs that you saw growing up. There are entire industries that didn’t exist a decade ago; your career might not even exist yet. At the same time, don’t knock admin work. It can be good steady work to help pay the bills while you are figuring out what your strengths are and what you enjoy doing.

    Keep in mind that sometimes a good job isn’t necessarily what you are doing, but who you are working with. Some of the most important day to day factors are your manager, you co-workers, your work-life balance, your commute, etc. Look at the questions that appear frequently here and you’ll see that is often the case. They are rarely about whether or not someone feels that they are making the world a better place or satisfying a deep need for a meaningful career, but more about the day to day irritants of having a bad workplace versus a good one.

  14. Chalupa Batman*

    I was in a similar boat, with the added complication of being a workplace desperate girlfriend*-a month into a job, I wanted to marry that field…until I got to know it better and realized it wasn’t career material. What I eventually learned to do was look for the common threads that I liked about my jobs. If someone asked me what made me fall in love (and what made me fall out of love) with past jobs, what was the same across those lists? Even just my pay-the-bills jobs had things I liked and disliked that I could use to refine my search strategy for the next one. The tasks I volunteered for and my professional development requests while in a job refined as well when I started paying attention to those things, so when jobs I was excited about opened up, I had examples to offer of those broader skills. It’s ok, and even preferable, for building a career to be a process. It’s no longer the expectation that you’ll pick a job and stay there forever, your career can grow with you.

    (*Side note-not implying that this mindset is specific to women, used ‘girlfriend’ for this analogy because I personally identify as female.)

  15. SP*

    Sounds a lot like me- I’m in my mid 20s and got a bachelors in something I enjoyed but I wasn’t interested in teaching, museums, etc. To help figure out my next step, I did a combination of part time jobs, volunteering and speaking to as many people as I could that me, my family or my friends knew or I had some other connection to that were in possible fields of interests (I had a couple of ideas and it also helped with possiblilities that hadn’t occurred to me). Ended up going to grad school and found a job afterwards that seems like a decent fit/direction I’d like to keep heading in.

  16. The Alias Gloria Has Been Living Under, A.A., B.S.*

    Oh yes. Some of us are pushing 40 and can’t even blame it on having a Liberal Arts degree! I’m fairly certain on the Venn diagram of “Things I like to do” “Things I’m good at” and “Things people will pay me for” the circles never once meet.

    1. Adam*

      Ever get the feeling that your work life and your personal life and interests are so disparate from one another that one ends up feeling like your secret identity?

      *Raises hand*

      1. LBK*

        On some level, I think this can be good for you. It allows you to put work away when you go home and truly enjoy your hobbies as something you do just for fun instead of out of necessity to support yourself financially. One of the things Alison mentions in her “dream job” discussions sometimes is that making your hobby your job can turn that hobby into a chore, because now you don’t just get to do it when you feel like it.

        Luvvie Ajayi had a great article recently about firing herself from being a one-woman operation. Not totally on-topic, but it runs through some of the same themes: letting your passion and your paycheck become too heavily intertwined can make both your personal life and your work life suffer.

        1. Adam*

          I agree actually. It took me a while to come to that conclusion since, at least in America, we often develop the mindset of our career being a cornerstone of our identity.

          This is also why I’ll probably never own my business. One of my parents had their own small business from before I was born up until several years after I’d graduated college. This meant at home EVERYTHING revolved around the business to some degree. I didn’t like it much when I was living it, and years after leaving it with reflection I realized that is most definitely not a pattern I want to repeat.

      2. The Alias Gloria Has Been Living Under, A.A., B.S.*

        Yes, agreed. Unless someone is going to pay me to play The Sims all day, I doubt the two will ever meet. I’d settle for a job that wasn’t mind-numbingly boring though.

        1. Hazel Asperg*

          Got out of university clutching my English degree, then came the part where I learned what jobs are like, what I could stand to do for 8+ hours a day, five days a week, which would allow me to do what I wanted in my spare time, live in a house, etc.

          I would really recommend trying out a few things. Get a feel for working in an office, for working in a busy customer-facing place, for working outdoors, etc. See how you fit in these environments. My last requirement for a job was simply, “Must be sat down.” I was so, so tired from retail and being on my feet all day.

      3. Tau*

        I’m a software developer with a PhD in maths who writes fiction in their spare time. Tell me about it!

    2. Semi-nonymous*

      Yes – I think in this case it’s more important to instead look at the Venn diagram of “Things I absolutely don’t hate doing” “Things people will pay me to do” and “Things that I can do that aren’t super common/things everyone and their mother already can do/things people are already doing for free”

      I think the biggest problem with the advice about finding your passion is that your passion is so often the same as a lot of other people’s passion – which means that there are tons of people looking to do the passionate thing, and therefore no need for people to pay a lot of money to hire people for that.

      I’m not saying go become a software engineer because statistics show there aren’t enough software engineers if that isn’t something you would be good at/would enjoy. But what I am saying is that just because you feel passionate about becoming an artist/actor/writer/librarian/underwater basket weaver isn’t enough if there are a million more passionate people out there just like you and only a handful of open jobs for that passionate position.

  17. Kimberlee, Esq*

    It’s also worth thinking about what kind of environment you thrive in. Do you feel scattered if you’re not provided with direction and clear goals? Do you prefer autonomy? Do you need to work somewhere that has its sh*t together, or do you prefer finding order in chaos? There are orgs and companies all along that spectrum, and one thing I learned is that I actually do OK in a wide variety of fields and types of work, but I thrive particularly in ambiguous, autonomous environments. So definitely think about what you like about the place you work, so you can try to determine how to identify it in future job interviews!

  18. Slippy*

    An easy way to get started on mapping out your career are three relatively easy questions.
    1. What do I enjoy doing?
    2. Will someone pay me for it?
    3. Will I enjoy my lifestyle on what people are willing to pay?
    If you can answer those three questions well you now have a direction and can start planning.

    1. fposte*

      Except I think for a lot of people the answers to 2 and 3 are “No,” so they’re still stuck.

      1. Meg Murry*

        Flip it. Look at open job positions and say:

        1) “Can I do this” or “Can I obtain the skills to do this”
        2) “Can I afford to eat if I take this position?”
        3) “Will I feel like my soul is being sucked out of me/will this make me cry regularly?”

        Not to be a pessimist, but sometimes its way more about finding a job you don’t actively hate while working toward finding a job you actually like.

        1. fposte*

          I like those–they’re pragmatic. Or “Will this give me skills that will move you to something you’d be okay with?”

    2. Snazzy Hat*

      In guiding my s.o. with his career path, one of my questions was, “what kind of job, if it existed, would cause you to exclaim, ‘you mean i can get *paid* to do this?!'”

      1. LQ*

        I can think of a lot of things that would make me exclaim that I would NOT want to have a full time jobs. For some of them that would kill a lot of the fun of doing the thing. I love gaming, I would hate to test games for a living.

  19. LBK*

    I’m very early on in my career but I’ve gone through something similar – got a liberal arts degree in something that I don’t necessarily want to make a career out of and had to figure out how to get a job and make money. My advice: take whatever kind of job you can get that doesn’t make you hate your life, take it seriously and work hard at it, and pay attention to which pieces of it you like so you can use that as a guide to your next job.

    I started my professional post-college career as a cashier with no idea where I wanted to go and now 6 years later I’m in a role I love where my peers are people with finance degrees and MBAs. That’s pretty much all just because I decided to work hard at whatever job I could get and that gave me opportunities to build the experience I needed to get roles I didn’t have the education for. That also gave me the chance to do a lot of things outside of my job description, which is what allowed me to discover aspects of more typical office work that I liked: working in Excel, analyzing/improving processes, building vendor relationships, etc.

  20. Erin*

    Here’s my story: I graduated with an English/communications double major right before the economy crashed in 2008. I had no plans to teach or go to grad school. During my college years, I was really, really confident that it’d be pretty easy to get a job, and I was in for a rude awakening.

    I saw The Graduate for the first time coincidentally right after I graduated and felt like that was me, with the questions everyone asks him: Are you going to grad school? No. You have a job lined up then? Uh, no.

    I just knew I wanted to do something with writing and maybe marketing. I ended up getting a job as a receptionist for a company that serviced venture capital and private equity firms. In other words, nothing remotely like what I was picturing, although they did have great benefits. While there, they let me research potential clients, which I kept track of in a massive spreadsheet, and helped write and edit cold letters to these firms – this isn’t something they’d normally have a receptionist do, but they played to my strengths, which was great. It helped me realize how much like I researching. And spreadsheets. And then I was laid off.

    My next job was as an administrative assistant for a farmers market. Like the first job, my boss was great about playing to my strengths. He let me completely take over the market newsletter and essentially write about whatever I wanted. I researched what was going on in the agriculture world, had a “food of the week” with food histories and recipes, and so much more. It made me realize that, while I knew I liked writing, I really, really liked writing about food. And then I was laid off.

    Around that second lay off, I started a (mostly) food blog. It was a year before I started getting a regular readership, and another year before I got advertising revenue, but this continues to grow and grow.

    Cutting my long story short – I’ve basically been through a slew of admin jobs as I build my blog and pick up freelance writing gigs. Eventually, I will be in the position to take a real, full time writing-type job, which is the ultimate goal. But as you can see, through one of my admin jobs, I was able to really narrow down my focus of writing.

    If there is something you love doing or are passionate about, and you can’t do that at the job you find, do it elsewhere. For example, I can’t write about food at my day jobs. But I started a food blog. I took a food writing class. I volunteer with a local farmers group. All of that gave me really significant experience, and really significant contacts.

    And even though my admin jobs aren’t what I originally wanted or expected, I’ve learned a lot about a couple different industries, met great people, and was able to further expand my skills. Even if you end up in a job you’re not sure of – because you’re not sure what you’re interested in – make the best of it as you’re learning and growing in your career. Develop your skills and expand your network as you’re figuring this all out. That’s all we can do!

    1. Librarian-to-Be*

      Yes! Blogging! Excellent point. Lifehacker recently did an article on the importance of finding an audience for your work, especially as you’re looking for work. AMA is obviously a fantastic example of this. You’re not going to build a huge audience overnight, but even getting practice writing about your field and proving you have a knowledge set (and having a ready-made portfolio, essentially) will be an enormous help.

  21. Sunflower*

    Try something that looks interesting and you would be good at. Start there. Once you start working, you can stat fleshing things out. ‘I’m good at X and terrible at Y’, ‘I like doing X but I don’t think I want it to be the bulk of my job’, ‘My job is completely X and Y and I would like to do some more variety of this’ ‘I like doing this but I’m not making enough money. What is something similar that would pay more?’ Once you start figuring these things out, you’ll start to see what jobs or industries fit with that. Also keep in mind that skill are transferable and just because you’ve worked in X industry for years, doesn’t mean you can’t get hired in Y industry. I work in law and we hired our CMO from energy. I worked for a small financial education company and now work for a huge law firm.

    I also learned that so much of your job isn’t what you do, but where you work. I’m doing really similar stuff to my last job and I’m so much happier since I like the people I work with, I’m part of a team- not just doing stuff on my own and my boss actually trusts me instead of micromanaging me. Understand that your career may change over time and what you want to do now, you might not want to do in 10 years. For example, I’ve very much considered going back to school and becoming a therapist. However, I realized that doing that would mean I’d have a job with high burnout, I’d spend a lot of my day alone and possibly be running my own business(which I have no desire to do). I’ve come to terms that for now, I like working for a big corp and having my paycheck come from someone else. I like that someone tells me I get X vacation days with my full salary. Maybe at some point down the road I’ll change my mind and go back to school.

    Truth be told, I have no idea if this is what I want to do. I think I enjoy my job but I often wonder if there are other jobs out there that I might be better at, enjoy more or be making a lot more money doing. All I can do is keep growing my skills and network and keeping tabs on what I do well and enjoy doing as well as what I hate and am bad at. Just remember you don’t need to figure it all out right now. It’s OKAY to take a job doing X if it fits into eventually doing Y down the line. FWIW my mom is 61 and still says she has no idea what she wants to be when she grows up.

    1. Sunflower*

      I also think a good question to ask yourself is instead of ‘Would I do this job if I didn’t need the money?’ is ‘What can I enjoy/deal with getting paid to do for 40 hrs(or X) a week?’. I’m a corporate event planner and people can’t fathom why I run away from planning events in my free time. The thing I enjoy about event planning is it’s fast-paced, every day is different and it’s lot of managing logistics and setting/hitting deadlines. I dread selecting linens and flowers(thankfully I rarely have to do it/can defer to the venue). There are a lot of other jobs who have the same characteristics and that’s why when I’m job searching, I won’t apply for a wedding planner job but I might apply for a project coordinator. I like having a job I wouldn’t do for free- it makes my spare time better and separating work/life that much easier.

    2. themmases*

      Your first paragraph is exactly what I would suggest. Work can be really clarifying. Particularly for liberal arts majors, there are lots of interesting ways to use the skills you liked about your field that would be difficult or impossible to anticipate from the outside.

      I majored in history and I’m training to be a cancer epidemiologist now. Two of the things I noticed working in medical research just out of college were a) abstracting medical records is really not that different from working with primary sources; and b) I like using my library skills, jumping into a topic, and getting up to speed regardless of what that topic is. I chose a methods-based career track because I like figuring out how to use analytic tools and my liberal arts-provided ability to teach myself a new topic area to figure out how to help people answer a new research question.

      I think having a second job, and hopefully being busier at the next one, may really help the OP start to identify common threads in areas that they enjoy and are valued. Part of what motivated me to get more training was that I enjoyed study design and data analysis, and wanted to make sure that was inherently part of my role rather than something I got to do only part of or only sometimes. It can also be really valuable to figure out what you don’t enjoy, and if there are any related career paths open to you that would involve less of that stuff. It just takes time and work experience to observe.

  22. Amber Rose*

    I’ve been working various jobs for… oh, 5 years and I’m only just now figuring out where I want to end up. The job I loved most didn’t go anywhere but it has moved me down a line of figuring out what things I do like doing. I strongly second asking to learn new things wherever you are. It’s how I got all my most interesting tasks.

  23. Turanga Leela*

    I’m trying to come up with a list of interesting careers you can do with a liberal arts BA—jobs that are challenging, draw on OP’s writing and critical thinking skills, and have some opportunity for growth. At the very least, these are things you could look into or try out. Here’s what I’ve got so far:
    1) K-12 teaching (through alternative licensure programs, depending on your state)
    2) Positions in outreach or community organizing, e.g. in nonprofits or advocacy organizations
    3) Marketing/advertising
    4) Fundraising and development (there seems to be huge demand for people in this field)

    Anyone want to add to this? I’m sure there’s a lot that I’m leaving out.

    1. LQ*

      Training (like teaching, but not at all :)) And training has a lot of components. I do a lot of things like elearning development which I love, and which someone with some good computer skills, google skills, and lack of fear of screwing up could pick up fairly easily. But there is also all the design and writing for those things.

    2. Ask a Manager* Post author

      It’s really anything that doesn’t require a specific degree outside the liberal arts, and that list is huge — communications work, research, lobbying, real estate, politics, finance, writing, really specific stuff like, say, running an activities program at a retirement home — it’s a really long list that’s probably 100 times anything we could list here! (Although I am not trying to short-circuit the list creation!)

    3. Liza*

      Computer support (helpdesk, desktop support, sysadmin, network administrator)

      Jobs that might use less in the way of critical thinking skills, but are still jobs some people love:
      Collections (SO not something I would want to do, but I’ve known people who thrive on it)
      General admin work
      Data entry (my sister used to have a data entry job and she really enjoyed being able to listen to books on tape all day while she worked–which she could do *because* it didn’t require critical thinking)

      1. Liza*

        Though actually, general admin work could use a lot of critical thinking skill. After posting the above comment I started thinking about all the things our admin does!

  24. spotcheck*

    I graduated with a degree and a job lined up in the field I thought I wanted to work in. One year later, I was out because it turned out I wasn’t cut out for the work. 12 years later I’m back in an entry-level job, but it’s doing something I feel like I could actually be good at and enjoy and incorporates all the skills I learned in school and in various other positions.

    Just a reminder that even people in their 30s don’t have it all figured out sometimes.

  25. LQ*

    My first full time post-college job was a total fumble into it. It was a small enough place (2 of us!) that I was able to adjust a lot of the work around what I liked to do and what I was good at. Hey, would you mind if I took first shot at writing that grant proposal? Can I try helping start this thing up if we get this grant money? I’d be happy to take on doing the website work so it can be updated more often. Over the years there my job shifted radically. Small places make it so much easier to do that and figure it out while you work. (They have their own problems, but they can have great advantages too.)

    1. Erin*

      Seconding your last couple of sentences here. Smaller offices and work environments definitely tend to be more dysfunctional BUT you are not so much pidgeon-holed into your job description; you’re likely to be wearing a lot if hats and taking on duties not on the initial job description. Great way to try new things and see what you like and what you excel at.

      1. LQ*

        I had a lot more things that I would never be expected to do at my current government job. Take out the trash, crawl under all the desks to figure out what is wrong with the wiring, move, answer the phones and help walk ins with …everything, stuff thousands of envelopes, walk up and down the streets dropping off flyers. But I learned so much about what I like and am good at.

        1. Erin*

          Hahaha, I love this. I never did so much computer/printer/shredder/scanner/copier troubleshooting as I did in my former job (four person office). Now in my current job it’s wow, there are IT guys!!

    2. AnonAnalyst*

      Yes, this was what happened to me as well. Small companies give you a lot of flexibility to stretch and try things out that you may not have exposure to in larger organizations. There’s also more uncertainty and less role clarity, among other possible issues, but for someone trying to figure out what career path makes sense, small businesses can offer great experience and opportunity.

      I work now in a field that’s dramatically different than the type of career I thought I wanted when I was an undergrad. If I had told 22 year old me the type of work I do now, I probably would have thought I had totally failed at life. But as a newly minted college graduate, I didn’t have a lot of knowledge about how many different types of jobs were out there, and I also had a shockingly bad idea of the type of work I would actually enjoy doing. Working in a small business helped me determine what kind of work I like (and what I really don’t like), and some of the skills I learned there helped me land other jobs where I subsequently discovered the career path I’m on now.

      1. LQ*

        Yeah if I told 16 year old me that I had a shot at the futuristic version of the job I thought I wanted, tried it, and despised it? She would have never believed me. I think part of it is that it is so hard to know what a job is really like until you are inside it, especially when you are young. I think when you are older you can do things like informational interviews and such and get a bit of a handle on it. (One of those with someone working with Big Donors made me realize that job would never be for me.)

    3. Kai*

      Yep. My first (and still-current job) began with a brand new department at a huge institution, so there was a ton of room for me to explore different kinds of work, largely because there were only a handful of employees to start and someone had to do it. It eventually led to a very different set of responsibilities, a lot of them based on what I’m good at and was interested in doing. I don’t want to be here forever, but I’m glad that my first job turned out this way because it gave me a chance to really evaluate my strengths and proclivities.

  26. Lily Rowan*

    When I graduated from college 20 years ago, I had a useless degree, several summers of temping experience, and a desire to “do good.” I ended up getting a job as the receptionist at a small nonprofit I was really passionate about. What that did was expose me to the various things other people did (communications, programming, finance, development), especially because it was so small, I was pitching in on everything. That really gave me a sense of what I was most interested in, so when the Executive Director took me out to lunch and said, “I bet you don’t want to be a receptionist for your career – what do you want to do?” I actually had an answer!

    NB: I was barely living on the salary a small nonprofit pays their receptionist, but it eventually got better.

    1. KR*

      I had a similar experience working in local municipal government. I encountered all sorts of jobs and things to do that I never even knew had to be done. Working in the IT department, I had to go to all sorts of different departments and see how people did their jobs in order to help them use their PCs. It was so helpful to me when I crashed after my first year of college because I realized that being in IT was not my longterm career goal (while it is fun learning on the job and actually doing the work, it is dreadful in academia).

      1. Lily Rowan*

        Oh, yeah, I bet IT is a great introduction to what goes on! And even if the job itself isn’t, you could create a lot of opportunities to ask around, I bet.

  27. addiez*

    I know some here aren’t a fan, but I LOVE and highly recommend informational interviews. Find connections to people in jobs that intrigue you and learn about them. What do they like and not like about those jobs, then think about how that would translate for you.

    1. LBK*

      I don’t think it’s genuine informational interviews that are the problem, it’s that more often than not they’re requested in bad faith (ie the person is really just trying to get an unofficial job interview). Either that or people come wildly unprepared with no questions or direction and expect you to basically just give an hour-long presentation about your job and industry.

      1. myswtghst*

        Chiming in to agree with LBK here. In my role, we do a number of informational interviews / job shadows, and it really bothers me when we take the time to do these and people come in totally unprepared. A real informational interview, with someone who is prepared and respectful of my time, is great for both of us. Sadly, most people who request them show up completely unprepared and expecting me to guess what they want to know, which isn’t terribly beneficial for either of us.

        That said, I do agree that (if done well) informational interviews could be a great tool for the OP – just be sure to come prepared with an understanding of what you’re hoping to learn.

      2. Sunflower*

        I think that’s why it’s really good to request meetings with people who are only a level or two above you. I’ve found those people are usually a much better wealth of information than the people really high up- remember the higher up the person, the longer it’s been since they’ve worked entry level. Obviously they are knowledgeable but you might find better info from those who only worked those jobs a few years ago . I’ve been out of college for 5 years so I don’t have all the answers but I’m at a spot where I understand a good amount of what people at all different levels do. Also, probably most importantly is, I have way more free time than my boss

  28. INFJ*

    “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?”

    I got a second degree. Seriously. I started out with a BA in English, which made me qualified for nothing (or everything, depending on how you look at it). I also graduated the year before the recession hit; it seemed like everyone I knew was getting laid off from their first post-college job. I took an entry-level job in the medical field, worked my way into more skilled positions, and found my second love: SCIENCE! I then went back for a BS in Biology and now do work that I love that allows me to use both skill sets.

    Obviously, more education isn’t always the answer. It’s great that you get to relocate and start anywhere you’d like, career-wise. I would recommend the book, What Color is Your Parachute? It has exercises that tease out the exact questions that Alison was asking. I found these exercises extremely helpful when I started interviewing for positions because I could clearly state why I wanted a certain position in a certain field, and I acquired a really strong sense of my strengths and weaknesses.

  29. Cecelia*

    This is so so so SO normal! I have a degree in higher education and I have worked with students ranging from freshmen to seniors to super seniors, to grad students who don’t know where they want to be in the world job-wise. In my experience, it’s actually a majority of students who don’t know what they want to do. And I include recent grads in that. Alison’s prompts are very similar to what I’d ask you if you came into my office. If you’re an external processor or someone who likes to “talk it out” I suggest confiding it someone who is a little bit older than you and ask them to walk you through the thoughts your having and bounce them off another person. I say a little bit older because they may remember when they were in your shoes, but unlike someone 20 years your senior, they probably won’t have had enough time to forget the angst you’re feeling or romanticize the entire process. Talking to others is a great way to figure out what you want. Good luck and know this is so completely normal. You will figure it out. :)

  30. myswtghst*

    Count me in as another person whose career path looks nothing like I thought it would when I was younger, but still feels quite successful almost 11 years after graduating from college. :)

    When I was young, I knew I loved animals and “gross” stuff, so I decided I was going to be a veterinarian. All through high school I volunteered at a vet’s office and a local shelter, and I went off to college secure in my decision. I majored in Zoology, volunteered at another vet’s office, and interned as a zookeeper. Then, mid-senior year, I realized I had enough of school and couldn’t bear the thought of grad school. And then, I graduated and realized being a zookeeper meant taking a low-paying job with crap benefits nowhere near my family, which wasn’t something I wanted to do.

    Thankfully, I knew someone who knew someone in the support center at a large company who was hiring, and I said what the heck, I can do customer service while I figure out my next move. I ended up being quite good at it, worked in support for 3 years learning all I could about the business, then found my niche in training, which I’ve done for 7+ years now.

    So my advice would be similar to those above me – think about the things you’re good at, even if they don’t scream “job”. For me, recognizing that I’m more comfortable than most people with public speaking thanks to my theater background, and that I really enjoy learning how all the pieces of the “puzzle” of a large company work together helped me figure out that training might be for me. Plus, my time spent in a STEM degree program (on top of having a software engineer for a brother) helped me find success communicating effectively with more technical people.

    Also, don’t be afraid to take a job for the money, or for now. Even if a job is temporary, you can still cultivate / demonstrate a strong work ethic, make contacts in the working world, build up some transferable skills, and figure out what you don’t want to do. And you might be surprised and find something you really enjoy doing. Good luck!

  31. Nethwen*

    I sort of fell into my career. I choose a college major based on what I liked to spend my time doing. I figured, I knew few people who actually worked in careers that were related to their degree, so I might as well get a degree in what I liked and figure out the career later.

    I also really wanted a master’s degree, but was burned out on my BA major. I had volunteered or worked in libraries since I was 12 and one day casually mentioned that I might like doing that work for a career. The music librarian jumped on the comment and suggested I go to school for a masters in library and information science.

    That took care of the master’s problem for me. Honestly, it was the least thought out decision of my life. I don’t know what I was thinking. I applied to one school, not even researching it. I was still thinking that the masters was for my benefit; the career would work itself out.

    Once I earned the MLIS, I realized I could be reasonably happy working in several aspects of librarianship, so here I am. If I had a choice between working and not working, but still paying the bills, would I chose to work? No. If I had to switch careers could I be happy doing something else? Probably. But I’m reasonably satisfied with the work I do, can’t think of anything else I would rather do, and my current position makes use of the things I am good at, so this is my career.

    I think Alison’s advice is spot on. Don’t worry about finding something you’re “passionate” about. Just find something you’re reasonably happy doing and see where things go from there.

  32. Ariane*

    I am so impressed by the advice everyone gives. Reading the problem at first, I thought of exact the same advice that Alison gave. In Holland we have a several tests, like the Big 5 test or the test based on the theory of David Kolb. The Big 5 test shows your competences / personality and the Kolb test is a test that shows how you like to learn and eventually how you would enjoy working.
    I don’t know whether tests like these are common in other countries, but I would really recommend you to search for it. Although the test results will not apply to you for 100%, I know for sure that you will look at yourself through a different perspective when reading the results.

  33. ThatGirl*

    I was a communications major – I wanted to work in journalism and a media concentration was as close as I could come at my liberal arts university. Of course, a comm degree is pretty broad and leads people to “you want fries with that?” jokes.

    Anyway, I worked in journalism (copy editor) and then I got fired and newspapers were dying and changing. So I looked for jobs that used my editing skills in other ways. I’m in a totally different field now, and while I still don’t have a “career path” per se, I know it could take me a lot of different ways.

    So OP, my general advice is – figure out what you’re good at, what you like to do, and what skills you have or would like to develop, and look for jobs and fields that use those.

    1. notfunny.*

      Did you go to a liberal arts university in Central Massachusetts?

      I also studied Comm. with an interest in journalism (turned out that was NOT a good fit) and now I work in Regulatory affairs for a translational science grant. Have been working with IRBs for the past 8 years and hoping to study public health. You just need a start in something and then the desire to explore other related (or unrelated areas)

      1. ThatGirl*

        Nope, Indiana. They actually turn out a lot of journalists, but none with a j-school degree.

  34. English major*

    I love everyone’s advice, and I would also add, try not to feel limited by your degree, and also be open to opportunities that seem outside your realm. I was an English major and am now working in fundraising, writing about a specific area of medical research for a nonprofit. I’ve developed enough knowledge about my field that donors sometimes ask if I trained as a scientist, which I certainly did not. But I actually really enjoy learning and writing about the science, an unexpected twist. I also never thought of myself as a fundraiser, but after writing about this issue for years in a different context, I had an opportunity to move into fundraising & I took it (for the money but also because it seemed to offer more possibilities for the future). Early in my career, I worked in book publishing, and as a freelance editor, and have also been working on a novel on and off for years (yes, English major cliche). I don’t expect that in 10 years, I’ll still be doing the same thing–I may still be in fundraising, but for a different cause, or I may be able to get back to freelancing, or perhaps I’ll hit it big with the novel. I’d like to transition away from working full-time in an office, which I do find ridiculous at times (really? I have to be at my desk from 9-5 even if I’m done for the day at 3?). And as I’m approaching 40 with a range of experience under my belt, I’m hopeful that I’ll be able to do that.

    So I would not be too concerned about finding a career “path.” One may find you–I still laugh with my husband about how I have somehow developed a career as a fundraiser without really setting out to do that.

    Also, learn as much as you can about working in an office, listen more than you talk in meetings, and don’t complain out loud about doing entry level work (not that you sound as if you are doing that!). And learn Excel, seriously. I was terrified of Excel for years and now I have to do budgets and I love it.

  35. AnonAcademic*

    (quoting one of the OP’s comments)
    “I loved every minute of [my degree]. Until I graduated and got slammed with the reality that finding a job was going to be difficult.”

    Can I just express how upset this statement makes me about the state of our educational system? I taught undergrads at a large public U for the past 5 years and the lack of advising about how to go from degree -> job was deplorable. Maybe the model of “get a specialized liberal arts degree with no actual workplace experience and hope for the best” made some sense pre-great recession but it certainly doesn’t after. I graduated in 2007 and even then, my liberal arts degree did not make me employable without significant internships. It’s only worse now. I don’t blame the 18-22 year olds for not realizing what a struggle their post-lib arts degree life will be like but I have to wonder where are the parents, advisors, professors, older siblings, ANYONE who will be willing to sound the warning bell? I did this for all of my classes (I called it my “scared straight” lecture) but for many of the students I taught the message came too late to be any good (graduating seniors with 2.5 GPAs in a lib art field with no work experience = not employable in their field of interest).

    1. LBK*

      Well, there’s two pieces of this: one, there are some jobs that some people will be able to get in those fields, so it’s not like a single person who’s ever gotten a liberal arts degree has gone on to do the work they studied for. There are still writers, artists, filmmakers, actors, designers, etc. who find success, albeit it’s usually a lot more challenging than other fields. I hate the way the arts are being slowly crushed out of existence by their lack of financial viability, especially because it often means only the most privileged people can afford to go into those fields and that skews the kind of work that’s produced.

      The other piece is that for some people, college may be the only chance they have to explore that passion before they have to go on to something more pragmatic for financial stability. The prospect of 40+ years of office work between college and retirement feels a lot less daunting to me with a few years of getting to create film and design behind me. At least I know I got some time in my life to dedicate to doing those things.

      1. English major*

        Wow, LBK, I love this perspective. I often look back wistfully at college, and sometimes wish I could still be spending so much time reading and writing, and going to museums. But I think your point is so good–we are so lucky to have had even a relatively short window of time doing those things.

      2. myswtghst*

        Love your second paragraph. I’m grateful I was privileged enough to spend time in high school and college indulging and exploring my passions via internships and part time jobs (both in theater / film-making and working with animals). When I graduated, I realized neither was really financially viable and I had enough experience with both to know I wasn’t passionate enough to make the sacrifices necessary for either.

      3. AnonAcademic*

        “The other piece is that for some people, college may be the only chance they have to explore that passion before they have to go on to something more pragmatic for financial stability. The prospect of 40+ years of office work between college and retirement feels a lot less daunting to me with a few years of getting to create film and design behind me. At least I know I got some time in my life to dedicate to doing those things.”

        Counterpoint, is “exploring that passion” worth a level of student loan debt that like precludes actual financial stability down the line? 40+ years of office work when 20-25 years of it is spent paying back student loans back is quite the price to pay IMHO. I say this as someone whose partner is still paying off student loans (for a “practical” degree no less) at 39 years old , and his were an order of magnitude more modest (five figures, not six) than people take out today.

        1. Oryx*

          In my experience, in reference to your counterpoint, yes. Yes it is.

          I have a BFA in creative writing. Those four years were an amazing opportunity to hone my craft and I knew going in that there was no way I’d get a job at the end unless I taught and I had zero desire to do that. I worked haphazard jobs for a few years before going to grad school, graduating with my MLIS. I’ve been working in libraries and the library field for several years now, writing in the evenings and on the weekend.

          I graduated with that BFA 12 years ago. It took me a decade to get my first book contract but my second book comes out next year. Obviously not everyone may feel the same, but I don’t for one second regret that decision to explore my passion versus getting a more mainstream marketable degree.

        2. Elsajeni*

          It might be, especially if the alternative is a more “practical” degree that you enjoy less but that doesn’t actually change the financial outcome much — as your partner’s experience shows, practical degrees are no guarantee of financial stability or quick loan payoffs, either.

        3. LBK*

          I discussed this a little in a comment below, but I think once you expand the idea of “cost” to include quality of life rather than just money, most people would say that it is worth it. How many people who feel pressured into doing something practical don’t end up doing that anyway? Sure, I could have gone to school for engineering and I’d probably be making 2-3 times what I’m making now, but would I be any happier? I’m not sure.

          1. LBK*

            And this isn’t to say that students shouldn’t think about their financial situation at all and do what makes the most sense, but also consider that “go into a field that will pay for your degree” means committing roughly half of your life to working in that field. That’s also not something that should be taken lightly.

          2. AnonAcademic*

            I think my posts have been mistaken as anti-liberal arts and pro-“practical” degrees. I’m actually against college attendance as a life requirement. I taught a lot of students who didn’t “love learning” or go to college for personal growth. They went to get themselves and often their families out of poverty and then just as often graduated into massive debt and not much opportunity.

            I think the population here skews middle to upper middle class with the associated mobility, education and privilege that comes with it (I include myself in that). I think it’s important to remember that a few hundred dollars a month of student loan payments is enough to completely sink many people, or at least cancel out any earnings gains from a college degree. For first generation college students who need to bring home paychecks to keep the lights on for their family, there are different quality of life issues at play than most of what’s been discussed here.

            1. 20-something or other*

              I totally agree that we should keep the overall goals of education in mind when pursuing it. I know I’m coming from a place of privilege and definitely do not think college should be everyone’s first choice without thinking it through. I do however come from a lower-middle class background (none of my grandparents went to college, but my mom went, dad didn’t) and I know that a lot of the things I have now are from my parents pushing me to do better then where they were at my age.

              I just don’t think we should start shaming everyone with a liberal arts degree because there’s poverty in the world. Yes, maybe college is a bad option for some people financially (especially if they’ve been shepherded into places like for-profit schools that leech on the hopes and aspirations of people in low-income brackets). But the first response should be to make college more affordable or find ways to make other fields and educational choices, like trade school etc. more viable and mobile. I don’t think the right answer is to make people feel guilty for enjoying their undergraduate education or valuing learning.

            2. LBK*

              Oh yeah, this is absolutely a privileged position (I thought I had mentioned that but I think I ended up editing it out of my comment before I posted it). Because having a degree of any kind is no longer a guarantee of future earning power, people should definitely think about whether they should go to college at all if they’re concerned about the impact it will have on their long-term financials. But for those who are able to attend, I don’t think it should be treated as an investment because the ROI is rarely going to be worth it (in pure monetary terms).

              That being said, I do think that having some kind of degree is becoming more of a basic requirement to get any job outside of blue collar/service work (and even then it can be expected as you try to move up). I question whether the “spend 4 years getting job experience instead of a degree” method actually works consistently or if you’re just trading debt for capped earning power since you’ll plateau in the kinds of jobs you can get without a degree.

      4. LabTech*

        I hate the way the arts are being slowly crushed out of existence by their lack of financial viability

        Agreed. I’m on the flip side of this where STEM is touted as a cure-all for unemployment. On top of most of the fields in that acronym not having any better job prospects than the liberal arts (Science and math are difficult to find jobs in.), there’s also the problem of far too many people in these fields, creating oversupply and even more dismal employment prospects.

        Then there’s the broader issue of devaluing the arts and humanities. Because why would a society need a the ability to express itself, an understanding of history, empathy, or the ability to communicate well?

      5. Clever Name*

        Thank you for saying this. I feel like there’s this expectation that college leads to a high paying job, but a university isn’t a job-training center. If I’m recalling my university’s mission and vision it includes words like “global leader” and “ethical”. It doesn’t say anything about working for pay. I acknowledge that this is a privileged point of view.

    2. 20-something or other*

      Here’s my take on this. I did love my degree, I did well in school, and I don’t know if I would have done as well in something that did translate to a direct career (business, healthcare, teaching etc). I don’t regret my degree or any of the things I learned.

      But does that mean I should have studied something that would later make me money? I’m not sure. Maybe there should be more of an effort from universities to teach lib art grads how to translate their skills into a viable career. I particularly wish that there was more of an emphasis on co-ops or internships for lib art majors, especially as a built-in part of degree programs. That would have been instrumental for me, so maybe I wouldn’t have felt as aimless as I do now. It’s worth mentioning that I would have been miserable in classes that didn’t stretch my thinking and writing skills. I didn’t just do it to coast or take the easy way out (and I definitely didn’t have a 2.5). But I know the type of student you mean.

      There are a lot of issues with the fact that an undergraduate degree doesn’t equal a ticket to social mobility anymore, but I don’t think the system is so flawed beyond hope. Maybe I’m too much of a young, idealistic millennial, but I like to think that the world would be boring if we all just studied the same things that would later get us a job (cue the liberal arts philosophy).

      1. LBK*

        What makes me really sad is how many people choose a college degree based on earning power, not thinking about the fact that they might be committing themselves to 40+ years of doing something they don’t like. I wonder what percentage of people who kill themselves to complete a degree in a field outside of their interests end up not working in that field anyway because they realize the paycheck doesn’t make up for doing work they hate. If I’m going to end up having a career that’s irrelevant to my degree, I’d at least like to enjoy getting the degree.

        1. Master Bean Counter*

          Funny enough I picked a major (Accounting) based on earning power and where the jobs were in the market. Turns out I have an aptitude for my job and I actually like it as well.
          But I do know a few people who hated my field after a few years of working in it. Most of them ended up over in IT.

      2. twenty points for the copier*

        “Maybe there should be more of an effort from universities to teach lib art grads how to translate their skills into a viable career.”

        THIS. The reality is that STEM does not lead to automatic jobs money victory and liberal arts don’t lead to unemployment and zero skills. Being able to think critically in an interdisciplinary manner and communicate well are very valuable skills, but they aren’t as easy to point to as accomplishments and competencies straight out of college. Add to that the general lack of knowledge most college seniors and recent graduates have about the jobs that exist out there, and there’s a stumbling block that feels like a brick wall.

    3. Not Karen*

      It’s not just liberal arts degrees. My BA is in math and science and I got absolutely no advising on what to actually do with my degree.

      1. Tau*

        Maybe this varies… I definitely came away from my maths degree(s) with a clear idea that my career choices were:
        – academia
        – finance
        – computer programming
        – teaching
        – statistics
        I basically ended up choosing my job based on which of those I thought I’d like most – academia was a failure, I came away from my PhD having decided that you could not possibly pay me enough to do a postdoc, but programming’s been working out really well so far. How accurate this picture is (getting into software development with next to no real experience did require some finagling) and how *complete* it is are other stories, but having that rough career “road map” did help me a lot. I don’t think I’d have done well if the overarching message had been “you can do anything! anything! *nothing gets mentioned in particular*” the way a lot of the liberal arts people seem to get.

        1. Not Karen*

          Academia, finance, and statistics aren’t careers in of themselves, they’re fields…?

          1. Tau*

            Yeah, sorry, that was a bad word choice. For academia, read academic mathematician of some variety. For finance and statistics, I… honestly never got a very clear idea of what the careers in those would look like. :’) I’d agree that there could have been a lot more clarification on that front – what sort of careers can you pursue in these areas, how do you get into them, what can you do at uni to make yourself more competitive (I could have done so much more re: programming in undergrad, and I did initially flounder when I started looking). But being given those rough fields with “hey! they like mathematicians!” was a really useful starting point for me and is, as far as I can tell, not something a lot of the liberal arts majors get.

            Of course, if you’re a maths major who doesn’t want to work in any of those areas, it’s probably more of a detriment.

    4. Student*

      I don’t understand this kind of mentality at all. I went to college determined to figure out how to land a good job. What other point is there to attending college?

      If I just want to read Shakespeare, talk classical literature, deconstruct music, tinker with sports statistics, or read about great historical events, it’s easy to do that without a college professor. There are social clubs, online forums, text books, normal books galore on those fun subjects. Fun subjects have merit, but they’re fun so there’s a lot of interest in them and a lot of (often free!) resources to get together and discuss them with others.

      If liberal arts degrees were really giving students great critical thinking skills, then more of the liberal arts students would see this incredibly obvious issue coming up – you’ll need a job when you graduate, so you should try to figure out how to get one and what you might do at said job – before their student loans came back to bite them. Lots of the degrees that don’t tie into anything serious are nothing more than colleges taking financial advantage of the naive, the privileged, the immature, and the ignorant – it’s a scam. It’s natural to get angry about being scammed, but nothing is going to change until the people who are getting scammed start speaking up about it.

      1. 20-something or other*

        I kind of disagree with this point. I don’t see the point in everyone majoring in business etc. At a certain point, there would be too many competitors in the field and/or not enough jobs to fill with the surplus of qualified individuals. I think this issue is what kind of got academia into hot water. I don’t feel taken advantage of. I had plenty of passionate professors who were keenly interested in subjects related to my major and almost all of the extracurricular groups I was involved in had to do with my major. The point to attending college is what you make it. For some, it’s to land a solid career, but for others it’s to learn about the world in ways that take you outside of the box of primary education. I don’t see shame in either of those paths.

        1. Kai*

          Completely agree with you here. Preparing for a career and expanding your horizons/critical thinking abilities are very valid reasons to attend college.

      2. fposte*

        Because it’s four years of your life and there’s all kind of emotional and intellectual growth that can happen there.

      3. Not Karen*

        At the risk of sounding like my middle school history teacher, you don’t go to college to get a job, you go to college to get an education.

    5. katamia*

      A lot of it just depends so much on a person’s environment. Almost everyone I knew growing up either worked for the government (federal or state–grew up in DC) or was a teacher or a lawyer. I did have one set of neighbors who were small business owners, but I didn’t really know what they did. And I had no older siblings. So while I had a parent willing and able to help me with federal applications and almost did get a job as a government contractor (until filling out the background check forms gave me the only panic attacks of my life and I decided NOTHING was worth that, since the job would have dealt with those forms), if I’d decided I wanted to go into marketing, I would have had no one to ask.

      Which is why I think it’s extra important that colleges include this, although I actually think it might be better off being done by an independent organization than by colleges themselves. Colleges are motivated to make the future look rosy so people will keep coming and giving them money, while an independent organization could provide more honest advice.

  36. Sara*

    What a great question. I didn’t give any thought to this when I started out, but looking back I see it was a bit of luck, timing and asking for new tasks in my jobs. Advice would be to ask for a side project at work and describe something you are looking for. Maybe a more social task, or something computer based, in-depth research, or a task using software you are familiar with but want to learn more – something that will give your manager an idea of what you’re looking to learn or help on.

    Also look at tasks you really enjoy doing and consider how those could translate into another role. You could research job descriptions for the tasks you enjoy and see what kind of jobs come up in the results.

    Once you define what you like (and want to learn/do) let people (current job, networking contacts, family, friends) know what you are thinking, as they might have some advice or connections. Good luck!

  37. Product Person*

    OP, take a look at this website: – you may find out that your writing and critical thinking skills are perfect for a career in business analysis. What I love about this career path is that I have peers working on all types of jobs as BAs : process improvement at a manufacturing company; software requirements for a healthcare software company or an e-commerce website, and so on. So many options that fit different profiles (extroverts, introverts, tech people, process people, etc.) and all highly benefit from the skills you say you have.

  38. Tardis*

    One of the most useful experiences I had in undergrad was an unpaid internship for a non-profit in DC. It taught me two things: 1) there is a wide and wonderful world of non-profits that care about things that I care about (which I previously didn’t know even existed) and 2) it turns out I didn’t really care that much about International Teapot Policy, like I though I did. Sometimes the best knowledge about yourself is what you *don’t* want to do and working from there.

    Afterward I got a paid DC internship in a field that had never before crossed my mind, and I took it because I was graduating in a month and needed a plan. And you know what? I am now (7 years later) an expert in that field. I am passionate about that field. Not because I picked it on purpose, but because I took it out of convenience and threw myself into it. I don’t think I was predestined for this work specifically – in fact, I think I could have found my niche in just about any field that I fell into. And that’s a very comforting thought. You can make *any* niche yours as long as you are willing to try.

    Best of luck!

  39. Student*

    Here’s a different perspective:

    For me, I chose a career that I felt was very meaningful to me. Then, I chose a spouse who has a job that’s very complimentary to mine, but not the same, and who doesn’t care deeply about his specific job or moving up the career ladder. My job requires lots of extra education (PhD) and working at a handful of very specific locations; he has a bachelor’s and a career where he can get a job in any town.

    So, as a couple, we’re financially diversified in two different fields and we aren’t very likely to run into family dilemmas like “I really want this job at location X but he really wants to go to location Y and now we have to decide whose career to sacrifice”. The financial diversity was important to me, and it was important to me that my career path took precedence over my spouse’s career path. I’m sure you and your fiance have different long-term priorities of your own, but you might consider some path that seems likely to work well together rather than likely to pit you against each other down the road.

    1. 20-something or other*

      I’m more flexible in the “not knowing what I want to do” phase. My fiance is a mechanical engineer, so financial stability is a non-issue (thankfully, and I know how much of a luxury that is). We’ve talked extensively about our long-term goals but I definitely like the idea of considering a path that will work well together. It’s especially hard being with someone who has known what they want to do since practically birth, but I think following him will be the best option for my own path at this point in my life. He finds a great engineering job -> I figure out what I want to do in our new city. That’s kind of how I envision it.

      1. Meg Murry*

        I hate to burst your bubble, but financial stability isn’t a total non-issue. I’ve known more than one mechanical engineer to lose a job when the factory they were working for closed, or the company went bankrupt or the next great thing they were banking on fizzled and staff was cut in half. Is it probably easier/more straightforward for him to find a job as a MechE than you as a Liberal Arts major? Probably. But it’s not a non-issue.

        So when you make your decisions about things like where you will live in your new city, don’t sign a lease thinking that you’ll be fine as long as his income keeps coming in – if he is making good money straight out of school, start an emergency fund, which would also serve as a “you know what I actually hate working as a Mech E” or “I hate living in city X” or “poof, my company went bankrupt and all the newest hires are out” fund.

        That said, I think you are on the right idea about finding a path that will work well together. If he wants to work for one of the big automakers, for instance, he will almost always be in the Rust Belt states, and you having a dream of Hollywood probably wouldn’t work well together. Has he narrowed down a field that is concentrated in a specific area, and can you see what the other big industries are there? Or if there is another university there, maybe your boss at your current job knows someone who could help get you hired into a similar position in your new city while you figure out what you want to do next?

        It’s unclear to me whether you are at YOUR university or a different one from where you graduated, but here is my general advice, which will be a little easier if you are still at your own university.
        1) See if your alumni office has any kind of alumni/career database or career mentors that you can tap into. Or call up some of your former professors. Try to look up people who graduated with your major 5, 10, 15 years ago that are outside of academia and and see what they are doing. That doesn’t mean you have to go do that thing/field, but it might give you some ideas you never even thought of. If there are any in your city, see if you can get an informational interview with them. Again, not to ask for a job, but to say “how did you end up in Field X from Degree Y?”
        2) Take advantage of the fact that you don’t have a lot of work to do at your current job and you are at a university that probably has excellent training opportunities. Look through job postings that mildly interest you and see if they call for skills you don’t currently have, like being an expert at Excel/Access/Photoshop/Illustrator/Dreamweaver, etc. Then see if you can get access to training on that software for free or cheap through the university (many Universities subscribe to Lynda dot com or other online training that anyone affiliated with the university can use for free or cheap)

        1. 20-something or other*

          He’s an aeronautical engineer, so he’s done multiple internships with defense contractors and is most likely going to work for the DoD, which probably won’t be going out of business anytime soon. He’s casting the net right now though, and waiting for some interviews etc. to pan out. We’re not quite sure where exactly we’ll be just yet (since those type of jobs can go pretty much anywhere). I didn’t mean to sound like I live in la-la land where everything’s okay and I can totally depend on my partner for support at all times!

          I get that financial and life situations happen and get in the way of things, and I definitely didn’t mean to sound flippant about finances, it’s one of the most important aspects of this whole thing, I just meant to say that it’s easier for me to figure it all out later and follow him (making whatever money I can in the meantime) than it is to figure it all out now. Money is not a hugely important factor for me when choosing a career. Obviously I want to make a decent wage (who doesn’t) but if it’s between doing something I’m happy with and making less money or doing something I hate and rolling in dough, I’ll always choose the former.

          1. Meg Murry*

            Oh, I get it. I hoped as much, but I just had to put it out there, especially since in our case I was the one with the engineering degree and my husband is the one with job that was supposed to be able to follow me wherever – but when my engineering degree didn’t turn into a job straight out of school due to a major drop in hiring that year it was a big “whaaaaaa?!?!” game changer for us.

            I understand what you mean though about he finds a job first and you follow in that city, and since he will be making decent money you can afford to spend a little bit of time trying to find a good career path instead of taking the first thing just to pay the bills. I just had to put that out there in case anyone after you reads this and was in your shoes.

            But still – I’m still saying “emergency fund, emergency fund, emergency fund” plus disability insurance! Not that I took my own advice when I was young – we rolled the dice and got lucky, but if we had been unlucky we would have been totally screwed. Plus it’s a lot easier to keep living like college students and saving money – once you stop living like broke students it’s hard to go back.

  40. Rubyrose*

    I had no degree, but needed to plot direction. Took a couple of occupational interest tests, which sent me in the direction I’m in today (information systems). I would have never thought of it on my own.

  41. Frequent poster, anon here*

    What if you have an idea of the career path you really want, but it just doesn’t look like it’s gonna happen because there are so few opportunities? 9 years of out of college, I have an ideal role based on what I’ve learned about myself, but it’s so rare and difficult to get, I need a plan B. Ironically, when I made a list of the things I’m good at and like about work, trying to think of what other jobs might have these, a friend said without prompting, “it sounds like you just described Ideal Role!”

    1) Project-based work
    2) Involves research, writing, and learning about new things, and some level of autonomy
    3) Also involves collaboration (so not something like freelance writer, work from home marketer, etc.)
    4) Variety in tasks over time
    5) Not a cubicle-type job – involves some degree of physical activity, movement, and/or schedule flexibility

    Any ideas what jobs might have these kinds of characteristics? 5 is the one that is particularly hard to find, I think.

    1. Anonymous Educator*

      I absolutely abhor the idea of someone who doesn’t want to be a teacher “falling back” on teaching. It isn’t a fallback career. That said, everything you’re describing sounds like teaching to me. It could be that everything a hammer sees looks like a nail (i.e., I used to be a teacher, and I still work in schools), but teaching involves a lot of projects, research, writing, learning about new things, autonomy, collaboration, variety, and movement. You don’t get a ton of schedule flexibility… still, it’s not usually like a 9-5 job… many days you’ll come in extremely early (if school starts at 8, you’ll likely come in at 7:30) and stay late for back-to-school night… other days, you can leave at 2:30 if you really have to make a doctor’s appointment… there are many late nights, but there are also summer vacations.

      1. katamia*

        I don’t think teaching is project-based. I taught (part time and not for a school system–you’d have to pay me at least 7 figures to get me to teach full time), and to me it was more of an unending slog. You always have lessons to plan, worksheets to write, papers to grade, emails to respond to, etc. Tutoring might be a better fit because you don’t normally (or at least I almost never did) have any work to do between tutoring sessions. Also, while you’re still beholden to the parents, you have more autonomy than you do when you’re a teacher; you don’t have to worry about the school administration or standardized test scores (unless you’re tutoring test prep) or a lot of other things that teachers have to deal with.

    2. Meg Murry*

      Project based and physical work instead of sitting at a desk all day? Do you have any kind of science background? Because what you described sounds like my work as a lab researcher in industry (not academia, but R&D for making consumer products). The autonomy depends on the company and your level of background, but you can definitely group to have more autonomy once you have some experience.

      Other out there idea for a more physical/less desk job is a support staff type of position at a manufacturing facility – safety, regulatory, quality, etc – but that requires specialized training.

      1. Frequent poster, anon here*

        I do have a field science background, which is why I have so much trouble with the idea of a desk job! There are a few companies doing an “applied” version of what I trained in, but I’m not personally and financially able to deal with 100% travel during the busy half of the year and potential layoffs in the slow season, which is what’s required at entry level.

    3. Cas*

      Policy work in a cross-field area? This could be from a government or NGO perspective, but working in a collaborative area (like mental health, disability, education- anything that crosses fields), you’re likely to have to work with people and go to meetings all the time to consult and discuss.

      Also, don’t know if this is an option, but a standing desk can really help with otherwise stationary jobs (especially an adjustable one so it comes down when you need to sit).

  42. Anonymous Educator*

    I think you may want to read a transcript of Steve Jobs’ Stanford commencement speech. A huge part of it is not actually knowing how the dots connect until later. Even though I’ve never been a billionaire CEO, I’ve felt the same way in terms of choices and their benefits not making sense until later. Your career path may just unfold without you planning it, and that’s okay.

    Not everyone does it the way my parents did (pick a career, pursue it, stay in it until you retire or die). In fact, most people I know these days have stumbled or chanced onto various careers (plural). I know someone who studied to be a dentist, became an accountant, became a programmer, and then worked as a director of tech. I know someone else who worked various office jobs, became a graphic designer, and then became a high school teacher. I started off as a teacher and eventually ended up in tech support. Will I stay in tech support forever? Who knows?

  43. Alice*

    I graduated with a human development degree, but now I do payroll!! Haha, I started out right after graduating with my B.A. that I’d get a few years of experience working with the elderly before I went back to get my masters in social gerontology. I ended up getting a part time receptionist gig at the ALF I was working at, and that turned into a promotion to the HR rep at the same facility. When that facility started going down hill, I left and am now working for a huge company doing multi-state payroll. Very far away from the original goal but I couldn’t be happier. Soooo happy I worked first and didn’t get the Masters!

    1. KR*

      I had aspirations of getting my bachelors degree and I am so glad I didn’t yet. I have an associate’s degree, but honestly the job I’ve had since I was 16 is turning out to be the best opportunity and I got it by working to find out what I liked.

  44. Jillociraptor*

    I’ve never been someone who had a career path in mind that I was deeply committed to. I always had something I would say because people always ask you about it, but it was never a serious plan. I’m 29, and I’m starting to feel like I’m becoming clearer on the things that I want in my career.

    There are two things that have let me do this: one is just being open to the possibilities of the universe (and I’m a huge Type A person so this is not a natural strength!) and the other is working to really pin down what specifically makes me happy or unhappy and constantly refining that list. For example, I’m working in a giant university for the first time–I’ve never worked for an employer this size, and I’m realizing that I’m less satisfied when I don’t have the opportunity to be involved in initiatives and work that cross-cuts the whole organization. I need to see the bigger picture and be impactful at the highest level; I’m not fulfilled by the nitty-gritty. I can be happy here and grow here for awhile, but this kind of environment is not where I’m going to be happiest in the long term. However, I don’t think I could have put my finger on that without having worked in a place like this.

    It’s great to identify your strengths and likes and use those to make informed decisions! But it’s also important to remember that you’re never making a life-long commitment to a career path. You can learn as you go and change course. So pick something that sounds interesting, but don’t put the pressure on yourself to find The Thing That Will Make You Happy. There’s lots of time to refine that.

    Good luck!

  45. techfool*

    Since you’re an admin, if you’re very organised and can type (I learned out of a book), consider becoming an assistant but NOT in a professional services environment (so not legal, accountancy, medical). Consider advertising, media, PR, possibly financial services. The higher up the person you assist the better as you get a real insight into all aspects of the business. From there, you can either work up to supporting a CEO at a Fortune 500, or move into project management, office management, chief of staff.
    But I stress that you avoid professional services. Because you don’t hold the necessary qualification you will be limited in where you can go in the organisation.

  46. ActualName*

    This is a very appropriate question to come across while I completely rearrange the furniture in my dorm room while filling out job applications for whatever sounds remotely interesting.

  47. Lynn Whitehat*

    Different jobs have a lifestyle associated with them. I think it is an aspect of career paths that doesn’t get enough attention. If you are an elementary school teacher, you will be arriving at work at a certain time every day, probably an early time. If you are a nurse, you will be expected to work holidays. Petroleum engineers spend a lot of time in oil fields in rural areas. And so on. So you need to think about whether you can live with the whole lifestyle.

    I wish there was a lot more practical experience in what different jobs are actually like. I’ve seen SO MANY people get trained or educated for a certain field because they love working with children or enjoy the intellectual challenge of engineering problems or whatever. And then they’re looking for the exits after a few years because they CANNOT STAND the lifestyle that comes with it. I feel like that mistake shouldn’t be so easy to make.

  48. Den*

    This question is something I’m really struggling with and feel I should share my own personal story thus far to add in another perspective and struggles. Warning, it’s a long rant and parts of it is a little gloomy (but nothing terrible)
    For a long, long while, I was one of those kids that wanted to be a Game Designer despite having no proper skillsets, but so I took an online college instead of a community college basically due to bad classroom experiences. However, that didn’t pan out well and got into debts I’m still beating myself over. Ultimately, as I learned the reality and struggles of the industry, I got turned off from it and decided not to turn my lifelong hobby to a job. But since I daydreamed the idealism of being a designer, I got absolutely no other backups or other interests so I became doomed there.
    At some point, , I decided to try another, physical, school to learn computer programming, mainly for curiosity, and though I graduated, it didn’t maintain my interest in that field because ultimately, I consider myself a man of simplisity, liking things more straightforward and linear if that makes any sort of sense. However, during my time at school, I got into a work study position as a computer tutor to aid adult students in microsoft office help or as I like to describe it “teaching everyone’s mom and dad how to print and save”…which is unfortunately true for the most part. It was a very ironic job to me since I’m very quiet and to myself, yet am somehow good at relaying instructions to a lot of people, keeping it to the point instead of bombarding them with so much info at once. The department liked me enough to get me into working there after graduation and I’ve been there since, now a full timer. While the job is overall stable, not overly busy, I am liked and respected enough within my department with a fair lot of power, I do feel burnt out doing this for years. It can feel tiring, demoralizing and cynical handling some students whom I shown how to do basic tasks like saving a document or pressing the space bar (seriously) for ten months straight and either don’t retain what they learn or refuse to work and want me to do it for them. There is no real room for advancement and growth and throughout the years, my raise only went up 80 cents total (30 of those cents was just last month). Yet for a long while, I didn’t mind all that. I got not much else I’d like to do so I went with the flow, slowly chipping away the debt, enjoying myself and sort of on cruise control for better and worse.
    I’m 29 now, and I got my first girlfriend two years ago, and thus far, things are going well enough to the point I’m getting more self-conscious about my future. Cue life crisis really surfacing. I feel it was time to move on from the job for real, but so far I have no luck, and difficulties keeping myself motivated while still figuring out what the heck I even want to do. I got very lucky with the position I obtained, and latched onto it too hard in spite of the frustrating moments. I started doing clumsily doing job searching for the first time last year, and feels like I’m still struggling. Because I have little experience in many things, wanting to try new things, and taking any little extra money I can get, I was desperate enough to go as far as getting part time gig at a McDonalds on weekends overnight and only lasted 1 ½ months. Basically learned the very hard way that I can have mini panic attacks, and being terrible in handling real fact paced environments and/or physical labor. This is also going to sound very lame, but I never actually learned out to do basic chores like sweeping, washing dishes, etc… since my mom stubbornly wants to do everything so imagine that added stress and humiliation of not adapting to those skills in a fast paced environment.
    This will very likely come off as excuses and whining (which is perfectly valid), but in addition to having no idea what I want to do and little marketable skills, I’m under depression, thin-skinned, and strongly lacking confidence and self-esteem. I’m poor at faking confidence, and basically am the kind of guy that talks highly and support my friends, family and loved ones, but put myself down or downplay myself (still wondering how I got a girlfriend). I’m also not very competitive and not cutthroat at all. I live in New York so that wimpiness doesn’t bode well for me. So yeahhhh… with all of that, it feels like even job hunting feels like a steep, uphill battle with finding different work. I could possibly do something within Academia, maybe be a full-fledged teacher. It seems I got some knack for it, but my hearts not in it, the subject I helped out in feels very specialized and am terribly worried on working with kids, and don’t want to bring them down with my gloominess sort of irrationality.
    My girlfriend lives in Canada so ideally, I’d like to pay off the school debts, save up more and move in with her in a few years as basically starting at a clean slate, though that adds to the current worries of what am I even able to do there for work, but that’s a long ways off.
    During googling some job search tips, I came across this website and after bumping into it a few times, I read the letters some more and really grew to liking its content. It gives me some real perspective into the many different scenarios, struggles, and craziness of the working world. Some of those environments I read about some readers deals with does make me feel rather blessed with the one I have, in spite of its shortcomings. I’m also learning to adjust on improving on my resume, mainly writing achievements in my job instead of job descriptions and importance of custom made cover letters, though still struggling to figure out what to say when there’s very little about the company and/or I feel indifferent about the position other than curiosity.
    So to the OP, I don’t want any answers to how to find your job or what your calling might be, and like Alison said, it’s a very common problem. I just wanted to share my overly long post on my own background and current challenges of finding what work I want to do. Hopefully, you’ll be able to find your career path or at least a job you really like. The same for any of the other posters and lurkers out there. I do wonder if there are others around here that are having difficulties finding work or what they want to do because of poor self-image.
    Apologies for the long post. I like doing walls of text so much thanks if anyone actually read through, haha.

    1. Den*

      Derp, really sorry for not spacing the paragraphs. Was typing in word. Does not seem like I can edit it :(

  49. Me2*

    I didn’t have time to read all the comments so I apologize if this has already been covered above. Two things. First, ask your older friends, parents’ friends, if they are working in the field in which they are academically trained. I bet a large number are not. People naturally move toward things that they’re interested in, good at, enjoy doing, etc. Their academic background might be an asset in their actual field, it might have no bearing at all. Second, I’m going to be 55 in a couple of days and I didn’t figure out what I wanted to do until I was 49. I tried a lot of things (I learn quickly and get bored easily) until I found the thing that, for me, never gets boring and is a challenge daily. It took a lot of trial and error, and I’m in a completely different field from anything I ever trained in. My current field is also one that might be looked down on by some corporate types but I love it, am having the time of my life, and am financially more secure that I ever was in a more professional arena. Good luck!

  50. INTP*

    I don’t know how many different career plans I went through before I figured out what I wanted to do. And frankly, I’m a little uncomfortable even using the phrase “What I wanted to do” because that makes it sound like there was one destined career path just waiting for me to find it, when in reality there are probably several things that would have worked out for me and I just found one of them.

    What helped me was, basically, to get over the ways that the career counselor at school and most “how to choose your career” books and articles were telling me to think about it, and change my perspective. Those focus way too much on discovering your “passion” and then choosing a career from a list of things related to that passion, too little on what sort of tasks you enjoy or are good at, and far too little on lifestyle factors like hours, relocation, and pay (even considering those at all carries a bit of a stigma when you’re young and you’re supposed to be driven by passion and ambition alone, but don’t be afraid to do so even if someone tells you to grow up!).

    Here are some specific ways I reframed my perspective, which might help others:
    -Stop focusing on the job, focus more on life outside of the job. Because most career paths just aren’t really compatible with the life I dreamed of, and even if I were happy with the job itself, I couldn’t be happy in a job that deprived me of the life I wanted. In my case I wanted to be location-independent. Other people might want a six figure salary, or the ability to work part time and raise a family.
    -Stop focusing on interests and topics, focus more on basic tasks. Usually a career counselor will ask you “What are you interested in?” and when you name, say, environmentalism, or healthcare, or whatever, will give you a list of jobs in that field. I found that I was interested in a number of different topics that didn’t offer any jobs that were compatible with me – via crashing and burning at a few things. (I.E. I love languages and the psychology of language acquisition, but I’m a terrible language teacher.) I found it more helpful to think of basic tasks I’d be happy (or unhappy) with doing all day – writing, researching, documenting/paperwork, customer service, sales, working alone/with the public/with coworkers/with a group/one on one), etc.
    -Stop focusing solely on what you like, focus more on what you don’t like. For me, it’s equally (if not more) important to avoid a job with the activities I hate most (for me, that’s interaction with a big group, juggling many tasks at once, and customer service tasks), as to find a job with the activities I like most.
    -Think about the sort of work environment you can feel motivated in. I don’t need to work with a team and I’m mainly driven by earning money and autonomy for myself, so something self-employed or commission-based was by far the best environment for me. If you need social structures and formal recognition, you might thrive in an environment with a hierarchy you can move up in, like the military or a law firm. I think most of us like to help others, but if it’s your main motivation driver, you might want to work in a nonprofit or a one-on-one healthcare profession. Many jobs can be done in different environments (i.e. you can be an accountant at a Big 4 or in private practice or at a nonprofit) but make sure your chosen profession has opportunities in an environment that suits you.

  51. EW*

    1) Sometimes it’s easier to figure out what you *don’t* want to do than what you *do* want to do. At least I felt that way. So even though it’s just the flip side of the coin, if that helps you think about your choices, that framing can be useful.

    2) I find it hard to think in abstractions – like if I try to answer “what do I want to do with my life?” or “what kind of job would I like in 15 years?” – well, gee, I feel like I have no idea. But I find it easier to start from something specific. For example, browse some job postings somewhere (Idealist if you like nonprofits, a job board in academia or universities if you might want to go that route, etc) and pay attention to what strikes you as interesting. It doesn’t matter if you’re totally unqualified for that job or know nothing about the field or whatever. The point is – what piques your interest? Do you start noticing patterns in what kinds of jobs stand out to you, or what kinds of organizations, or what kinds of issues they focus on?

    As a matter of fact, I essentially picked my college majors that way too – browsing through the course catalogs and noticing which fields had lots of classes I just couldn’t WAIT to take, and which other fields sounded interesting in theory but then didn’t actually have any classes I really got excited about taking. And while some might argue this is an irrational way to pick your future, it’s worked out for me so far, both in college and in my career. And for what it’s worth, I majored in sociology and ended up with jobs that, in fact, do relate to sociology!

    3) Learn to draw the connections between seemingly-unrelated topics or fields. I got my first job out of college in part because I had done 1 (one!) class project in college on a topic similar to the nonprofit’s focus, and was able to draw the connections between the two things. So even if your anthropology or linguistics degree *seems* not very related to a job or a field you’re interested in, think hard about what connections you might be able to tease out of it. Sort of like the idea of transferable skills in the job market, that you develop in one field but can put to use in another. But here we’re not talking just skills, per se, so much as ideas and themes and interests.

    4) Don’t feel like you have to have your entire life figured out at once! If you can identify some areas/jobs/organizations that are of interest, and draw some meaningful connections with your prior studies/work, then go for it. Start applying. See what happens, and see what kinds of places continue to pique your interest (or not) and go from there.

    Good luck! You’re not alone in this.

  52. fishy*

    I’m in a somewhat similar position (in fact, I see that I share a major with the OP). I graduated a couple years ago and only after graduation realized that, not only are there few jobs out there that are specifically related to my degree (and many of those that do exist would require me to get a masters degree), but that in fact none of those jobs are actually jobs I would want to do! In fact, in retrospect the biggest thing college taught me may have been what I would never be able to stand doing as a career, because I struggled so much in college while still not finding most of what I accomplished very fulfilling despite being interested in the subject matter.

    One thing that helped me start to figure out what direction I want to take my career was looking back at a summer job that I had worked. I was happy at that job, so I sat down and tried to figure out what I liked most about it and why it worked out so well for me. It turned out not to have much to do with the ostensible field of the job, but rather the specific duties I was doing. In my case, one thing that I realized was that I really like working with my hands. I also realized that I’m not looking for an intellectually challenging job (which I always just kind of assumed I would want) or even necessarily a job that I’m particularly passionate about – rather, what I really would want out of my ideal job is simply to be able to go home at the end of most days feeling the quiet contentment of having done a good day’s work. I can save passion for my hobbies.

    It was jarring to realize that everything I thought I was working toward turned out not to be what I wanted to do at all, but I’m feeling much more positive now that I’ve refocused my job search on jobs that I would actually be likely to enjoy doing, rather than jobs that I think I should be applying for because of my education. The jobs I’m applying for these days have nothing to do with my major – in fact, many of them don’t even require a bachelor’s degree. Even so, I don’t see my course work as useless; I just have to identify the more general skills that I learned at school and how those skills will help me in the jobs I want to do.

  53. Vicki*

    Choosing a “career path” at graduation is roughly akin to choosing a major in your first freshman semester. It’s more of a possible trajectory. Expect it to change.

  54. matcha123*

    I’ve been thinking the same thing for years now.
    I have no idea what I should be doing or how to do it. Reading through the posts was interesting, but, I’ve never really been pulled by anything. If I think about something I like doing, and picture myself doing it as work, I know that I’d hate it.

    It seems like everyone except me has friends and family with careers and people they can talk to and get advice from.

    I feel somewhat better knowing that there are a lot of people in the same position as me, but still feel so lost.

  55. Kate H*

    You’re definitely not alone. I also graduated last May and am trying to decide where I’m going to go from here. My bachelors’ (psychology) doesn’t leave me with many options in the field besides grad school. I’ve been trying to decide if I want to pursue that dream or another one entirely (in an even more difficult field to break into). If you have the chance to volunteer, do it. I thought I found the perfect combination for my two biggest passions, only to start volunteering at that exact place and realizing it wasn’t for me. However, in doing so, I realized one of my passions was bigger than the other one.

    Another thing to think about is geographic restriction. My biggest sticking point lately for figuring out what I want to do is “Do I want to have to find a job and move or be able to move and find a job?” My SO is currently out of the country but when they get back we’ve talked about moving in together and getting married. They’re also very set on moving back to their hometown.

  56. Jessica*

    I’m joining the conversation a little late, so I’m not sure if the OP will see this, but felt compelled to write because you are almost exactly where I was seven years ago. I graduated with art history and also worked as a library assistant part-time at my university and then at another university for a year after I graduated. Loved the first library job, but really disliked the second, and after work experience, informational interviews, and an extra six months study, I ended up in journalism.

    A couple of points:

    Firstly, my first library job was great. From a work environment perspective it was the best I’ve had and I made lifelong friends, but my second library job made me realize it wasn’t the career path for me. Now that I’m on a career path that I feel passionate about, working in less than ideal work environments bothers me less as I can see the bigger picture. Point being, a great job and a great career can be different things.

    Secondly, I’ve just come to the end of a job hunt and start at a new role in several weeks (yay, and shout out to AAM!), which means I’ve been reflecting a bit on my career recently. During this process I started thinking about why I do what I do, rather than just what I do, and it completely opened up the way I think about my career. I realized making the world a more informed place is what is important to me, and that doesn’t just have to be limited to journalism. Beyond the sense of purpose this gave me, it also gave me a really convincing narrative when I went along for job interviews, and I could even tie in my past work at the library plus my arts degree. Plus with the journalism industry in a bit of crisis at the moment it hopefully makes me a bit more nimble in mindset if I have to abandon ship.

    Anyway, it’s kind of hard to condense the last seven years into a single comment, but I would say I’m probably becoming increasingly deliberate about my career path each year. When I was less experienced I didn’t have that luxury to the same degree, I mostly had to work really hard and jump on opportunities came my way. Not sure if that’s hopeful, but best of luck, and go the liberal arts degree!!

Comments are closed.