The Ultimate Guide to Choosing a Career

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What do you want to do with your life? If you are just starting out, or if you are dissatisfied with your current career, there's a good chance you've tried to come up with the answer to this question, perhaps several times. Few decisions in life are bigger, or more complex, than choosing a career.

Why Making Career Choices Isn't Easy

Whether you are making a career choice for the first time, or you are making a career change, the process is similar.

You have to learn about yourself, find out which occupations are a good match for someone with your characteristics, research each of your options and pick the best one, and then make a plan to reach your goals.

Sounds simple, right? While there are only four steps to the career planning process, it takes a considerable amount of time and effort to get through them all. And it should. It is a big decision. You will spend a lot of time at work over your lifetime. You might as well like what you do! What makes this task seem insurmountable (don't worry, it isn't) is that you have so many options. There are hundreds of occupations from which to choose, so it can be difficult to pick one — especially if you have no idea what you want to do, or if many things appeal to you. Yes, you will have to put some effort into making your decision, but your effort will be well worth it in the end when you enjoy going to work every day, or at least most days.

Don't forget that you can make a change if you ever want to or need to.

Before you do, though, ask yourself if you simply need a new job instead of a new career. While finding a new job won't be easy, it is not as difficult an endeavor as changing your career.

Whether you are choosing a career as someone who is brand new to the workforce, or you are picking your second, third, or even fourth career, follow these steps. Taking the time to go through this process in a calculated and meticulous way will help you avoid many of the pitfalls that can result in your ending up in an unsatisfying career.

Learn About Yourself

Far too many people base their career decisions on the wrong thing, for example, earnings or prestige.

Some individuals even give up making a choice altogether and instead listen to what others, for example, their parents, tell them to do. Without considering your own characteristics when choosing a career, it is unlikely you will be satisfied with it.

You should never decide to pursue any occupation without confirming that it is a good match for you. Before you can choose the right career, you must learn about yourself. Your values, interests, soft skills, and aptitudes, in combination with your personality type, will make some occupations a good fit for you and others completely inappropriate.

You can use self-assessment tools, often called career tests, to gather information about your traits and, subsequently, to generate a list of occupations that are a good fit based on them. Some people choose to work with career counselors or other career development professionals who can help them navigate this process.

You may be wondering whether you can skip this step if you are changing careers rather than choosing one for the first time.

A self-assessment is just as important under that circumstance, and there is an additional thing to take into account. As a career changer, you will have to figure out what transferable skills you have and will be able to use in a new line of work. Choosing a career that utilizes them could mean you won't have to do as much to prepare for your transition.

Make a List of Possible Occupations

Self-assessment tools, for example, the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) and the Strong Interest Inventory, will generate lists of professions that appear to be suitable for you based on your results. Using several tools, as many career guidance professionals do, means you will have multiple lists in front of you. To keep yourself organized, and to eliminate some occupations, combine your multiple lists into a single master one. Ideally, it should have between 10 and 20 occupations on it.

To make your master list, first, look for careers that appear on multiple lists and copy them onto a blank page.

Title it "Occupations to Explore." It is certainly worth considering these careers since several tools indicated they are a good fit.

Next, peruse your lists for careers you think are appealing. Have you thought of anything listed there before? Are there any professions you have never heard of previously? It may be the currently unknown occupation that turns out to be the best one for you. Add those careers to your master list. If there are any occupations you've thought of but are not on your list, you can add those as well. If they aren't a good match for you, you will find that out during the next step, and then you can take them out of the running.

Explore the Occupations on Your List

Now it is time to do your homework and explore the occupations on your list. This step will make you quite happy you managed to narrow your options down. You wouldn't want to have to gather information about all the choices you originally had!

Read career profiles to get job descriptions and learn about duties, educational, training and licensing requirementsearnings and job outlook.

While you shouldn't decide to pursue an occupation because of its earnings and job outlook, you should eliminate any that don't provide adequate compensation, based on your needs, or for which there won't be jobs available in the future. Take careful notes of what you learn through your research. You will need them for the next step.

Create a "Short List"

At this point, you must begin to narrow down your list further. Look through your notes and cross off your list any careers in which you are no longer interested. Perhaps the job duties are unappealing, the earnings are too low, or the job outlook is weak. Maybe you don't have, and can't develop, the necessary soft skills, or you are unwilling to complete the necessary educational requirements. If you are having trouble paring down your list — you should be left with no more than two to five occupations — pick your favorites.

As a career changer, you might have transferable skills that make a particular vocation especially suitable for you. Unless you have a good reason to leave it off your "short list," that one should take priority over some other occupations since you will more easily be able to prepare to work in that field. That doesn't mean you should definitely choose it without digging a little deeper.

Conduct Informational Interviews

With only a few occupations on your list, you can start doing more in-depth research. An excellent way to do this is through informational interviews with people who have first-hand knowledge about the occupations on your short list. You should access your network, including LinkedIn, to find people who currently work in those fields. Contact them to see if they would be willing to talk to you, but make it clear you are seeking information and not a job.

Make Your Career Choice

Finally, after doing all your research, you should feel reasonably ready to make a decision. Based on all the information you have gathered, pick the occupation you think will bring you the most satisfaction. As individuals who are going through these steps to choose at least a second career already know, you are allowed do-overs. If you find out you made the wrong choice, or conclude that you no longer like what you are doing, you can change your career. Many people do this at least a few times in the course of their working lives.

Identify Your Goals

Once you've chosen the occupation you want to pursue, it is time to identify your long and short-term goals. Long-term goals typically take about three to five years to reach, while you can usually fulfill a short-term goal in six months to three years.

Let the research you did about required education and training be your guide. If you don't have all the details about that, you will have to do some more research. When you have all the information you need, you can start setting your goals.

An example of a long-term goal would be completing your education and training, including details as they pertain to your career of choice. Short-term goals might be applying to college, participating in apprenticeships or other training programs, and doing internships.

Develop a Career Action Plan

The best way to lay out a strategy for achieving your goals is by putting together a career action plan. This is a written document that details all the steps you will have to take to reach your final goal of working in your chosen occupation, as well as what you will have to do along the way to realize your other long-term goals and other short-term ones.

When you write your career action plan, include any anticipated barriers to achieving your goals and what you will have to do to overcome them. If you are planning to continue working in your current occupation until you are ready to switch over, your career action plan should account for this.

Changing Careers? Special Advice About Preparing for Your New Occupation

What you will have to do as far as preparing for your new career depends on what the requirements are, your educational background, and your transferable skills. For example, the new occupation may require a bachelor's degree in a specific major. If you already have a college degree, but not in that major, you probably won't have to go back to college for another bachelor's degree, but you may have to complete some additional coursework. Alternatively, you may be able to get a graduate degree in this new area of study to fulfill the requirement.

A previous step discussed making a list of your transferable skills. Consult that list now to see if you already have some of the skills you will need for your new career. If you do, when you write your new resume, make sure to highlight them. 

Learn More About Career Planning

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