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Seven Steps to Working Out Which Career Is Right for You

What to do when you have no idea what you want to do
working out which career path is right for you professional advice

Photo Credit: Proflowers

Remember when you were little, and adults would ask you what you wanted to be when you grew up? If you were like me, you said “Veterinarian!” on an average day. If you were feeling artistic and wanted to switch things up, you’d say, “An architect!” There was no doubt in your mind that you would grow up to be successful at your dream job.

Fast-forward a decade or two. You’ve come to realize that finding a career that is a perfect fit for you is not so simple. My 5-year-old self did not realize that being a veterinarian involved performing surgery, for example. What’s a girl to do when she has no idea what she wants career-wise?

As a counselor, I’ve worked with many clients (in all stages of life) who struggle with finding a meaningful career. High schoolers wonder, “What should I major in at college?” Young adults wonder, “What kind of job do I want after college?” My adult clients ask themselves, “How can I find a more fulfilling job?” One of the most helpful strategies has been to focus on getting to know themselves, including what motivates and fulfills them. Too often, external factors such as others’ expectations, the attractive lifestyle of a particular industry, or a lack of direction push my clients into an unfulfilling career. Knowing your preferences, motivators, and passions can help you find a career you will thrive in instead of one you feel stuck in.

Whether you’re just starting out or reevaluating your current path, here are seven ways to determine which career is right for you.

01. Know Thyself

The first step toward determining what kind of career is a good fit? Take some time to get to know yourself. Kara, now a senior associate in Client Development, Oil and Gas Division, for a corporation in Dallas, was uncertain about her career path after graduating from college. Kara shares, “Beginning in our Contractor Operations department, I assisted contractors with meeting their client’s health and safety requirements. From there, I transitioned to the client side working in our oil & gas division, where I now assist exploration and production companies in managing their contractors. It has been a good fit for me because our company begins and ends with people. I get to learn about different industries and what drives people in those industries. Their passions become mine.”

With a degree in classical languages, Kara loved what she studied. But she wasn’t sure how to translate her love for the liberal arts into a meaningful job. What led her to her current fulfilling career? Before she could move forward, she says the key was, “I had to learn what I was good at.”

Like Kara, ask yourself, what motivates you? A tight deadline, a challenging problem, or helping people in urgent need might be energizing for you. Or it might stress you out. Ask yourself what you find fulfilling in your professional and personal life. For some people, a steady paycheck and a dependable list of tasks is important. Others crave the freedom that an entrepreneurial life brings. What are your goals in your personal life? To have a comfortable retirement at 65? Time to spend with your family? The opportunity to travel? Focus on the pros of a particular career first. Then address whether the potential cons outweigh the benefits for you. Being a freelancer, for example, is pretty sweet if you want to work from home. But it can also be lonely and unstable or require longer hours than if you had an office job. Would it be worth it to you?

Take these qualities into account when considering a career. Adrian Granzella Larssen, editor in chief of the Daily Muse, came up with a list of nine statements to get you started on your soul searching. One example? “If I could choose one friend to trade jobs with, I’d choose ____________ because ____________.” Personality and other trait assessments, such as the Myers Briggs Type Indicator or the StrengthsQuest assessment, can also be useful in zeroing in on what’s important to you.

02. Find the Right Fit

Arm yourself with your best qualities and what you’re looking for in a career. Then take a look at the types of jobs out there. You are looking for work that meets your needs, skills, and goals as best as possible. For instance, people who are extroverted and enjoy relationship building are great salespeople—and that doesn’t mean you have to work in retail. Public relations, personal styling, or event planning all call for great interpersonal and persuasive skills. Keep in mind that you may have to compromise. So identifying what is a “must” versus “nice to have” is essential. Company-sponsored outings and business travel perks are nice, but could your job be just as fulfilling without them?

The book Do What You Are by Paul D. Tieger is a great resource for helping you match your unique qualities and preferences with a job you would find fulfilling. Do What You Are is based on the Myers Briggs type and describes ideal jobs for each MBTI type. Or try the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, which runs the Occupational Outlook Handbook online—it contains a wealth of info about careers, including average salary and projected growth. This can help you in your decision as well, if these aspects of a career are important to you.

03. Poll Family, Friends, and Coworkers

Outside observers who are close to you can provide helpful insight if you ask them. They might catch things about you that you’ve never considered. Ask them what they notice about what helps you thrive and what stifles you. Kara said that if you asked her family, they would say she “loves people and seeks to build common ground wherever she goes.” Working with people and promoting community are actually necessary ingredients for Kara’s fulfilling job in client development. Take these valuable observations into account during your career process.

04. Look to the Past

Take your past jobs into consideration (such as the time you sold Girl Scout cookies). Even if it wasn’t your dream job, it can still provide valuable information. What did you enjoy about these jobs? What didn’t you like about them? Did you prefer to sell cookies with your friends, for example, or work alone? Knowing what you liked and didn’t like about your previous jobs helps define what your ideal career might look like. You might value having defined goals. Or you may prefer a great deal of creative license. Do you prefer to work independently or thrive working in collaboration with others? When Kara looked back at her job history, she noticed that she enjoyed multitasking, working on projects with visual elements, and researching. All these are activities she gets to take part in at her current role. “I work with companies to see where they are successful and where they may have opportunities for growth,” Kara says. “It allows for me to think critically and holistically. It will shape what I do daily through answering emails and calls or running reports. This is what drives me, and [what] I think [drives] our business as well.”

05. Connect the Career Dots

Review your employment history, volunteer work, sports, and hobbies. Look for common threads that run through them. These common threads are clues to what helps you thrive in your work. Kara’s past jobs ranged from office manager to public policy consultant to events coordinator. She identified building community as a common thread throughout her previous jobs. No matter what her official title was, Kara focused on bringing people together toward a common goal.

06. Test-Drive the Possibilities

Have an informational interview with someone in your desired industry. This is an authentic way to find out what a typical day on the job is like. Insight from someone in the trenches of that career is invaluable information.

Don’t be afraid to reach out to individuals via LinkedIn or your own network. Most people are willing to help out someone considering that career. It may surprise you to find that a certain job is not what you think it is. If you’re considering medical or law school, talk to a doctor or lawyer to find out what their experience is like, good and bad. A doctor spends much of her day dealing with common ailments whereas a lawyer spends a large amount doing research. It isn’t at all like a heart-pounding episode of House or Law & Order.

07. Seek Professional Guidance

You don’t have to do this soul-searching alone. Consider asking a mentor for guidance. Reach out to a career coach or counselor if you’re feeling stuck. Don’t have a mentor? Read our tips for finding your match. He or she will be able to help you pinpoint what you are looking for in a career.

Finding the right career for you may feel like an exhausting game of Goldilocks and the Three Bears at times. But, like Kara did, investing the time to analyze what makes work fulfilling for you will cut the guesswork and give you concrete data to work with. Keep an open mind while you search, and be willing to look at a variety of industries and job types. That’s how Kara translated her broad liberal arts background into her rewarding role as a senior associate. You might find the whole process of learning more about yourself kind of fun!